With a Lion's heart, Keeling sought challenges

by Carl Setterlund / Beacon Staff • September 12, 2013

Keeling speech
Rudy Keeling, center, speaking at the 2004 groundbreaking of Piano Row, oversaw construction of the building’s gym.
Photo courtesy of Emerson College
Rudy Keeling, center, speaking at the 2004 groundbreaking of Piano Row, oversaw construction of the building’s gym.
Photo courtesy of Emerson College

His laundry list of accomplishments mark former Emerson Athletic Director Rudy Keeling as a pivotal figure in changing Emerson sports from an arts school afterthought to a rising Division 3 program, but those who knew Keeling say that receiving credit meant little to the Lions’ self-assured leader. Once a goal was met, the man who led the Lions from 2002 to 2007 would turn his gaze to the future, always looking for the next challenge.

“Little did I know that he was making greatness,” said Interim Athletic Director Stanford Nance, an assistant men’s basketball coach under Keeling at Northeastern University, and one of Keeling’s first hires at Emerson in 2003.

Keeling’s five-year stretch was a flurry of activity as he laid the foundation for Emerson athletics’ recent strides. This year, the Lions upgraded from their NCAA conference of the past 18 years, the Great Northeast Athletic Conference, to the more athletically and academically competitive New England Men’s and Women’s Athletic Conference.

It was Keeling who oversaw the construction of Emerson’s two significant facilities investments over the past decade — the Field at Rotch Playground, located in the South End, and the Bobbi Brown and Steven Plofker Gym.

It was Keeling who introduced five varsity sports, hired nine head coaches, and made Emerson Title IX compliant. It was Keeling who identified a need for full-time coaches — there was just one, former men’s basketball coach Hank Smith, at the time of his hiring — for recruiting and competitive purposes. (Nance said Emerson plans to have full-time coaches in all 14 sports by Fall 2015.)

It was Keeling who first had Emerson apply to join the NEWMAC in 2006. 

It was Keeling who graduated 100 percent of the student-athletes during his tenure, according to an April 2007 report by the Beacon.

Harold Rudolph “Rudy” Keeling, 66, passed away peacefully on July 6 among family in his Londonderry, N.H., home, having confronted his final challenge: cancer.

While Keeling won’t get to see the long-term results of his groundwork, Nance said he has made it a goal to carry out Keeling’s vision since taking control of the athletic department in May 2012.

“He had tremendous, tremendous family values,” said Nance, whom Keeling hired as assistant athletic director and recruiting coordinator. “He loved his family and the family values come out in your everyday work. You know how to treat people, you know how to talk to people, [and] your interest is to help people grow.”

Nance said Keeling’s skills as a longtime head basketball coach — Keeling went 104-124 in eight years at the University of Maine before spending five seasons at Northeastern — translated to his administrative work. Keeling, he said, endowed subordinates with personal responsibility as members of a larger team.

“He was a planner with the creative ability to bring dreams to reality,” said Vassar College Athletic Director Dr. Sharon Beverly, who knew Keeling from their time serving together on the NCAA Division 3 Nominating Committee. Keeling was the delegate from the NCAA’s Management Council, which reports to the NCAA Board of Directors. “He was also an unbelievable motivator and knew how to mobilize people to accomplish common goals.”

According to Nance, Keeling arranged a $5 million, 25-year lease with the City of Boston for the rights to use Rotch Field and allocated another $1 million toward the installation of field turf, fencing, and clubhouses for the players. The refurbishments were finished by the Spring 2005 sports season. 

The investment in Rotch Field benefited the men’s and women’s soccer and lacrosse teams, which previously played at Sartori Stadium in East Boston, and the softball team, which formerly played at the public field on the Common.

“He wasn’t about face time. He was about results, getting it done,” said softball coach Phil McElroy, who Keeling promoted to full-time in 2004. McElroy said he valued the times when Keeling would come in for a one-on-one just to check in.

When Emerson built the Max Mutchnick Campus Center and Piano Row Residence, Keeling convinced the college to invest another $5 million in a below-ground basketball gym — which opened in September 2006 — solving one of the college’s toughest facility quandaries. 

