For Kevin Baggett, it all started when he and his two brothers were children. They played basketball in the house, wearing pajamas as warm-ups, fashioning coat hangers into a rim, and blasting music like they were warming up for the big game. Sometimes, though, their competitive spirit proved to be too much, and after her son chipped a tooth in action, Baggett’s mother put an end to hoops in the house.
That same energy, excitement, and passion for the game was visible at a press conference on Wednesday, May 30, when the Burlington Township, N.J, native was introduced as the 12th head coach in Rider’s men’s basketball history in the Athletics Hall of Fame Atrium. After 16 years as an assistant coach in Division I, and despite no head coaching experience, Baggett felt ready to make the next step.
“I wanted this job with all my heart,” said Baggett, who played collegiately at Saint Joseph’s University, reaching the second round of the NCAA Tournament in 1985-86. “With all the things I’ve experienced as a player and as a coach, this is what I eat, sleep and breathe every day.”
The popular Baggett’s opportunity came after former head coach Tommy Dempsey was hired to lead the program at Binghamton University. After assisting Dempsey for six years, Baggett hopes to take what he learned from him and continue building Rider’s basketball program.
“I like the way Coach allowed our guys to play,” Baggett said. “I loved his demeanor, the way he handled our guys, the guys played freely. He allowed his guys to be themselves. I learned from that way. Off the court he did an awesome job. (Players) loved Coach Dempsey. They didn’t want to see him go, but they’re happy for me. I just want to continue the relationships for those guys.”
Baggett’s friends and family, as well as current and former players, including Jason Thompson ’08, were well-represented at his introduction to the press. Thompson was coached by Baggett since his sophomore year at Rider, and now currently plays in the NBA for the Sacramento Kings.
“He’s going from an assistant for 16 years, and now reaching his goal of being a head coach, and I’m proud of him. He deserved it,” Thompson said. “He helped me progress a lot. He had a lot of things to say that would motivate me, he helped me with the progression I had in college, and also gives me tips and advice to help me out in the NBA.”
One member of the current roster who is happy with the selection of Baggett is guard Anthony Myles ’13, of Dover, Del., who will now play the second half of his collegiate career with a coach he has known since his first days at Rider.
“I’m excited for him and excited to see where he will take the program, and I think they made the right decision,” said Myles, who averaged 10.1 points per game in 2011-12, and shot an impressive 39 percent from three-point range. “He was always around. It’s not like he’s coming from somewhere else.”
At the press conference, it was all about energy and aggressiveness for Baggett, who wants his players to practice hard, and play with tenacity.
“I want to get after it in practice,” Baggett said. “I want them playing with energy on the court. I want these guys playing as hard as they can, diving to pick up loose balls, taking charges. I want their teammates pick them up off the floor, and celebrating because it’s infectious. If one guy does it, then the next guy does it, and so on. That’s something that I want to instill in our program and it’ll start in practice.”
More generally, Baggett aims to make the university proud. He hopes to get the most out of his team and helping his players become the best that they can be both on and off the court.
“(The goal is to) just get better and make sure we continue to put a product on the court that our Rider fans, administration and community can be happy about,” Baggett said. “I still want to get this team to the top half of the league, to give us an opportunity to get into the NCAA tournament. It’s about these guys that are playing for me having a great experience. I’m happy to coach them, and that’s what it’s all about at the end of the day.”
To Baggett, excellence in the classroom is a key to his program’s growth, as well. The Broncs have been recognized by the NCAA in four of the last five seasons for finishing in the top 10 percent nationally in the Academic Progress Rate (APR) rakings, a measure of eligibility and retention for student-athletes that is also a predictor of eventual graduation rates.
“That’s the first thing out of my mouth when we’re recruiting,” said Baggett, a 2006 inductee into the South Jersey Hall of Fame who earned his bachelor’s degree in marketing from Saint Joseph’s in 1989. “At some point, the basketball stops bouncing for all of us, so it’s important to get that education.”
Steven Eggert ’15 is a sports editor for The Rider News, the student newspaper of Rider University.