Ernie Kent is 59 years old. At times, he looks like he's 40 and acts like he's 20.
"I've still got more energy than my players," Kent says with a laugh.
The Energizer Bunny is alive and well and coaching basketball at Washington State. The Cougars' new coach is naturally gregarious, a motivational speaker disguised in sweatpants and sneakers.
Just listening to Kent talk about his childhood in Rockford, Illinois, a longtime Cougar fan might be inspired enough to wonder if — eventually — Kent might actually be able to lead the Cougars to their first conference championship since (gulp) World War II.
"There's 10 in my family — seven straight boys and three girls. I'm the sixth of seven boys," Kent says, speaking in his rich, baritone voice in his office.
"My parents had the equivalent of eighth-grade, ninth-grade educations. But coming out of the South, those are like third- and fourth-grade educations," says Kent. ""My mom worked in a factory for 25 years. My dad worked at Chrysler for 27 years. I used to look at my dad and thought, 'Never in my wildest dreams could I work as hard as he worked, having to work three and four jobs in order to feed us.' Yet (I'm) a workaholic just like he was."
Kent, the first person in his family to attend a four-year college, continued.
"We were not dirt, dirt, dirt poor, but we're a family that grew up on big pots of beans and cornbread because you just didn't have enough money to do much of anything else," says Kent. "There were a couple times at Christmas where there were no presents. They couldn't afford it. Couldn't do it. So it's a hardship, but you knew you were loved and you knew the church played a huge role in keeping us all headed in the right direction. They did the best they could as parents."
Kent, the divorced father of three grown children, likes to think of his basketball team as a second family. Recently, he took the Cougars on a retreat to the Tri-Cities to get to know his players better, and vice versa.
"We have so much one-on-one time with them, personal time, to talk about some personal issues," Kent says. "It's been invaluable to our program because it really gives you a sense of togetherness; that you understand them and they understand you. The underlying foundation of any success I've had with teams has been the relationships that have been built before we even get to the floor to start playing games. We've done that here."
Kent played at Oregon and later guided his alma mater to five NCAA tournaments (including two Elite Eight appearances) in 13 years before he was fired after the 2009-10 season. He rebuilt the basketball program at Oregon after doing the same at Saint Mary's.
Kent is plainly delighted to be back in coaching after staying close to the game the past four years in various positions, including television. He makes no promises about an instant turnaround at Washington State.
"We will play hard," he says. "We will play with a lot of passion. We will play with a lot of confidence. If we do those things, I think the winning will take care of itself.
"And," he adds, mindful of WSU's poor academic record under fired predecessor Ken Bone, "we will go to school. We still stay on top of our academics." ♦