Catching Up With Wofford Assistant Coach Dustin Kerns:
GREENVILLE, .S.C--One of the more enjoyable parts of this job is when you come across a person in an interview who is cordial, kind, and has a passion for the game of basketball, but most importantly, making a new friend.
By the time we were getting ready to hang up the phone following the phone interview almost 90 minutes later, Wofford Associate Head Coach Dustin Kerns and I were making plans to catch up again soon, just talking hoops--a sign the interview had more than gone well.
I found out really fast how much basketball and Wofford meant to him. He talked about Wofford, this time of year, becoming like a family because of so much time spent on the road whether it was recruiting or SoCon road trip.
"I remember thinking about the other night as we were on a five-hour bus ride back from somewhere and I just remember you know this is like a second family, and we are there as coaches together with them just like a father is for a son, during good times and bad," Kerns said.
"One of the things that I think gets overlooked about a head coach sometimes is the pulse of the team I like to call it. No one has a better sense of how things are as far as how our mental state is and Coach Young has a knack for being able to kind of let the guys just be themselves sometimes and not be so basketball driven all the time after a win or a loss. I think our team appreciates that."
Wofford's 2015-16 season has been very different than the one that saw the Terriers win a school-record 28 games and nearly knock off SEC member Arkansas in the process. The Terriers went 16-2 in Southern Conference play last season and strolled through to the championship before having to gut out a 67-64 league upstart Furman. The win solidified the reason why Wofford basketball was the big brand in the Palmetto State, with only Coastal Carolina having earned four NCAA Tournament berths in the past six seasons.
The six-year run for the Terriers has been nothing short of remarkable for Wofford basketball, having posted an overall record of (89-38) in conference since the start of the 2008-09 season--a remarkable feat.
While success can be something that puts a program on the highest of highs, a tragedy, no matter when it strikes, can leave a team in grief and trying to put the pieces together.
Wofford rising junior guard Jeremiah Tate decided to go for a swim in cool water one evening, and never emerged. It was certainly a tragedy that gripped the Southern Conference community, as well as Wofford even in the off-season. Tate was loved by teammates and coaches, and their was a large outpouring of concern and condolences from other league schools and the conference office itself.
Unfortunately, however, these tragedies aren't rare enough. In June of 2000, following the Mountaineers trip to the NCAA Tournament, Leach was swimming in the cool Watauga lake, and like the Tate incident, the App State freshman star did not emerge, adding tragedy on the back end of such a great run through the Southern Conference Tournament just a few months earlier. Tragedy struck, players transferred and Buzz Peterson took a job at Tulsa a few weeks later, and the NCAA Tournament must have seemed like a distant memory for new head coach Houston Fancher.
This profression is good most of the time, and not like the outside world sees it. Coaches lean on coaches and players on players from around the league when these kinds of thing happen. It was that way when it first happened in early June of 2000. Leach began to have severe stomach pains and went under and never came about water. It is a tragedy that still hurts those who were close to the program at that time.
Then the most recent tragedy occurred just about three weeks ago in Macon, veteran forward Jibri Bryan was shot and killed in a parking lot at the and the news not only rocked the Southern Conference community.
"I can't imagine what those guys are going through and have been through, and we had one die, but it wasn't during a season. We sent a card and messages to their staff and team and let them know we would be praying for the team and the family of Bryan," Kerns said. "Those kinds of things put a perspective on the court. Life is certainly more important than this game we play, "Kerns added.
The Early Life:
Kerns grew up in a great area and his interest grew playing the game, and later coaching the game, in the Tri-Cities area .Similar most youth of that age, The Kingsport native himself couldn't help but recognize the rise of East Tennessee State--a program that got as high as No. 10 national ranking at one point.
"When I was growing up that was kinda the thing to. ETSU basketball was the biggest show in town," Kerns said. Guys like Keith Mister Jennings and Greg Dennis were larger than life players during that era and this was a team in the Southern Conference," Kerns said.
And Kerns, a product of Dobyns-Bennett High School, would go on to Clemson where he became a student assistant on Larry Shyatt's staff at Clemson.
"The biggest thing I think I took away from coach Shyatt during those early years was the fact you don't make your network, you build you network throgh a process of time. Somethimes when I call a kid that coach might not have a kid that will fit our system, but I still make the habit of calling that coach to make sure he knows that it's more about a relationship between two people than anything basketball. Now when some of those schools do have a player we need to watch, they come to us and call us before we call them. The biggest thing Coach Shyatt did was teach us that relationships had to be genuine and I still today have an authentic relationship with him."
"One the stories I have from that experience happened just this year. At Clemson, 15 years ago helping organize our camps, we had coaches from across the country come and work our camps. Today, some of those coaches are in all aspects of the game either in high school, small college, or even administrative roles. Well, we had a basketball game in New York early in the season against Columbia, and we had no where to practice the day before. I called up one of my friends who worked our camp years ago in the area and asked him if he knew of any place he could find for us to practice. Within 10 minutes he had us in a gym warming up. It was really one example of what Coach Shyatt was talking, and always build your network. Don't just call those guys once or twice a year. There has to be more to it than that and I forever grateful for learning that from coach Shyatt," Kerns said.
