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Verdict's In on Verbum Dei's Coach : Trading one court for another, Mike Kearney put a law career on hold to coach basketball at the school. He has taken the Eagles to their fourth appearance at the Division IV Finals in five years.

March 20, 1994|CHARLES SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Twenty-seven hundred miles is a long way to travel on a whim.

But for Verbum Dei basketball Coach Mike Kearney, no distance was too great if it meant being one step closer to fulfilling his dream of teaching at the high school whose team he has admired since childhood.

Instead of practicing law in New Jersey after graduating from George Mason University Law School in Virginia as he had intended, Kearney volunteered for one year as a teacher at Verbum Dei High School in South-Central.

That was 1988.

Six years later, Kearney is not only the dean of English at Verbum Dei, but also the coach of the area's most successful Southern Section basketball team. This season, his Eagles finished 26-3 and made their fourth appearance at the Division IV finals in five years.

"I found out through the Jesuit Volunteer Corps that there was a need for a teacher at Verbum Dei," Kearney said. "I had always wanted to teach in the inner city and I had admired Verbum Dei's basketball program since I was a kid."

But at the time, Kearney's plan was to return to his home state of New Jersey to practice law.

"I really enjoyed the kids, and I thought the school was a place where something positive was happening. I got the opportunity to coach the varsity basketball team the following year and it was a pretty easy decision" to stay.

Kearney's decision to remain at Verbum Dei also changed the plans of his wife, Kimberly, who teaches government, economics and English there.

"I like watching the kids learn something and take interest in learning new things," Kimberly Kearney said. "A lot of these kids are very intelligent and, given the right opportunity, could be very, very successful."

She graduated in the summer of 1991 from Cornell Law School in Ithaca, N.Y. They were married that August.

Kimberly Kearney worked briefly at the Los Angeles law firm of Lightfoot, Vandevelde, Woehrle & Sadowsky when she decided to give teaching a try in 1992. "I like working with kids," she said.

Verbum Dei's comfortable size, 320 students in all, was instrumental in her decision to join the teaching staff.

Verbum Dei "has always been like a family to me," she said. "The faculty is very close-knit and the people are there to help the kids. The parents are doing a good thing putting their kids in that school."

Kearney has made the most of his coaching tenure, amassing a 98-41 record in five seasons. Under Kearney's guidance, Verbum Dei made Division IV finals appearances in 1990, '91, '93 and '94. This year, the Eagles won their first Division IV championship before losing to San Diego Lincoln, 94-93, in the Southern California Regional final.

"This was my best team because (point guard) Jamal Cobbs and (shooting guard) Andre Miller were tremendous leaders by example," Kearney said. "They made everyone else play hard all the time."

Miller, who averaged 24 points, credited Kearney with Verbum Dei's rise to prominence: "He is an expert, because we have been to the Finals four times since he has been here. He knows what he is doing."

Kearney has also gained the respect of his players' parents.

"He is a fantastic person," said Andrea Miller, Andre's mother. "I hope he will be with Verbum Dei for a long time."

That is Kearney's intention.

"At this point, I do not plan to pursue law, because I enjoy what I am doing," Kearney said. "The importance for the education of the kids in that community can't be discounted, and there is a big responsibility that goes along with it."

Kearney was once a student-athlete at St. Joseph's High School (now Monsignor Donovan High School) in Toms River, N.J. As a guard, Kearney averaged 20 points his senior season, in which St. Joseph's went 23-4 before losing in the state semifinals.

Kearney red-shirted his freshman season at Assumption College (Division II) in Worcester, Mass., in 1980-81. He played a full season his sophomore year but tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee the following year. Kearney coached the junior varsity team at Worcester Vocational Tech his senior year. Before attending George Mason, Kearney returned to alma mater Monsignor Donovan to coach the freshman team in 1984-85.

Having been a student-athlete, Kearney said he is better able to communicate with his players and overcome racial barriers:

"The most important thing for the kids to know at Verb is that you are committed to them and that you know what you are talking about. When they know this, I don't think color has to do with anything.

"At Verb we try to keep things in perspective as to what is important. I don't think the public in general understands the pressures that kids in South-Central L.A. face. Being a good student, son and athlete in South-Central L.A. is the most difficult task a young person can face."

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