Nov. 14, 2012
Paul Keyes succumbs to cancer
Phil Stanton: Remembering Paul Keyes
Sean Ryan: Remembering a Friend
Paul Keyes – A Celebration
By Sean Ryan
Va. – On the day his friend passed
away, Tony Guzzo recalled a baseball game more than 25 years
ago, a game that would impact baseball at VCU for decades.
Guzzo was coaching the Rams in 1985 when they
played a road game at George Washington, whose assistant was a
first-year coach named Paul Keyes.
“I don’t know how it happened, we ended up both
getting thrown out of a game and we ended up talking,” Guzzo
said on Nov. 3, the day Keyes passed away after a battle with
Keyes wanted to join Guzzo’s staff at VCU. Guzzo
served up a dose of reality, saying VCU presented a tough
situation. The Rams shared a field with the minor-league
Richmond Braves. The program had never had a winning season. And
the position didn’t come with a salary.
“Every time he mentioned it, he was determined
and wanted to take that challenge,” Guzzo said. “I was probably
one of the few people who knew how hard it was. The shared
facilities made it difficult. We were always kind of in the way
of the professional team.”
Paul Keyes always enjoyed a challenge.
Keyes joined Guzzo’s staff in 1985 and stayed on
as an assistant until 1991. After two years assisting Roy
Mewbourne at Vanderbilt, Keyes came back – at the age of 34 –
when Guzzo moved down I-64 to Old Dominion and began an 18-year
run as VCU’s head coach. His Rams won 603 games, made eight
trips to the NCAA tournament and had 12 straight winning seasons
from 1996-2007 (including four seasons of 40-plus wins).
Thirty-six of his players moved on to professional baseball; six
reached the major leagues.
“When I think of Paul, Paul is VCU baseball,”
Guzzo said hours after his friend’s passing. “When you think
about what he did with VCU baseball and the success he had, I
don’t know that anyone ever dreamed that was possible.”
Guzzo was one of eight close friends who on
Wednesday regaled more than 1,000 players, coaches, umpires,
scouts, family and friends at a celebration of Keyes’ life. He
shared the story of that day when the Rams and Colonials met at
Robinson High School 27 years ago and how he tried to discourage
him from coming to downtown Richmond (Keyes ultimately came to
coach and started on his master’s in sports management at the
University of Richmond). And he and others – ranging from
college teammate Tim Druzgala and Chris Pinder, a player when
Keyes was a VCU assistant, to close friends Ted Gary and Charles
Norris – spoke lovingly about a coach whose impact was felt
across Richmond and Virginia and the college baseball world.
Longtime friend Dr. Wood Selig, the athletic
director at Old Dominion University, said that Keyes made
winning an expectation at VCU. But he did more than just win
“Paul was a Hall of Fame difference maker,” said
Selig, who announced that ODU will dedicate part of its baseball
complex to Keyes, who starred on the diamond for the Monarchs.
“Thank you, you made a difference.”
Shawn Stiffler, Keyes’ assistant for the past six
years and interim coach of the Rams, shared the different sides
of Keyes. There was Coach Keyes, the successful coach and
teacher who “didn’t care how he got it out of his players, he
cared about the bottom line.”
Included was the competitive side of Keyes, which
Stiffler showcased by reminiscing that Keyes is the only coach
he’s known to get “thrown out on one play by all three umpires”
and “the first time I’ve ever seen somebody thrown out for
screaming at a garbage can.” In the former, Stiffler recalled
Keyes getting tossed by the first base umpire by the time he
reached the foul line, and when the home plate umpire gave Keyes
a little business, Keyes got his money’s worth at the plate and
was ejected again. He then started toward the third base umpire.
“Being the guy he was, [Coach Keyes] didn’t want him to feel
left out,” Stiffler joked. In the latter, Stiffler said during a
game at Georgia State, Keyes took out some frustration on a
garbage can in the dugout, causing an ejection for what Stiffler
surmised, “No garbage can should be treated that way.”
Stiffler also talked of “Keydog,” the nickname
bestowed on the fun-loving, cool side of Keyes off the field:
the guy who would be on the front row at an Aerosmith concert –
“Dream On” blasted over the sound system in a final video
tribute at Wednesday’s celebration; the guy who would enjoy a
cold beverage on his deck; the guy who somehow scored free
tickets to a Cowboys-Eagles playoff game while at a national
coaches convention in Dallas – he got someone to believe that
assistant coach Cory Whitby was Phil Collins and he and Stiffler
were part of Genesis.
And he talked of “Paul,” the friend and mentor.
He spoke of the family man who would plan for wife Trisha’s
birthday or anniversary for days, only to end up spending a
night at home with his wife and three children. Stiffler said
Keyes’ former players don’t focus on all the things he helped
them do on the field. “I remember a life lesson he taught me
that I’m still using today,” Stiffler said he hears often.
The point was hammered home a little later, when
former VCU and major league pitcher Cla Meredith said, “I went
from respecting the man to loving the man.”
Keyes’ current players, wearing black VCU jerseys
over their button down shirts, and a few dozen of his former
players came back to pay their respects. As did college baseball
coaches from across Virginia and up and down the East Coast and
beyond. And hundreds upon hundreds of friends, friends of Coach
Keyes, Keydog and Paul.
They all came to the Siegel Center, the home
court of VCU’s basketball team that’s known for havoc. They left
(photos courtesy of VCU
Media Relations Office)