John Clay: Kentucky tennis coach Dennis Emery succeeded because he cared

uk tennis coach shifts focus to all of athletics

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJuly 17, 2012 

  • Emery's career highlights

    ■ Youngest Division I tennis head coach ever, starting at the age of 23 in 1978; was 87-66 in five seasons at Austin Peay

    ■ Undefeated against in-state opponents during 30-year tenure

    ■ Led Kentucky to the NCAA Tournament in 23 of the last 25 years

    ■ Led Kentucky to 11 Sweet 16s and four Elite Eights since 1987

    ■ UK had seven top-10 final rankings since 1983

    ■ UK had 23 top-25 finishes in the rankings since 1983

    ■ Led 19 Kentucky men to a total of 38 All-American honors

    ■ Led three Wildcats to the NCAA Singles finals (Carlos Drada, 2000; Jesse Witten, 2002; and Eric Quigley, 2012)

    ■ Two SEC championships (1992, 2012)

    ■ One SEC Tournament championship (1992)

    ■ Four SEC Tournament finals (1988, 1989, 2011, 2012)

It was March 1987 and I was watching the Final Four on television where we lived at the time on Duke Road.

Providence was playing Syracuse in the national semifinals. Providence was led by an interesting young coach named Rick Pitino, whom we were destined to become familiar with in these parts.

The phone rang.

It was Dennis Emery.

Emery was the last person I wanted interrupting my Final Four viewing. The brash, young UK tennis coach had a persistent way about him that just wouldn't quit. His men's tennis team had just won a big match somewhere. He wanted publicity in the newspaper. He didn't want a line, or a brief, he wanted a full-fledged story.

I told him I wasn't working. I told him I was busy. Yet, Emery insisted and persisted and by the end of the conversation, I had agreed to get something into the newspaper.

That's how, against the odds, Dennis Emery built the UK tennis program into one of the best college tennis programs in the entire country.

The 58-year-old coach retired on Tuesday, at least from coaching, giving it up after 30 years at UK, announcing that he had accepted Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart's offer to become a special assistant AD where Emery could put his focus and determination to use helping the entire athletics department.

"The thing is, as I know he does, I feel like we're really close to being a top-15 program in all sports," said Emery in what turned out to be an emotional news conference at the Memorial Coliseum media room. "For somebody that's been here 30 years, let me tell you, that's a completely stunning revelation."

Said Barnhart: "I have been in this long enough to know that you very seldom get to go out on top."

That seemed unimaginable 30 years ago. After all, I was around back when Emery took over the UK program. Not that there was much to take over. Few paid attention to tennis, which was why a young newspaper reporter just out of college was given the beat. Few cared.

"It was, 'Don't get us any trouble and don't wreck the van,' that kind of thing," said Emery of way back when he made all of $13,100 annually in his first contract. No benefits.

Emery cared. He cared enough not to take no for an answer. He cared enough to go out and raise money — the late Hilary J. Boone being his prime donor — at a time when college tennis coaches didn't do such things. He cared enough to recruit the type of tennis players Kentucky was not accustomed to signing in the past.

It started with Paul Varga and ended with Eric Quigley.

Varga was a gritty player from Louisville who became (at the time) the winningest tennis player in UK history. Varga is now the CEO of Brown-Forman in Louisville, a member of the Gatton Business School Hall of Fame who called Emery to make sure his former coach had an invitation to attend his induction.

Quigley was a gritty player from Louisville who went on to be a singles runner-up in the NCAA Men's Tournament this past spring in Athens, Ga. — the third NCAA singles finalist to be coached by Emery — in what turned out to be the last tennis match that Emery ever coached.

In fact, as he talked about Quigley and about going undefeated in the SEC this past season and beating Georgia, among other memorable moments on Tuesday, Emery got so choked up he couldn't continue.

"They told me, 'Don't do a press conference because you're going to get emotional. Don't do it,'" he said.

He's only retiring from coaching, however. His associate head coach, the deserving Cedric Kauffmann, appears a near-lock to be his successor. And thanks to Emery, a strong program — defending SEC titlist — is being left in good hands while the now former coach focuses his dedication in another direction.

"I would dare say there's virtually no one in this community that he hasn't had a relationship with in some way, shape or form," Barnhart said. "Then you expand that circle of friends and it gets pretty wide."

That's what 30 years of persistence will do for you and your university. On that score, Dennis Emery will never quit.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com

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