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 Co-Founder



RICHMOND, 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 cancer.


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 baseball games.


“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 with peace.

(photos courtesy of VCU Media Relations Office)