BLACKSBURG – Kenny Brooks vividly remembers the first game he coached at Virginia Tech.
Coincidentally, it was Dec. 7, 2002, the date of his first game as James Madison’s women’s basketball coach.
Brooks, who was officially introduced Wednesday at the Hokies’ new women’s basketball coach, brought his team to Blacksburg and gave the Hokies a battle. They led by 11 at the half, but let the lead slip away, eventually losing 77-73 in overtime.
Despondent over the tough loss, Brooks waited outside the locker room, wondering what he was going to say to his players in his first speech after a game.
“I was hanging my head, wondering what I was going to say,” Brooks said at Wednesday’s press conference. “I looked up, and there was Frank Beamer. He looked at me and he said, ‘Keep your head up. Great game.’
“I was on cloud nine,” Brooks added. “Frank Beamer took the time to talk to me. He may not remember it, but it showed me how much of a class act he is, and how much of a class act Hokie Nation is.”
Now Brooks, who piled up 337 wins as the Dukes’ head coach, will get the chance to craft some memories for the Hokies. He received a six-year deal from Virginia Tech, potentially worth $3.38 million and will have a starting salary of $500,000.
Brooks, a Waynesboro High School and James Madison alum, said he felt it was time to leave Harrisonburg for new challenges.
“People have often told me, ‘You’ll know when it’s time,’ and it was time,” Brooks said. “I’m at peace with my decision. It’s a wonderful opportunity for me and my family.
“It’s a great fit. I can’t say a perfect fit, but it’s a great fit. Maybe after 14 years, and we’ve done tremendous things here, it will be a perfect fit.”
Virginia Tech Athletic Director Whit Babcock, who also went to JMU and played basketball against Brooks while at Harrisonburg High School, got some insight into Brooks’ qualities a few years ago from his father, Brad.
The elder Babcock, who was working in the JMU athletic department after his stellar baseball coaching career, told Whit he was interviewing Brooks when he wanted to make the move from men’s to woman’s assistant coach in 2002. He was pressing Brooks about whether he was sure he wanted to make the move and if he was ready to develop and coach young women.
“My father told me the best line Kenny gave him when he asked how he was going to coach was, ‘I’m going to coach them like athletes and treat them like ladies,'” Babcock said. “In the simplest form, that’s what it’s all about.”
Babcock said there were no other candidates for the position, and it wasn’t like Brooks, a five-time Colonial Athletic Association Coach of the Year, had to sell himself to Babcock and Tech administration anyway.
“He’s so respected nationally and regionally, and he was so loyal to JMU,” Babcock said of Brooks’ qualities. “A lot of people weren’t sure he was ever going to leave. But he’s been in demand and we’re fortunate and blessed that he came here.”
Brooks now takes the helm of a program coming off an 18-14 season, but won only 17 games in five years under Dennis Wolff, whom Brooks is succeeding. To change that, Brooks is going to use what worked for him at JMU.
“In the landscape of college athletics, so many times you see coaches try to do a quick fix and I think you can get in trouble that way because you sacrifice integrity,” he said. “We’re going to do things the right way. It’s going to be built on hard work, sacrifice and trust in each other. That’s how we took Madison from where it was to national exposure.”
As if he needed any more encouragement, Brooks got it in a phone call last week. It was from Bonnie Henrickson, who coached the Hokies to seven straight 20-win seasons, five NCAA appearances and two in the WNIT from 1997-2004.
“Bonnie said, ‘I’m proud, I’m happy and I’m excited that you’re going to be the coach,'” Brooks said. “And she said, ‘Kenny, it is a wonderful place. You can get it done there. The fan base is itching to get behind that program.’ It’s just elements like that made me understand that this is a special place and I can get it done.”