Get our free mobile app

Ken O’Donnell, a former star athlete and exceedingly successful head basketball coach at Neptune High School, died Saturday morning, according to a post on social media and confirmed by the Asbury Park Press. O’Donnell was 71 years old.

O’Donnell was a multi-sport athlete at Neptune, where he was a standout point guard on the basketball team, which reached the NJSIAA Group IV championship game during O’Donnell’s senior year. He was also drafted by the Kansas City Royals in the fourth round of the 1968 Major League Baseball Draft, sparking a Minor League career that lasted five seasons, but never ended with a call to the Majors.

As it turns out, O’Donnell’s calling was back in Neptune, where he became a teacher and one of the most successful basketball coaches in the history of the Shore Conference.

Former Neptune coach Ken O'Donnell won 570 games and three state championships as both a girls and boys basketball coach at his alma mater. O'Donnell died Saturday at the age of 71. (Photo by Bill Normile)

O’Donnell is the only person in Shore Conference history to coach both a boys and girls basketball team to an NJSIAA Group championships, which O’Donnell did first with the Neptune girls in 1983-84. He took over the boys basketball team for the 1991-92 season, which turned out to be the first of a 23-year tenure as the head boys coach of the Scarlet Fliers.

As the boys coach, O’Donnell led Neptune to four Shore Conference Tournament championships and two NJSIAA Group III championships, which resulted in two trips to the Tournament of Champions.

In 2001-02, O’Donnell was the head coach of one of the best boys basketball teams in Shore Conference history. That year, the Fliers went 29-3 en route to winning the second SCT of O’Donnell’s tenure, his first Group III championship, and became the first team from the Shore Conference to reach the finals of the Tournament of Champions.

Neptune would lose to powerhouse St. Anthony, 69-49, in the 2002 T of C championship game and remained the only Shore team to make it that far in the Tournament of Champions Era until the Ranney School became the first Shore Conference team to win the T of C in 2019.

While the 2001-02 was the pinnacle of O’Donnell’s tenure, there were more high points to come. He led Neptune to two more Shore Conference Tournament title – one in 2008 and another in 2012 – and again led the Fliers to the Tournament of Championship in 2009. That year, Neptune lost in the T of C quarterfinals to Group IV champion Lenape on a short jumper in the final seconds.

Former Neptune coach Ken O'Donnell won 570 games and three state championships as both a girls and boys basketball coach at his alma mater. O'Donnell died Saturday, June 12, 2021, at the age of 71. (Photo by Bill Normile)

Three years later, O’Donnell guided Neptune to another Shore Conference Tournament championship, a Central Jersey Group III title and a trip to the Group III final, where Neptune lost to a stacked Plainfield team. That was the last season Neptune won any of those titles and finished as the No. 1 team in the Shore Conference, according to multiple publications.

O’Donnell’s tenure as Neptune’s head coach ended following the 2013-14 season, when he was not rehired and replaced by current head coach, Joe Fagan. That ordeal prompted former players to speak out in favor of their coach and advocate for him to remain Neptune’s coach until he decided he wanted to retire.

At the end of his run at Neptune, O’Donnell had amassed a career record of 570-189 and 43 tournament championships, counting division, holiday, Shore Conference, NJSIAA sectional and group titles.