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Dustin Kerns hopes Appalachian State can climb the mountain by taking the stairs

Fresh off a program turnaround at Presbyterian, Kerns will try pulling off the same feat in the Sun Belt

NCAA Basketball: Presbyterian at Virginia Tech Michael Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports

Appalachian State basketball hasn’t exactly ridden an escalator to success over the past decade, but new head coach Dustin Kerns is hoping his “take the stairs” approach will help the Mountaineers once again experience success on the college basketball hardwood.

“We live in an escalator world where we want it easy, quick, and fast or take some magic pill,” New Appalachian State head coach Dustin Kerns said. “When you ‘take the stairs’ you develop a mentality and attitude of self-discipline, sacrifice and hard work. Winning isn’t easy, winning isn’t ordinary so winning requires us to do things that ordinary people don’t do. It isn’t about doing things the hardest way possible, but it is about doing the hardest things as soon as possible to get where you want to be. That mindset will become a habit and contagious and good habits are just as hard to break as bad ones.”

The young head coach has quickly established himself as a program-builder in his budding career. As an assistant at Wofford, he was responsible for recruiting the NCAA’s all-time leading three-point shooter, Fletcher Magee, to be a Terrier back in 2013. Then as Head Coach at Presbyterian, he engineered one of college basketball’s biggest turnarounds by setting numerous school records en route to two National Coach of the Year award nominations in two years.

At Presbyterian, Kerns was responsible for helping the Blue Hose experience their first success as a Division I member. This past season, the Blue Hose accomplished a slew of firsts in just Kerns’ second season as the head coach. He helped the Blue Hose to not only their first winning season, but also its first 20-win season. Presbyterian also played in the postseason for the first time at the Division I level: PC won two road games and made the Tournament quarterfinals this past March. During the season, PC went 12-3 at home while winning on the road eight times — both of which set new school records.

It’s been since the 2009-10 season when Mountaineers played Wofford for the Southern Conference basketball crown that they have been either a conference tournament title contender, or a candidate for any postseason tournament. Under former coach Buzz Peterson, the Mountaineers won 24 games and made a Tournament semifinals appearance before losing to Pacific.

Since Peterson left following that season, Appalachian has gone through two coaches, transitioned to a new conference, and have had only one winning season. In fact, the Mountaineers have put together a just a 109-169 overall mark since Peterson left. The only winning season came in 2010-11, which was Jason Capel’s first season at the helm of the program, as the Black and Gold finished 16-15 overall.

Yet Kerns admits coaching at Appalachian State might have a different set of challenges.

“The truth is, I don’t know how it will be from a team mentality standpoint,” Kerns said. “I just got here and haven’t gotten a chance to really coach them yet. When I got to Presbyterian, some of my seniors hadn’t won 15 or 20 games the previous three years combined, so the challenge was to build up their confidence. But it could be completely different here, or it could be the exact same, but I will say that part of this job goes beyond just x’s and o’s. In fact, the more important parts of the job is not the x’s and o’s at all.”

Nowadays in college basketball, when coaches take over programs, sometimes they look for a quick fix to the problem in an effort to win right way — whether its with loading the roster with grad transfers, or scheduling cupcakes in order to make a quick turnaround in the win-loss column. Yet Kern’s “take the stairs” mantra comes into play here as well.

“There’s the option of eating fast food for every meal, but that’s probably not a good idea, and I think in coaching it’s very comparable to that,” Kerns said. “I am not saying it’s wrong to take a lot of transfers or anything like that, I think it more has to do with recruiting guys into your program that might not be the right fit in an effort to win right away. We have a type of person and player we are going to recruit here, and we’re going to make sure he’s the right fit for App State University and our program.”

The one issue that fans sometimes talk about and players might think when a coach takes over a program in any sport is that the previous coach recruited the players that are underclassmen or didn’t decide to transfer. It’s different with Kerns. He was up-front with his players at both Presbyterian and Appalachian State.

“I never wanted our players at Presbyterian to feel or think that I wasn’t their coach,” Kerns said. “I told our guys here, ‘We coach here and you play here so you are our players.’ I never want a guy to feel like because we didn’t recruit him — and the previous coach did — that we don’t have his best interest at heart and will help him get better. We want to establish a standard that we are all here to develop and make each other better. We are working and playing for one another.”

Tradition is also something that is important to Kerns. Appalachian has won in the past under the likes of the aforementioned Peterson, Hall-of-Famer Bobby Cremins, as well as others like Tom Apke and Houston Fancher. Kerns reached out to Appalachian’s past successful head coaches to ask about successful habits and what their winning formulas were during their tenures.

“It’s important to me to learn as much as I can about this place and where its been and see how it has had success in the past and been able to manage that success,” Kerns said. “They each gave me some great advice and a different perspective”

Kerns’ approach to climb the mountain in the Sun Belt might just be the change of scenery Appalachian State basketball has needed for quite some time — and one that has been long overdue in the Holmes Center.