Kerns would see his first job as an assistant coach come on the sidelines, as the Director of Basketball Operations at Tennessee Tech from 2002-03. In 2004, Kerns would make the move to Wofford, where he would spend the next 3 seasons.
The Wofford Way:
At this point during the interview, I am thinking this might just be the best interview ever. The guy is nice and he loves hoops. He is always looking to find that next talent type mentality, and I am learning from the coaches I have interviewed so far, kindness goes a long way and it certainly has at Wofford.
Kerns has had two different stints during his time with the Terriers, sandwiched between a long trip the former stomping grounds of former standout Steve Nash at Santa Clara. The first stint in the Hub city for Kerns came during the would be from 2004-07, which would be when Wofford, of course, started building its winning culture that it has to this day.
One such example came during Dec. 5, 2004, as the Terriers made the trip to SEC Country to face off against the Auburn Terriers. The rest of what happened it listed below.
Wofford 85, Auburn 78 (Dec. 5, 2004/Auburn Al)
What Happened: Wofford would go into SEC country and the Terriers were able to claim what was an impressive win, downing the Jeff Lebo-led Auburn Tigers, as the Terriers were able to get 85-78 win over the Auburn Tigers at Beard-Eaves Coliseum. It would be the first of three wins against SEC foes during the Mike Young era, and it was Young who has led Wofford to all three of its SEC wins in its history. The next Wofford win against SEC wouldn't come for another four years. In the win over the Tigers, the Terriers got would get 21 points from two-sport athlete Adrien Borders, while 6-9 forward Howard Wilkerson would add 19, as the Terriers improved to 4-2 on the season on 54% shooting from the field in the win. A key 27-8 run over the final eight minutes of the opening half of play proved to be a key turning point in the game, as the Terriers took a 44-40 lead to the break.
It was one of the biggest wins early in the Mike Young career. Kerns would start his career in his first stint as an assistant coach, with the Terriers finishing 14-14 overall and 7-9 in Southern Confernece play. It would be the start of a turnaround story for the Terriers. In his first three seasons at Wofford, would also defeat Cincinnati before Kerns ended up making the move all the way west to Santa Clara, in the West Coast Conference with powers Gonzaga, BYU, and Saint Mary's Kerns was ranked as one of the Top 20 assistants in college basketball at Wofford, according to CollegeStat.net while at Wofford, so the Broncos were getting a savvy coach.
During six years (2006-13) as an assistant out on the left coast, Kerns helped make even more an impact on the mid-major basketball scene.. In fact, prior to Kerns' arrival, the memories of Nash and the glory days of Santa Clara basketball had been few and far between, as the program had just one winning season in the six prior to Kerns' arrival.
While at Santa Clara, Kerns would serve under a former Southern Conference assistant, in Kerry Keating, who was a part of Buzz Peterson's first staff in Boone, serving with the Mountaineers from 1998-2000. During Keating's two seasons in Boone, the Mountaineers were 44-17 and went to the NCAA Tournament in 2000, losing an opening round contest to Ohio State. So, at was at least a pair of former coaches from the SoCon re-uniting on the west coast to try and re-vive a once-proud Santa Clara program.
He would help recruit the school's all-time leading scorer Kevin Foster in 2008, and in 2012, brought in the West Coast Conference top freshman Jarred Brownridge. In-roads were certainly made by Santa Clara during his six years on the west coast, as the Broncos racked up 10 postseason wins, as well as notching high-profile wins at Purdue, vs Villanova, vs New Mexico and vs Gonzaga.
The 10 postseason wins, including six on the road during Kerns' six years out west, included winning the CIT and CBI college basketball postseason tournaments in 2011 and 2013, which rank 2nd and 3rd best seasons in Santa Clara's rich tradition of history. Most importantly, Kerns help graduate 100% of their players. He finished helping Santa Clara to a 985 APR score, which ranked tops in the West Coast Conference.
While You Were Away:
Kerns would make his return to Mike Young's staff fresh off a 26-win campaign of the 2012-13 season, helping the Broncos win the CBI title. The Spartanburg he was returning to is one that was vastly different than the one he had left some six years earlier.
There was a buzz around Wofford basketball, whereas that had not been the case when he first got to the job in 2004. Wofford had claimed back-to-back Southern Conference Tournament titles, and Kerns, though not on the staff at the time of those two titles, at least played a role, bringing one major piece, in Noah Dahlman--a player also recruited heavily by Furman.
