Legendary Lawrence North High School Basketball Coach Jack Keefer Retires After 46 Years
Writer / Ryan Kennedy
Photographer / Walker Photography
Indiana’s second-winningest coach in state high school basketball history has retired, after 46 years at the helm of Lawrence North High School’s boys basketball program.
Jack Keefer fell in love with basketball at a young age. He played in high school at Oak Hill, a small school just outside of Marion. The team was successful and Keefer loved his coach Phil McCarter, who Keefer says treated him like a son. It was McCarter who convinced him to go to college. “I think my hero, which is my high school coach, got me in there, got me to go to college,” Keefer says. “I probably wouldn’t have gone to college if it hadn’t been for him.”
Keefer enrolled at Ball State University where he played basketball during his freshman year. He was too small to play the forward position, so he decided to run track instead. He double-majored in accounting and education. He could’ve chosen either path coming out of college, but he went into coaching.
Keefer coached four years at his alma mater Oak Hill before becoming Lawrence North’s first-ever head basketball coach in 1976.
He never thought he’d still be coaching basketball a half-century later. At one point, Keefer accepted an assistant principal position at Oak Hill. Two days later he informed the board he wanted to coach instead. He’s never looked back.
In 46 seasons at Lawrence North, Keefer went 804-312, with an overall record of 865-338.
Forty-six years is a long time. Time has always been important to Keefer. He says the key to sustained success is the willingness by all parties involved to put the necessary time in. “It takes a lot of time – just like the kids have to put the time in, the coach has to put the time in,” he says. “I feel like the coach can’t put his time in unless he’s got a family that agrees to that.”
Keefer says his family has always supported him. One of the ways Keefer got his players to buy in was to make them feel like family. He and his wife would host meals for the team at their home throughout the season. His wife enjoyed getting to know the players.
Only one other coach in Indiana history has won more games than Keefer, but to Keefer, winning was never the point. “It’s not wins and losses,” he says. “Those come and go. You win a few, you lose a few. We won our few here because we’ve had great players. You can’t dwell on any one of those wins. So you just keep going. Again, it’s the journey. It’s not the win. I suppose if you didn’t win your share, the journey would get very boring.”
His teams did a lot of winning. With Keefer in charge, Lawrence North won four state championships in 1989, 2004, 2005 and 2006. They reached the finals in 2021. In addition to the championships, Keefer’s teams won seven regional titles, 19 sectional championships, and won the Marion County championship 10 times. From 2005 to 2007, Lawrence North, featuring future NBA players Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr., won 50 consecutive games.
Out of 865 wins, Keefer cherishes one above the rest. “Oh, that first championship,” Keefer says.
Prior to establishing class basketball in 1997, all Indiana high school basketball teams competed in a single tournament to determine the state champion. In 1989, Lawrence North won it all. “I’m sure that the modern kid has no idea what basketball was before,” Keefer says. “Class basketball has some positive things, that’s for sure, but in the old days one team won a state.” Keefer remembers two rows of newspaper and radio reporters covering the game. When it was over, they asked him and his team questions. “It’s just quite a celebration,” he says. “Basketball was something different back in those days.”
Lawrence North, the school he’s worked at since he was a young man, holds a special place in Keefer’s heart. He heaps praise on everyone, from the athletes to the students who packed the gym for games and shook the bleachers, to the principals, superintendents and teachers. They’re all part of what makes Keefer proud to have worked at Lawrence North for 46 years. “When people come here, I always tell them we’re not a normal school,” he says. “All schools are different. I think there’s some great schools and I think there’s probably some bad schools. This is one of the great ones.”
At 78 years old, Keefer still has the urge to coach, but he knows it’s time to retire. “I’ve got to do it,” he says. “I just can’t keep going on. My poor wife’s been going to games for 46 years on Friday and Saturday night.” In his retirement, Keefer says he plans to spend more time at his cabin in Brown County. He and his wife are planning biking trips to New Orleans and across the south of France. Where one journey ends, another begins.