NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Purdue

DETROIT -- After Zach Edey reached up without the help of a ladder and cut down a piece of the net inside Little Caesars Arena on Sunday, he held it aloft in his left hand to cheers from the Purdue faithful. Before he passed the scissors to the next man in the celebration of the Boilermakers' victory vs. Tennessee in the Midwest Regional final, he used them to cut his share of the keepsake in two.

Edey kept one piece of the net for himself and brought the other piece to the man who started this journey 44 years earlier. Gene Keady won 512 games at Purdue, took the Boilermakers to 17 NCAA Tournaments and a pair of Elite Eights.

The 2023 Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame inductee won six national coach of the year awards and a gold medal as part of the Team USA staff in the 2000 Olympics. He also mentored Matt Painter, the coach responsible for leading the Boilermakers to the 2024 Final Four.

Though Keady never reached the Final Four himself, Edey's handshake, hug and presentation of the net to Keady said everything about what the 87-year-old icon meant in Purdue's journey to Sunday's celebration.

"You've always got to pay respect to those that came first," said Edey, who was 2 years old when Keady retired in 2005. "He built this. It doesn't go over our heads. He helped set this all up. To be able to pay him back and give him a little piece of net, it's the least I can do."

The moment bridged the generations of Purdue basketball in an especially meaningful way for Painter, who played for Keady from 1989 to 1993 and joined Purdue's staff for Keady's final season in 2004-05 with the understanding that he would be the successor.

"You have guilt because Gene Keady deserved to coach in a Final Four, and he deserved to play in one, and you're getting ready to go to one," Painter said. "I just appreciate what he did for us."

Painter didn't always appreciate Keady, though. In the late 1980s, Painter was a basketball prospect at Delta High in the heart of Indiana. It was Indiana's heyday under Bob Knight, and Painter liked the Hoosiers, not the Boilermakers.

"I rooted against Purdue," Painter said. "Then when they started recruiting me, I was emotional more than anything. I was like, 'I don't like Purdue.'"

But Painter's father, a two-time Indiana graduate, told him Purdue had good academics and that the program won more than it should. Mike Painter also wanted his son to play for someone with discipline, and he believed that Keady fit the bill.

At the time, it was common for college players to leave campus for the summer and return home. The other coaches who recruited Painter gave him choices for what his summers might look while while in their programs. Keady wasn't so flexible.

"He said, 'you will go to summer school, or if you don't, you'll get a job,'" Painter recalled.

Keady's reasoning was that Painter needed to learn how to wake up and get to work in the mornings. Painter didn't love the pitch. 

"I was like, 'the hell with that,'" he said. "You're 17, 18 years old. You want to shoot jumpers and eat pizza and have a helluva time. So I walked out of there, and I told my dad, man, 'I don't know about that.'"

But the message from Keady resonated with the elder Painter more than it did with Matt.

"That's the only person who told you the truth," Mike told his son. "You need him way more than he needs you."

Painter ended up at Purdue, appearing in 109 games and three NCAA Tournaments from 1989 to 1993 and embracing Keady's tough-love approach. Among the assistant coaches on Keady's staff at the time was Bruce Weber.

After Painter graduated from Purdue and cut his teeth with a few small-college assistant gigs, Weber landed the Southern Illinois head coaching position and hired Painter onto his staff. Together, they helped build the Salukis into the class of the Missouri Valley Conference. Then, Weber took the Illinois job for the 2003-04 season, leaving the SIU gig in Painter's hands.

He thrived, going 25-5 and reaching the NCAA Tournament in his lone season before Keady and Purdue called him home. Painter spent one season as Keady's top assistant, then the head coaching job was his.

"When you're 18 years old and you get recruited by somebody, you don't think 15 years later you're going to be the head coach and take his place, right?" Painter said. "So to me, it was really surreal when I coached one year in college and they were interested in me."

NCAA Men's Basketball - Illinois vs Purdue - January 8, 2005
Matt Painter learned under Gene Keady as a player and as an assistant coach Getty Images

Now, 19 years later, the kid who grew up rooting for Indiana has Purdue two wins away from its first-ever national title. Teenage Painter was correct; playing for Keady was definitely about more than shooting jumpers and eating pizza.

It was about a legacy that came full circle on Sunday afternoon in Detroit. After Edey's gesture, Keady doffed his hat for the crowd and shook his piece of the net. It was a moment 44 years in the making.

"I know he had a huge part of it," Painter said, "and I'm very grateful for that and very grateful for all he's done for me and our players."