Rudy Keeling, who coached men’s basketball at Northeastern University and the University of Maine, and went on to be athletic director at Emerson College and the first African-American commissioner of the Eastern College Athletic Conference, died of cancer Saturday in his Londonderry, N.H., home. He was 66.
“The Black Bear men’s basketball program and the entire UMaine community is deeply saddened to hear the news of the passing of Coach Keeling,” Ted Woodward, Maine’s head coach, said in a statement on the university’s website.
“He was an outstanding coach, a first-class person and representative of the University of Maine, and a beloved and highly respected member of the entire basketball coaching community,” Woodward said in the statement. “He touched many lives of young people here at Maine; was an outstanding example of character, integrity, and intelligence; and his influence has, and will continue to be felt throughout our great school and all of college athletics.’’
Mr. Keeling compiled a 104-124 record at the University of Maine, where he coached from 1988 until 1996. In the 1993-94 season, he led the Black Bears to a school record 20 wins and was named North Atlantic Conference coach of the year.
When he was named Northeastern’s coach during a June 1996 news conference in Matthews Arena, he said he had been surprised several days earlier when Barry Gallup, then Northeastern’s athletic director, called the University of Maine to seek permission to talk to a coach in the same conference.
“I was even surprised last night after I made my decision,” Mr. Keeling said. “I kept hedging and hedging. It’s hard to leave a place when you’re comfortable.”
At Northeastern, he signed a five-year contract and succeeded Dave Leitao, becoming coach of a a team that had posted a 4-24 record the season before his arrival. Mr. Keeling said at the 1996 news conference that he “didn’t expect to stay in Maine eight years.”
“I turned down a couple of other offers that were lateral moves,” he said. “Right now I think Northeastern is a lateral move, but the upside here is greater than the upside in Maine.”
Despite Mr. Keeling’s optimism, Northeastern compiled a 48-92 record in his five seasons at the helm.
But as a new arrival in 1996, he said his ambitions coincided with what Northeastern wanted to do.
“Northeastern has all the potential and the resources to go to the top,’’ he said. “I’m very excited. From today on, we’re not shooting to win the NAC. That was my only goal at Maine. Now we can do more.”
Harold Rudolph Keeling Jr. was born in New York City, a son of Harold Keeling Sr. and the former Theodora Holder. He grew up in Harlem and went to Bishop Dubois High School in New York.
Mr. Keeling’s family said he played basketball at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana before transferring to Quincy College in Quincy, Ill. At Quincy College, from which he graduated as a history major, he also played basketball.
In 1970, Mr. Keeling married Jane Slevin, whom he met at Quincy College.
Before taking the coaching job in Maine, Mr. Keeling was an assistant coach at Bradley University in Illinois and at Marquette University in Milwaukee.
At Northeastern, he used his contacts across the country and spent July and August looking for players at basketball camps in New Jersey, Indiana, Florida, Las Vegas, Chicago, and New York.
“I feel that Boston, although there are quality athletes, is really highly recruited and if we were to just rely on Boston, we couldn’t survive because we couldn’t get enough kids to bring in and make our team go,” Mr. Keeling told the Globe in 1998, his third year coaching the Huskies. “We’ve got to surround the Boston kids from all over. And we’ve done that.”
When Northeastern fired Mr. Keeling after the conclusion of the 2001 season, during which the Huskies went 10-19, the university’s athletic director, Ian McCaw, said that “Rudy and I agreed not to speak about the past but only the future.”
Mr. Keeling became athletic director at Emerson College in 2002. He was named commissioner of the Eastern College Athletic Conference in 2007. He also served on the board of directors of the Minority Opportunities Athletics Association.
His family said he was committed to the academic success of athletes he coached, nearly all of whom graduated.
“As commissioner, Rudy was responsible for providing leadership, direction, consultation, and support for the conference’s programs,” the ECAC said in a January statement on its website announcing that Mr. Keeling had recently retired.
“During his tenure, Rudy was instrumental in the formation of the Division II Lacrosse League, expanding Division I Lacrosse membership, creating the Holiday Festival Basketball Tournament at Walt Disney World, Florida and Labor Day Soccer Classic and establishing the ECAC as the host for the NCAA Division I Men’s Hockey Frozen Four in 2014,” the ECAC said.
The statement added that “Rudy consistently represented the ECAC and its constituency in the highest manner to other national, regional and local athletics governing bodies and educational institutions, as well as private and public organizations.”
In addition to his wife, of Londonderry, N.H., and his mother, of Charlotte, N.C., Mr. Keeling leaves two daughters, Kara of Los Angeles and Tina of Londonderry; a son, Cory of Londonderry; two brothers, Leon of Charlotte, and the Rev. Terrance of Cherry Hill, N.J.; and a grandson.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday in the Bobbi Brown & Steven Plofker Gym at Emerson College.