From Minnesota, Dahlman to make the choice of settling at Wofford, and though Kerns wasn't there to enjoy the ride with Young, Dahlman and Terriers, his fingerprints were certainly on that title and Dahlman would go on to be named Southern Conference Player of the Year, as well as becoming the Division I era all-time leading scorere, and helped the Terriers punch the first of four NCAA Tournament tickets over the next six years.
"In recruiting, it is always a team effort and hard work by many people. Our staff, players, Coach Young, people on campus, faculty, helped seal the deal with Noah and he had a memorable experience here at Wofford. He certainly left a legacy with a number of other great players during that era. Those teams are etched in the minds of others and broke the barrier for Wofford basketball. I have said this many times, there is only 1 common denominator in Wofford basketball over the many years and that is Mike Young. He can coach with anyone and he has proven he can win Championships with different rosters."
When Kerns returned prior to the 2013-14 season, the previous season had not been the Wofford standard, including just a 13-19 mark in 2012-13. An entire new coaching staff came in with Kerns that brought some new energy and attitude back to Wofford basketball.
Coming into the 2013-14, while the Terriers weren't the favorites to win the Southern Conference Tournament, they were certainly a major player and no one would be surprised to lift a third title trophy at season's end.
The Terriers did catch lightning in a bottle, winning 13 of its final 15, including a Southern Conference title game win over Western Carolina (56-53) to qualify for the NCAA Tournament for a third time in five years. The win in the title would also yield another 20-win season for the Terriers.
Kerns and Wofford were heavy favorites last season, and with everyone returning, it was hard to see much of any challenge coming the way of Wofford en route to a fourth crown in six seasons. Surprising Furman made things interesting in the title game, losing 67-64, but the Terriers, with a school-record 28 wins, went on to an opening-round near upset of Arkansas before dropping a heartbreaker, 56-53, to the Arkansas Razorbacks.
Kerns admits that there is something special about Wofford, and something that enables this small private school nestled in Spartanburg to enjoy the success it has been able to enjoy.
"One of the things that has makes Wofford special is the long-standing relationships across the campus. Look at the leaders of our university here and especially in the athletic department. Senior Associate Athletic Director Mark Line, Director of Athletics Richard Johnson, head coach football coach Mike Ayers and head coach basketball coach Mike Young have all been here 25-30 years in their positions, and that ought to tell you something about how much the relationships mean around this place. This college is "real" and there is no production. In the coaching world which is can be commonly nomadic, when you have several coaches and former coaches stay at one institution for close to 30 years that speaks for itself about the culture and daily environment here at Wofford" Kerns said.
"When we recruit players, we attract players from families that made up of the right ingredients because Wofford is built on those things. Substance over style and blue collar attitude. It's literally one big family and it feels like home and we're not even trying to make it that way, it's just the way people treat each other here illustrates the genuine feel to it."
With the losses of players like Lee Skinner and Karl Cochran from a year ago, most didn't know what to expect from Wofford this season. So far, it's been a battle every game with the Terriers, and though the Terriers don't have a player like Cochran or Skinner to call upon, Spencer Collins and Fletcher MaGee have been among the most proficient shooters in school history. The Terriers head into Saturday's game with a 14-14 record and a 10-5 mark in Southern Conference second place. A win over Furman Saturday would see them in a tie in the standings for second.
"One of the things that's been the most surprising about this season has been a guy like Fletcher Magee, and his work ethic. That guy just loves the game there are "gym rats" and they do not compare to him. He is a gym "addict". I have a funny story. So, Matt McCall--the head coach at Chattanooga--arrived 15 minutes for their shoot-a-round a few weeks back when we played them, which is understandable because it's his first year and all, so he wanted to get his bearings in order and know his way around. So coach McCall tells me when they arrived in the gym that Fletcher stops shooting and goes over looks at his watch and realizes Chattanooga was 15 minutes early for their shoot-a-round. A noticeable grimace came over his face for Magee, as he had to yield court access to the Mocs for their shoot-a-around when he totally thought he had 15 more minutes, but that's the kind of love he has for it and he's the kind of guy that motivates himself."
"Another great story is Eric Garcia. He might be one of the toughest guys I know. So, he breaks his jaw against West Virginia prior to Christmas. Nine days later No. 2 Duke who of course goes on to win the national title and, the guy can't talk, he can't eat and we have no way of knowing when to take him out of the game, so he starts and has no turnovers in over 30 minutes of action at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Finally some of us were looking at him and he didn't look like he was feeling too well, so we literally had to force him to come out of the game. He just needed to catch his breath since his mouth was wired shut. No doubt that's one of the toughest kids I have been around," Kerns said.
Coach Kerns is the type of guy I could have talked to all day. He's seen it just about all despite being a relatively young coach. We talked about hoops and it wasn't even like an interview. I will confirm this. He is about relationships and he is about Wofford, and Wofford must be a special place if someone is willing to take such time from their day to just sit and talk with you about the sport. That's true dedication, and I think that's something the mid-major level has that other major ones don't. Relationships, and you will see coach Kerns on the big-time soon enough.