MERIDEN — Herb Kenny Jr. left his mark on the Meriden sports scene generations ago but was never forgotten. Friends, family, former players and teammates mourned the former Meriden High and St. Bonaventure basketball player who went on to a long coaching career at Wesleyan.
Kenny died on July 9 at 89 surrounded by his family. A wake was held last Sunday, and the funeral was on Monday. The outpouring from former players and teammates was immense.
Kenny was born in Meriden in 1933 and graduated from Meriden High in 1951. He lettered in football, basketball and baseball all three years at the school.
In his playing days, Maloney High School Hall of Fame coach Ed Zajac was a year younger than Kenny at Meriden High. Zajac confirmed that Kenny was a stellar athlete — especially on the basketball court.
“In 1951, we were playing an undefeated Bristol High team, Herb was a senior at the time and he made the winning basket and we beat them by one,” Zajac said. “He was our center. At 6-2, he was big at the time. He was an outstanding athlete and was an All-State player.”
He was an (defensive) end on the football team and also a first baseman in baseball. Zajac added that six members of the Meriden High class of 1951 went to St. Bonaventure University. Zajac said Kenny played against a Louisville team headed by Johnny Unitas.
At Meriden High, Kenny was captain of the football team and awarded the Falcon Athletic Scholarship in his senior year. He graduated from St. Bonaventure in 1955 with a bachelor’s degree in physical education and lettered in three sports. He got his master’s degree from UConn in 1964.
Kenny also served as an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve from 1955 to 1965. He was the physical director at the Meriden Boys Club and was a physical education teacher at Platt High School. He also had stints as the basketball and baseball coach at Platt. In fact, he was the first baseball coach in school history before switching with Ben Zajac to become the basketball coach.
Kenny moved on to Wesleyan in 1964, where he was also a professor of physical education. He was an assistant football coach for 15 years and golf coach for 23 years. He became the winningest coach in the history of Wesleyan men's basketball.
He worked with Cardinal athletics for 30 years, including 27 as the as head coach of men’s basketball from 1968 to 1995.
The basketball team went 312-280 in Kenny’s tenure. His teams won or tied for the Little Three title eight times, with the best record coming in 1991 at 18-6. They qualified for six ECAC tournaments and in 1977, following a 17-6 season, Kenny was named NCAA Division III Coach of the Year.
The accolades were plentiful. In 1982, he received the New England Coaches' Alvin “Doggie” Julian Award, and was named New England and NABC Coach of the Year. He was assistant basketball coach of the East Team in the 1989 U.S. Olympic Festival. In 1991, he was assistant coach of the U.S. basketball team that won the gold medal at the World University Games in England. His teams won the "Schoenfield Sportsmanship Award" five times. The award is the highest honor of the Collegiate Basketball Officials Association. In 1992, he was awarded a Gold Key by the Connecticut Sports Writers Alliance.
Also in 1992 he became the first Division III coach to be named president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC). His other leadership positions included chair of the NABC Div. III Rules Committee, member of the NABC board, third VP of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame and director of USA Basketball.
In 1991, he was inducted into the Meriden Boys Club Hall of Fame. He’s also in the Meriden and Middletown halls of fame. He also became president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches.
Closer to home, Kenny also served on the Meriden Board of Education and on the board of the Meriden Boys Club.
An even bigger legacy was that he and Jean, his wife of 60 years, raised five children, all of whom played in college. All five were athletic standouts at Maloney. Herb Kenny III, Susan, Patrick, Bonnie and Kevin are the five children. Herb and Jennie also had 10 grandchildren and eight great grandchildren.
“I’m grateful to have my dad for 89 years,” Patrick Kenny said. “It was beautiful to see so many people show up at the funeral and wake for my dad. It showed the importance he had on so many people growing up.”
Patrick Kenny said while his dad was coaching, his mother was always running around to different games with the five children.
“When my dad was coaching, my beautiful mom was caring for us,” Patrick said. “We would go to dad’s games. He coached all three seasons and did a summer camp in the summer. But we always went on a family vacation every year.”
Herb and Jennie moved to Pittsburgh to live with Susan for the past 10 years.
“When they said they wanted to move to Pittsburgh, I was a little surprised but it worked out really well,” Susan said. “They got to be close and watch my kids and watch them play sports. Then mom died, and I don’t think many people thought he would live five more years after she died.
“He stayed connected with Wesleyan and returned for the Tip-Off and the golf outing prior to COVID,” she added. “We got him back to Connecticut as much as possible. Wesleyan was good to us.”
Susan said her dad worked hard while the kids played while growing up.
“During football season, he left the house when it was dark and came home when it was dark,” Susan Kenny said. “We didn’t see him too often. During basketball, we were at more games, and we spent so much time at Wesleyan. My brother was the ball boy, and we all worked in the concession stand. It was a pretty tight community. We grew up with other coaches’ kids.”
Susan said she would like to see her dad remembered as a hard-working family man.
“He provided well for us,” Susan Kenny said. “He taught us a lot of good lessons and was a good man of principle. He was also a very good grandpa. He will be dearly missed, and this will leave a void in our lives.”
Patrick Kenny, who was a three-sport athlete at Maloney and UHart, said he was happy to hear other stories from his dad’s former players.
