By Michael-Shawn Dugar
Murrow News Service
Equipped with a glazed donut and a cup of coffee, Ken Bone powered on his laptop and absorbed film.
On long drives, plane rides, even in the middle of the night when sleep evaded him, Bone rarely passed up a chance to improve his struggling Washington State men’s basketball team.
With yet another 11th place finish in Pac-12 play, Bone continued to learn the importance of leading by example, especially during this difficult time.
“I owe that to the kids on the team, I can’t let the losing drag me down,” said Bone, before his Cougars were knocked out of the Pac-12 men’s basketball tournament with a loss to Stanford late Wednesday night. “I need to be a good example of dealing with adversity, just like how we’re always talking about with them.”
Bone, a Seattle native and Seattle Pacific graduate, took an unconventional path to the Palouse. Rather than starting as a high-school basketball coach and climbing the ranks, he spent just one year as an assistant at Shorewood High in Shoreline before taking an assistant position at Cal State Stanislaus. A year later, he became the head coach. After 16 years of coaching at his alma mater SPU and three years as an assistant for Washington coach Lorenzo Romar, Bone found himself a head coach at a major university in the Pacific Northwest.
At age 55, he stands tall and thin, looking most of the players in the eye. As he has aged, his wife Connie recently noticed the gray hair on his head is adding up, most of it appearing in the past two years.
Bone knows he’s on the hot seat. In the fifth year of his seven-year contract, he’s aware of the rumors about whether he will return as next season. If he doesn’t return, WSU will owe him $1.7 million under the terms of his contract.
WSU athletic director Bill Moos has said the buyout amount will not play a role in the decision-making process. “The issue is to have the best coach available and the best experience for the student-athletes,” Moos said in a Saturday interview with Cougfan.com. “Out of the seven years, there’s only two left. That’s manageable if that’s the route we want to go.”
Bone avoids reading news reports – at least when the stories are about his team. He understands the nature of college sports and knows his job depends on his team’s performance on the court.
“It weighs on you that you’re not winning and you’re looked at as a coach that’s not getting the job done,” he said. “But I know what our job entails and at the end of the day you’re going to get judged on winning or losing games.
On the court, Bone’s record is evident: His team finished 3-15 in conference games. An upset win over UCLA brought some excitement, but a string of defeats in January and February weighed on him.
“When you lose, it’s stressful,” he said.
At home, he’s a family man
It’s Tuesday night following a Sunday night road loss to the Oregon Ducks, and Connie Bone has prepared a dinner of barbecue pulled chicken, rice and broccoli. There’s no sports talk, just sharing stories and talking. A Pac-12 Networks game plays in the background.
Connie, a former administrative assistant at the University of Washington, has a background in the sports business. When the family moved to Pullman, she took over the role of helping her daughters get acclimated to the Palouse. Bone describes her as “a basketball wife,” someone who understands how his coaching lifestyle works and who simplifies his life in the process.
Bone has three daughters – Kendra, a junior at WSU; Jenae, a freshman at Azusa Pacific; and Chelsea, a high-school freshmen. In one way or another, the life of a college basketball coach affects them all.
Kendra recalls her high-schools peers admitting they don’t typically make friends with coaches’ kids because they come and go so quickly. Bone’s daughters spent several long weekends on the road with the basketball team, accompanying their dad.
His daughters have their own group of friends, but much of their free time is spent with family. During basketball season, they play board games, watch movies and when Ken Bone has an away game, they gather at home and watch the games together.
Like Bone, his family avoids reading what is written but all are aware of the criticism. Kendra said sometimes it’s difficult not to respond when she reads the critiques, but she and her family take solace knowing who Ken is as a both a coach and father; not the one-dimensional view outsiders take.
On days he needs his space, whether to watch more film or other sporting events, he can found downstairs in what looks like the ultimate man cave – a big-screen TV, sectional couch with a fireplace in the back.
Away from home, his office is filled with what he holds dear. Nearly every photograph in the room is of his family – portraits, baby pictures and vacation snapshots. The lone exceptions include the famous Muhammad Ali “Phantom Punch” photo and a 1984 image of Julius Erving and Larry Bird at each other’s throats, literally.
Bone chose to have the Bird/Erving picture on display because it depicts two of the classiest guys to ever play the game displaying their intensity.
“This room represents me,” he said, “basketball, family.”
In this room, he tackles the task of finding a solution to his team’s problems. He has coached more than 30 years, but rarely have the losses piled up like they have this season.
In Pullman, Bone is now on the hot seat.
Bone knows he has a target on his back. He accepted that pressure when he accepted the job in 2009.
“Whether it should be that way or not, that’s just the way it is. You can be the greatest person on earth, you’re getting your kids involved in the community, you’re doing well academically, you represent the institution well, but if you’re not winning ball games at this level, you’re a target.”
However, Bone said there’s more to coaching than just winning and losing.
“It’s about the journey,” he says. “You want to teach and see the results.”
Bone’s values have resonated with his players. He doesn’t allow his players to curse. He keeps his family close.
In the past, he has coached successful teams but didn’t necessarily enjoy those teams as much as he does his current group. Regardless of wins and losses, this team has good chemistry and he feels they’re doing the best they can, working hard and not taking any shortcuts.
In both good times and in bad, Bone’s values outside of basketball remain the same: family and faith. Few people have the opportunity to see him in a setting other than on the sideline or at a press conference, but for those who do observe, it’s clear who Ken Bone is.
“He’s a really good guy,” senior guard Will DiIorio said. “It’s obvious he puts family first, which is pretty important. His daughters are always around us, they’re always with us on the road, he seems extremely close with both his daughters and his wife.”
DiIorio, who plans to graduate from WSU in May, said Bone’s investment in the little things is something he plans to take with him.
“I try not to take advantage of the little things in life, “DiIorio said. “Those are the things that make you successful, and that’s what he preaches.”
Heading into the Pac-12 tournament, Bone said he had no regrets. He recruited the best he could. He prepared his team in the offseason and pushed them during the season. He doesn’t worry about areas that are out of his control.
“I’ve got peace of mind knowing I’ve done the best that I can do with what I’ve been given,” Bone said. “Therefore, every day, I strap em’ up and go out there and do the best I can as a coach. I try and lead our staff, lead our players and not look back.”
The Murrow News Service provides local, regional and statewide stories reported and written by journalism students at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University.
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