Equipped with a plain glazed donut, and a cup of coffee, Ken Bone powers on his laptop and absorbs film.
On long drives, plane rides, even in the middle of the night when sleep evades him, Bone rarely passes up a chance to improve his struggling Cougar squad.
With yet another 11th place finish in Pac-12 play, Bone continues 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, 55. “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 school 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 and three years as an assistant for Washington Head Coach Lorenzo Romar, Bone found himself at what has now become a dream job, head coach at a major university in the Pacific Northwest.
At age 55, he stands tall and thin, looking a majority of the players in the eye when he speaks to them. As he’s begun to age, his wife Connie had a recent observation for him, the grey hairs on his head are totaling up. She told him she noticed most of them came in the last two years.
Bone knows he’s hot seat. In the fifth year of his seven-year contract, he’s aware of the rumors about whether he will return as head coach 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 media – 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 is 3-15 in conference play, heading into the Pac-12 Tournament. A 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,” understanding how his coaching lifestyle works and thus simplifying his duties 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 at a high rate. 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 their family. During basketball season, they play board games, watch movies and when Bone has an away game they gather at their home and watch the games together.
Similarly to Bone, his family avoids reading articles and opinion but are also aware of the criticisms about their beloved husband and father. Kendra said sometimes it’s difficult not to respond when she reads the critiques but at the end of the day she and her family have solace knowing the whole story of who Ken is as a both a coach and father; not the one dimensional view outsiders take.
For the days he needs his space, whether to watch more film 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 the values he holds dear. Nearly every photograph in the room is of his family, including everything from family portraits, baby pictures and vacation photos. The lone exceptions include the famous Muhammad Ali “Phantom Punch” photo and a 1984 image of Dr. J 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 the intensity associated with the game of basketball.
“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 year.
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.”
For players, Bone’s values have resonated with them. He doesn’t allow his players to curse. He keeps his family close.
In the past he’s coached successful teams but didn’t necessarily enjoy those teams as much as he does his current group. Regardless of game outcomes his present unit 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 sidelines on at a press conference but for those who do observe, it’s clear who Ken Bone is as a man.
“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 in his future endeavors.
“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.”
Bone wants to win – deeply – but his goal is for his players to see hard work translate into success. In the past he’s coached successful teams. But he didn’t necessarily enjoy those teams as much as he does his current group. Regardless of game outcomes his present unit has good chemistry and he feels they’re doing the best they can, working hard and not taking any shortcuts.
Heading into the Pac-12 tournament, he says he has no regrets. He recruited to the best of his abilities. He prepared his team in the offseason and pushed them during the season. He knows he can’t control what the future holds so he doesn’t worry about areas that are out of his control.
“I’ve got a peace of mind knowing I’ve done the best that I can do with what I’ve been given,” he 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.