2-5-05 – Long-time Southeastern Oklahoma women’s basketball head coach Nick Keith announced Friday that he will retire at the conclusion of the 2004-05 season.
Keith, 64, cites health reasons as the deciding factor to end a 24-year coaching career with the Lady Savages that saw women’s basketball emerge as a premier collegiate sport.
“In my heart, retirement is not an option,” said Keith on his announcement. “If I could, I would continue coaching, but I’m smart enough to know when to say when. I never imagined that I would be fortunate enough to last this long. But it has been very gratifying watching our sport develop over the years. The caliber of players in women’s basketball has changed so much since I began. It has been amazing to watch.”
A 1963 graduate of Southeastern, Keith returned to his alma mater in 1981 and has since become the program’s all-time winningest coach with a 402-253 (61.4%) record to date. The Atoka, Okla., native led the Lady Savages to 15 winning seasons and three national runner up finishes during his tenure.
“Coach Keith has been a great role model for many, many young people,” said SOSU Interim Director of Athletics Dr. Jeff Hale. “At Southeastern, he's a Hall of Famer both on and off the court. He'll certainly be missed but never forgotten."
After graduation from SOSU, Keith spent eight years as a basketball coach in the Albuquerque, N.M., school district. He would return to Durant in the summers to work on his master’s degree in school administration, a task he completed in 1966. Keith took his first head-coaching position in 1971 when he returned home to Atoka, where he spent six seasons at the helm of the Wampus Cats before leaving the profession in 1977 to become the head golf pro at Durant Country Club.
In the fall 1981, Southeastern found itself in need of a women’s basketball coach after the departure of Pete Jensen over the summer. Keith was called upon to return to his alma mater that fall to coach the Lady Savages, a position that he took graciously just weeks before the start of classes.
“I had only coached boys before I came to Southeastern,” commented Keith on his arrival at SOSU. “It was a learning process as we struggled through the early years. The sport was changing as women’s athletics was finding its place in our culture.”
In his debut season at the helm of the Lady Savages, he posted his first of three-straight winning campaigns to open up his collegiate career. His 1981-82 team went 16-11 on the year and Keith’s squad went on to record a 51-32 mark over the first three years of his tenure in what proved to be the beginnings of a Hall of Fame career.
Over Keith’s 24 years at SOSU, the period of 1993-2002 was the most prosperous of his career. During that span, Keith guided the Lady Savages to nine-straight winning seasons, eight of which his squad reached the 20-win plateau, and in impressive record of 220-57 (79.4%). He led the Lady Savages to seven national playoff berth including runner up finishes in 1995, 1996 and 2002.
“The real joy of my career has been coaching really good kids, not just good athletes,” continued Keith. “Southeastern has been a home for me for a long time and this school and this community will always have a special place in my heart.”
After leading SOSU to its first NAIA National Tournament berth in 1994, a season that ended in the Sweet 16, Keith coached the Lady Savages to their best record at that time going 29-5 the following season. The Lady Savages stormed through the first three rounds of the 1995 NAIA tournament, winning each game by the average margin of 15 points. After a one-point upset of third-seeded David Lipscomb University, 75-74, in the national semifinals, the Lady Savages fell one-point short of the first national title in school history, falling to top-seeded Southern Nazarene University, 78-77, in the championship game.
The following season marked the marquee campaign in Keith’s long-time coaching career. His 1995-96 Lady Savages posted the best record in school history, going 35-2, and claimed the regular-season and post-seasons titles of the Oklahoma Intercollegiate Conference. Southeastern, the No. 1 seed in the tournament, once again stormed through the first three rounds of the NAIA National Tournament, winning its first three-games by a combined 60 points. In the semifinals, the Lady Savages once again matched up with David Lipscomb, but this time claiming a nine-point victory, 84-75, to advance to their second-straight title game. However, the final result was the same as SOSU fell once again to Southern Nazarene by one point, 80-79, for a second-straight runner up finish.
When Southeastern made the transition to NCAA DII in the late 1990’s, Keith’s squad had to adjust and did so in stride. He guided the Lady Savages to their first national tournament berth in their new association in 2001. That spring, SOSU advanced to the NCAA DII South Central Region tournament in Kingsville, Texas, but were handed an early exit, dropping the opening-round game to Missouri Western State College, 69-67.
The next season was Keith’s top season in NCAA DII as he guided the Lady Savages to a 27-7 overall record and the program’s third national runner-up finish in eight seasons. During that campaign, Southeastern dropped their final two games of the regular season to fall just shy of the Lone Star Conference North Division title and after falling in the semifinals of the LSC tournament, the Lady Savages had to wait for an at-large berth into the national tournament.
Seeded fourth in the South Central Region, SOSU grabbed three wins at the regional site in St. Joseph’s, Mo., including an 81-76 revenge win over regional host and No. 1-ranked nationally Missouri Western. With a 76-70 win over St. Mary’s University in the regional finals, the Lady Savages advanced to the NCAA DII Elite Eight in Rochester, Minn. SOSU opened up the national quarterfinals with an 84-68 win over South Region champion Florida Institute of Technology and after a 77-67 win over South Dakota State University in the Final Four, the Lady Savages became the lowest regional seed to ever reach an NCAA DII title game. However, SOSU was handed its third national runner up finish in eight seasons falling 74-62 to defending national champion Cal Poly Pomona.
“Southeastern is a special place,” concluded Keith. “Many coaches at SOSU have long careers and that’s a credit to the administration and the community that we live in. I never felt that my job was ever threatened during my entire stay at Southeastern. SOSU is a unique atmosphere, particular in athletics, as the coaches are so supportive of each other. It always has been that way, and I hope it always stays that way.”
Over his career, Keith has coached 27 all-conference players and three of his Lady Savages, Crystal Robinson (1993-96), Brandi Robinson (2000-02) and Tera Newnam (1999-2003), have collected All-America honors. Later this season, Keith will become the 11th representative from Southeastern to enter the NAIA Hall of Fame in a banquet scheduled for Mar. 15 in Jackson, Tenn.
“Nick Keith has been a valuable member of our faculty and intercollegiate athletic program at Southeastern for 24 years,’’ said SOSU president Dr. Glen D. Johnson. “During that time, Coach Keith has set a shining example for our student-athletes. Under his leadership, the women’s basketball program has achieved an impressive level of success over the years. Coach Keith has earned the respect of his peers nationwide, as is reflected by his induction into the NAIA Hall of Fame next month. We congratulate Coach Keith on his many accomplishments and wish him the best of luck.’’
Keith’s final game as the Lady Savage head coach will come on Saturday night, Feb. 26, pending a postseason berth, when his squad hosts the University of Central Oklahoma in the 2004-05 regular-season finale.