Ritchie McKay, Liberty Head Coach: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know

Getty Head coach Ritchie McKay of the Liberty Flames reacts to a play during their game in the First Round of the NCAA Basketball Tournament against the Mississippi State Bulldogs.

The Liberty Flames made school history Friday, earning the school’s first-ever NCAA Tournament win with an 80-76 victory over No. 5 seed Mississippi State in the East Regional first round. It set up Sunday night’s second-round tilt with No. 4 Virginia Tech (7:10 p.m. EST, TBS).

It’d already been a pretty memorable year for head coach Ritchie McKay and his team. Aside from making the 5th NCAA Tournament in the program’s history, the Flames recorded a high-profile win by 15 at UCLA back in December.

Here’s what you need to know about the 53-year old architect of this year’s potential Cinderella.

1. He’s Good, Albeit Unlikely, Friends With Hokies Coach Buzz Williams

When McKay was the head coach for the New Mexico Lobos from 2002-07, he had had a bit of a tiff with former Colorado State assistant Buzz Williams. Now Williams leads the Liberty’s opponent Sunday. As Roman Stubbs of the Washington Post writes, the feud didn’t last long.

It wasn’t until years later that the two men reconciled while sharing a plane ride after a recruiting event in Georgia. McKay was skeptical to even be around Williams that day. “Make sure to check for the eject switch,” McKay told himself as he prepared to go. “But we spent probably two, two-and-a-half hours on a plane, and I was like, man, I have misread the cover of this book, because he’s special.”

The two became good friends, and their paths are about to cross again in the NCAA Tournament. Both have resurrected programs that had fallen on hard times before their arrivals. Liberty went just 8-24 in 2015 before McKay was hired. Meanwhile, Virginia Tech sported just a 9-22 mark in 2015 before Williams moved from Marquette to Blacksburg.

After the Flames upset the Bulldogs Thursday, Williams offered support to his friend.

“I’m real happy for him, and I mean that in a sincere way,” Williams said. McKay appreciates the compliment, as well as the comparisons to his coaching buddy.

“If I’m compared to Buzz as a coach, that’s a compliment. But if you know Buzz, he’s so eccentric. Like, he’s different,” McKay said. “ … And, like, his mind thinks way differently. The stuff he does, the journaling, like, he’s a master at it.”

2. This Isn’t McKay’s First Stint at Libety

Ritchie McKay Introduced as Liberty Head Men's Basketball CoachA familiar face is returning to roam the sidelines of the Vines Center as Director of Athletics Jeff Barber announced today the hiring of Ritchie McKay as Liberty's head men's basketball coach. After spending the last six seasons working under Tony Bennett as associate head coach at Virginia, McKay returns to Liberty Mountain where he…2015-04-01T19:39:08.000Z

This is actually McKay’s second tenure at Liberty. He coached there from 2007-09, taking over from Randy Dunton after a 14-17 campaign. The Flames improved to 16-16 in year one, and then made the CBI quarterfinals the next season after a 22-11 record.

The highlight from that time is probably an 86-82 road upset over Virginia, which at the time was not nearly the power it is today. He also coached Seth Curry for a season before the younger brother of Warriors All-Star Stephen Curry transferred to Duke.

Interestingly enough, his efforts at the Lynchburg (Va.) led Cavaliers head coach Tony Bennett to make him the associate head coach in Charlottesville. McKay credits Bennett for fostering an environment that wins the right way. From the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

Joining Bennett’s staff, he came away amazed at Bennett’s ability to keep his faith in the forefront, as the coach refused to take any kind of shortcuts that might have produced quicker or better results.

“We were in a conference in which you had to get high-major players to compete, and we were taking two- and three-star guys that had five-star character,” McKay said. “And I think it speaks to him having the trust in the Lord and the process — that if we were going to fail, we were going to fail doing it the way he was led. And that’s what I love about him.”

3. McKay Was Rising the Coaching Ranks Before He Decided to Take a Step Back

Before his first tenure at Liberty, McKay was known as a coaching ladder climber. Over 13 consecutive seasons of being a head coach, the Flames, Portland State, Colorado State, Oregon State and New Mexico. The only real blemish on that resume is consecutive losing seasons for the Beavers in Corvallis.

He decided to take a step back from head coaching with the decision to join Bennett’s staff. Yahoo Sports’ Dan Wolkien explains the lateral, or even somewhat downward move, as an effort to stop “chasing” something McKay “couldn’t put his finger on.”

“I was operating out of a woundedness I didn’t even realize,” McKay said. “I had a performance-based mentality. I just wanted to win, I wanted to be validated, wanted to be approved. That’s unattainable, but I didn’t know it then.”

“I got mind space back,” he said. “I (was able) to reshape who I was as a coach.”

His 6 years at Liberty is the longest time he’s spent at one location.

4. His Team Celebrated the NCAA Tournament Win at In-N-Out, But McKay Didn’t Join Them

On Saturday, Liberty players went to California’s famed fast-food chain In-N-Out to celebrate. McKay instead opted to focus on game film and preparation, but he also states that a “Double-Double” burger wouldn’t sit well in his stomach.

“When you are my weight and my body fat, you get exempted from opportunities like that,” McKay joked. “But I think the players enjoyed it, and yeah, it was good. They need to have a little fun once in a while.”

McKay instead dined on snack bar food…much better?

“I think I had a bar, a snack bar from – it might have been from the locker room in there,’’ he said. “I just, yeah, try not to eat too late.”

5. He’s a Very Religious Man & Even Acted as an Officiant for a Players’ Wedding

Liberty is a Christian university that was founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell in 1971. Naturally, the man who leads the basketball program is very religious. He looks to other coaches like former Colorado Buffaloes football coach Bill McCartney, the founder of Promise Keepers, as examples.

Former University of Colorado football coach Bill McCartney, has had a great impact on my life. I have not only had the privilege of meeting him face-to-face, but also to have devoured what he’s written and said. I have really grown to identify with some of the things he has been taught and has thus passed on. One of the things that he has shared has been based on Ecclesiastes 4:9, which states, “Two are better than one because they have good reward for their efforts.” McCartney really emphasized the “two are better than one” part. Joining together with another multiplies our joy, brings out the best in us and raises our commitment level.

During McKay’s time at Virginia, he actually served as an officiant to former Cavaliers forward Anthony Gill. He sought guidance from pastors to make sure he knew what he was doing.

“It’s not too difficult,” McKay said to the News & Advance. “I know some pastors and have had some assistance through that process. I can thankfully say that I’m certified and excited for the opportunity.”

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