“So many guys showed up and told me my dad pushed many of them to become doctors and lawyers, and many of them did,” Patrick Kenny said. “I’m proud of my dad. I’m proud to be a Kenny. I’m sad, but I was happy to hear so many stories. I'm grateful for the 61 years I had with him.”
Bonnie Kenny went on to be an All-American volleyball player at the University of Tennessee and later coached at the Division I level for nearly three decades — most recently at the University of Delaware.
“We were all athletic,” Bonnie said of her siblings. “We had some nice facilities growing up at Wesleyan. We would go with him to practice and we could skate on the ice skating rink. He didn’t take a season off with football, basketball and golf. But we had a good life. Born and raised in Meriden.”
Bonnie followed her dad’s footsteps into coaching.
“He always thought he was a better volleyball coach than me,” Bonnie said. “I think he was a tough coach. I always remember him in the coaching associations. He always talked about the importance of giving back and mentoring and doing good things for people.
“He said your identity should never be just your job,” she added. “He did so much with Camp Cuno, the Boys Club and Platt High School. He did a lot for kids. A lot of kids tend to forget things like that with someone who turns 89. I remember my mom and dad giving back a lot.”
Bonnie Kenny said her father was proud of being from Meriden.
“People look at him as a tough, big guy who was just a jock,” Bonnie Kenny said. “But he was someone who gave back a lot in Meriden in his younger years, and at Wesleyan later in life.”
Herb Kenny III, the oldest of the five children, gave the eulogy at the funeral.
“He was good at teaching life lessons,” Herb III said. “He’s always a coach. We all had his athletic genes from him and all played college sports. He was a tough father and wanted us to be extremely well disciplined. He did teach us how to win, and also taught us how to lose and how to be competitive in a competitive world.”
Herb III, 64, was a three-sport captain — basketball, baseball and soccer — at Maloney and went on to play basketball and lacrosse at Connecticut College.
Susan played volleyball at SCSU, Patrick played baseball and basketball at UHart, Bonnie played volleyball at Tennessee and Kevin played basketball at Western Connecticut.
Herb III said he was 0-for-5 playing against his dad’s Wesley squad on the basketball court when he was at Connecticut College.
“I never beat him, and that’s one thing he held over me,” Herb III said. “His teams were incredibly well disciplined and ran a well-disciplined offense. That’s why they were so competitive. They rarely were blown out and rarely blew out another team. But if it was close, my dad would win. He was a great strategic coach.
“His teams would stay with the offense and wait until the defense breaks down and would run a backdoor cut,” he added.
A lot of times Herb Kenny Jr.’s teams would play low-scoring games in the 40s and 50s.
“In the ’60s and the ’70s, he had some really good teams that would score in the 60s or 70s,” Herb III said.
An estimated 25 Wesleyan players showed up at the wake or funeral.
“He will be remembered as tough and disciplined. Talking to all of those players who were here. He was also worried about what was going to happen to them after graduation,” Herb III said.
“He was so proud of his players. Sometimes he would tell them things they didn’t want to hear — but he cared about his players. He did care. He always remembered his players and where they were. He also always knew when one of the kids was on the wrong path, and he brought in three other people to talk to them and push him back in the right direction.”
Meriden’s Patsy Papandrea said Kenny was his first basketball coach at the Meriden YMCA. They later worked at Camp Cuno together.
“I was with him when he discussed taking the job at Wesleyan at the time he was coaching at Platt,” Papandrea said.
“We were friends for years. He was a great coach and even a better person. We used to golf together. He taught me how to golf.
Meriden’s David Salafia grew up close to the Kenny family. Salafia attended Kenny’s basketball camps at Wesleyan in the summer.
“My dad and his dad were best friends,” Salafia said. “My dad followed him to St. Bonaventure. We called him Uncle Herb. His camps were amazing. He brought in Jim Valvano and Bill Detrick and others. As a teenager playing basketball there I learned a lot.”
Salafia, a star athlete at Platt, said Kenny ran a tight ship and did things the right way.
Former Maloney great and NBA player Jay Murphy also attended the Wesleyan basketbal camp.
“He had a great impact,” Murphy said. “Everyone knew and respected him. I went to his basketball camp when I was 10 or 11 at Wesleyan and it changed my life. He was a great mentor for me, and as an adult he helped me get into the coaching business. He would do anything for you.
“Anytime someone of his stature passes away he will be missed,” Murphy said. “He will be remembered fondly.”
Southington boys basketball coach Ed Quick got his coaching start with Kenny more than three decades ago.
“He gave me my first break,” Quick said. “I spent my first summer out of college chasing jobs. He sent me a letter, that I still have, if I can’t find any jobs I can volunteer with him. I ended up getting my start with Herb for three or four years at Wesleyan. I worked under three great coaches at Wesleyan.”
Quick added that Kenny was charitable to other coaches who were down on their luck and found a spot for them on his bench to keep them involved in the sport.
“He’s a big-picture guy. He never wanted to climb the ladder to a higher division, even though he had many opportunities to. He loved the pure sports of Division III, and he wanted to coach kids that wanted to be at the school,” Quick said.
Quick was around Kenny when he received calls from Bobby Knight, Dean Smith and P.J. Carlesimo.
“He was a brilliant basketball mind that helped shaped me as a coach. I had great mentors, and Herb was one of them. Herb can coach in any era,” Quick said.