The Bobbi Brown and Steven Plofker Gym was built to such a high standard that a 2009 article by Benjamin Austin for the Journalism Students’ Online News Service listed nine NBA teams that have used the gym to practice when in town to play the Boston Celtics.

Keeling, a former board member of the Minority Opportunities Athletics Association, left Emerson to take over the Eastern College Athletic Conference in May 2007. Keeling’s new position established him as the first African-American commissioner of a major sports conference.

“It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made because I think we’re on the verge of doing something special here,” Keeling told the Beacon in April 2007 as he bid adieu to Boylston Street.

Upon reflection at the July 13 memorial service Nance and Beverly organized at Brown & Plofker Gym, Nance said he felt the ambitious move fit Keeling’s personality.

“Once we built Rotch Field and the Piano Row Gym, I was kind of startled, like ‘Why are you leaving to go to the ECAC?” Nance said. “He wasn’t someone to rest on his laurels. He was looking forward to the new path, the new road to pave.”

Those in attendance at the memorial service included Beverly, former Emerson AD and current GNAC commissioner Joe Walsh, former men’s basketball coach Hank Smith, former Emerson Athletics Coordinator Roger Crosley, and Keeling’s family, among many others.

“It was an absolutely beautiful service,” said Crosley, a personal friend whose stepson, Alex Lambert, played basketball with Keeling’s youngest son, Cory, at Londonderry High. “It was probably longer than most memorial services, but there were a lot of people that had amazing things they wanted to say about Rudy.”

Crosley, who Keeling hired at Emerson in 2003, said he enjoyed being around him so much that he rejoined Keeling as ECAC director of communications in 2012.

One of those who spoke was his daughter, Dr. Kara Keeling, an associate professor at the University of Southern California.

“From everything that I’ve heard from others about my father in the past weeks, it is clear that he buoyed and supported people,” reads a written copy of Kara Keeling’s speech. “He ran towards his goals with integrity and in community with others.”

Nance said Dean of Students Ronald Ludman, who oversees athletics, quickly approved putting on the ceremony, and Nance had strong support from Emerson.

“He was a wonderful colleague and provided, from my perspective, strong leadership for the athletic program,” Ludman said. “We saw increasing competitiveness in a fair number of the sports under his watch, so he helped to get the athletic program moving in a positive direction.”

Keeling — whom Nance referred to as “a pioneer” and “a builder” — continued to take on challenges as commissioner of the ECAC, the country’s largest and only multi-division athletic conference, a position he held until his retirement in January 2013. 

As commissioner, Keeling helped establish the NCAA’s Division 2 Lacrosse League and oversaw the 2008, 2009, and 2012 NCAA Men’s Lacrosse Final Four, held at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass. The 2009 Division 1 final between Syracuse University and Cornell University, played in front of 41,935 fans, is considered to be an all-time classic; the Orangemen fought back from a three-goal deficit over the final 3:37 of regulation, tying it with four seconds to go and winning in overtime.

While running the ECAC, Keeling also secured the conference as host of the 2014 NCAA Division 1 Men’s Hockey Frozen Four, to be held this winter at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pa.

Born March 17, 1947, Keeling grew up in Harlem, New York City, and went on play college basketball — first at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., before spending his final three years at Quincy College in Illinois. It was there he met his wife of 42 years, Jane, who survives him, along with his children, Tina and Cory, both of Londonderry, and Dr. Kara Keeling of Los Angeles, Calif.

Nance said the type of things he’ll remember most are the times at the end of a work day when they would sit together swapping stories about their kids. Crosley said that when Keeling would ask about his family, Crosley could tell it was out of genuine interest, not formality, and it was that thoughtfulness that helped win him so many allies.

“If we hadn’t spoken for a while, one of us would call the other,” Beverly said. “He was a dear friend who I considered family.”

It was Keeling who addressed a crowd at Adelphi University during Black History Month in February 2010, telling those in attendance, “I think that what we need to keep in mind is what do we want to do? What do we aspire to do? And then run at it as hard as you can, because you never know what you’re capable of.”


 Watch Rudy Keeling's speech at Adelphi University below: