Many college basketball programs have one player or coach that fans nationwide associate with them. For East Tennessee State, that man is Keith “Mister” Jennings.
Jennings, who played for the Bucs from 1987-91, became a standard of comparison for future great point guards to play at East Tennessee State and even in the SoCon in general.
It’s important to remember about Jennings and his memorable career at East Tennessee State that he was able to play with an outstanding core group of players — arguably the greatest collection of talent that ETSU has ever had. Guys like Calvin Talford, Greg Dennis, Marty Story, Rodney English, Major Geer, Michael Woods, and Alvin West were all part of a group that helped lay a foundation of tradition.
“It was an amazing experience and a lot of fun being able to play with guys like that, and how we learned to win like that was really in high school,” Jennings said. “I started to understand — and I think we started to understand — what true brotherhood meant.”
Unfortunately, both West and Geer have since passed away. Geer died on July 2, 2020, following complications of emergency heart surgery. The Chapel Hill, N.C., native was just 51 years old.
Geer’s closest friend from that ETSU team was Alvin West, who died almost two years earlier in August 2018. Like Jennings, West was a part of that 1987 recruiting class that also included Michael Woods and Greg Dennis. West was just 49 years old when he passed away from complications related to cancer.
“I look back on it now and I am so grateful for those guys and the time I got to spend with them,” Jennings said. “They became great friends, and we kept in touch over the years long after ETSU basketball, so it hit us all hard when they passed away. I think it taught us all to cherish those moments we had on the court together and what he had in our friendships with them even more.”
While Jennings played in a different era in the Southern Conference, it’s important to point out that the SoCon, when he played, had its own version of talented players. Guys like Marshall’s John Taft, Furman’s Hal Henderson, Tyrone Enoch of Chattanooga, and Ramon and Damon Williams of VMI were all as good and as competitive as any guards in mid-major basketball. He feels that he played in the true glory days of the SoCon.
“No disrespect to the East Tennessee State team of today because I am very proud of what these guys have been able to accomplish,” he said. “I am very proud of those young men.”
By the time Jennings reached his senior season, the Bucs were no longer an unknown in college basketball circles. They even nearly made history in 1989, losing as a 16 seed 72-71 to top-seeded Oklahoma.
Jennings went on to play two memorable seasons in the NBA for the Golden State Warriors.
“Even though I only spent two years in the NBA, those years I spent with the Warriors I will cherish forever,” he said. “Playing with guys like Tim Hardaway and Chris Mullin — guys you had grown up watching and trying to emulate on the playground — and then you realize all of it is real. Man, there’s nothing quite like that.”
Just last year, Jennings put together a feature documentary chronicling ETSU’s dominance of the Southern Conference from 1989-92 in a film called “4Ever.” In 2016, Jennings was inducted into the Southern Conference athletics Hall-of-Fame, as well as being inducted into the ETSU Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013. His 983 career assists still rank fifth in NCAA history, and he also holds the single-game (19) and single-season (301) SoCon records.
Jennings was not only great on the offensive end of the floor, however, as he shined on defense as well. Jennings holds the SoCon career (334) and season (109) record for steals.
The Mister finished his career as a two-time SoCon Player of the Year (1990, 91) and was the Francis Pomeroy Naismith Award winner in 1991 — an award given to the best player under 6 feet tall. Jennings finished his career with 1,988-career points, and ranked as the program’s all-time leading point scorer after he graduated in 1991.
“We were fast enough, we were strong enough, and we were talented enough that if you weren’t ready to play, it was going to be a problem for your team no matter what team you were,” he said. “How many teams had or have four 1,000-point scorers at the same time? How many teams can get ranked and stay ranked nowadays? That’s something we did.”
Today, Jennings has not been far removed from the game he loved as a player at ETSU and as a boy growing up in southwest Virginia. He’s currently the head women’s basketball coach at Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk, N.C., where he has already started preparations for the 2020-21 season.
No, Jennings and the Bucs weren’t the first SoCon team to be ranked in the modern era of SoCon hoops, but they’re one that will be remembered in Johnson City for as long as they play basketball there. That’s thanks to The Mister.