RICHMOND, Va. – Working for Paul Keyes was not like Shawn Stiffler envisioned.
Keyes was already something of a legend in Virginia when Stiffler jumped from his alma mater, George Mason, to join the VCU coaching staff 2006. From 1998-2005, Keyes guided VCU to six NCAA Regional appearances and three CAA Tournament crowns. At 26 years old, Stiffler was eager to soak up strategy from one of the games’ most-respected voices.
But Keyes’ approach initially jarred Stiffler.
“It was day one. He would constantly talk to me about, ‘you’ve got to make this decision like you’re the head coach.’ As a young 26 year old I showed up here because I wanted to work for Paul Keyes. I wanted him to tell me what to do. But that wasn’t it at all,” says Stiffler.
Keyes didn’t want to give people around him the answers to their questions. He wanted them to find their own.
“It wasn’t easy for me. Coach Keyes is not a guy if you work for him who told you, ‘go up there and do X, Y and Z.’ If I said, ‘Coach we have nowhere to practice today.’ He’d say, ‘figure it out.’ But now I know how to do that. He just was one of those guys who would push you to push yourself. He stretched you every day. You had to be prepared for it. He did not believe in a routine.”
Keyes, a fierce competitor, savvy baseball mind, from-the-gut strategist, avid golfer and gregarious laugher, died in 2012 following a bout with melanoma. He won a school-record 603 games and directed VCU to eight NCAA bids in 18 seasons. His loss left a crater-sized void in the program.
On May 23, using more than a few of the foundational lessons he gleaned from six years under Keyes’ wing, with the vestiges of the longtime coach’s final recruiting class, Stiffler steered VCU to its first Atlantic 10 Tournament Championship.
It was Stiffler’s first conference crown as head coach, but in some ways, it felt like one final trophy for Keyes’ mantle.