PEMBROKE — Dan Kenney has only felt unprepared twice.
Known for his attention to detail and work ethic over the course of his 30 years at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, Kenney celebrated his 65th birthday on Thursday as people filled the University Center Annex to honor his retirement and accomplishments as a coach and educator.
“I’m just going to tell you about two days that were completely opposite of what was said about me,” Kenney said from the stage.
“It was the day that I came to Pembroke. (Former UNCP coach) Billy Lee called me and said, ‘You have to call Joe Gallagher. They want you to come to Pembroke and interview. You’re going to interview with Ray Pennington, Lacey Gane, Charles Jenkins, Howard Dean — you’re going to interview with all of these people.’”
Following his graduation from East Carolina, Kenney was hoping to join the Braves as an an assistant coach for the men’s basketball team in 1977.
“I didn’t have a car that had air conditioning, so I had to borrow Billy Lee’s car. This is one time that I was unprepared,” he said.
“I didn’t have a good suit. I didn’t have a car with air conditioning. But most importantly, I had no idea where Pembroke was. I stopped for gas in Wilson and the gas station attendant said, ‘You’re mighty dressed up for a hot August day.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m on my way over toward Shelby to go to Pembroke State.’”
Kenney would eventually find his way to the town of Pembroke, a place where its university would one day become synonymous with his name.
“I was unprepared my first day that I came to Pembroke,” Kenney said before fighting back tears.
“And I’m unprepared for the love that each of you have given me today. There’s no words that I can say for being a part of a family — of a championship team. That’s what Pembroke is to me. I just want to tell you thank you. I want to tell you thank you for having me unprepared. There’s no way I could have envisioned the love, affection, and appreciation that’s in this room.”
Kenney’s list of accomplishments seems endless. During his time at UNCP, Kenney helped the Braves claim multiple conference championships as the men’s basketball coach. As the school’s athletics director from 1998 to 2013, Kenney helped UNCP expand its varsity athletic program to include three more sports. The women’s soccer team began play in the 2001 season, women’s golf teed off for the first time during the 2006-07 campaign and football made its return on Sept. 1, 2007.
UNCP Chancellor Robin Cummings described Kenney as a “man who bleeds black and gold,” pointing to attention to detail, work ethic and emotional intelligence as some of Kenney’s best traits.
“Dan Kenney has held numerous positions here at UNCP and they’ve all had one thing in common, in my opinion. They’ve centered around Dan’s why in his life,” Cummings said.
“That, as I see it, is coaching. Yes, that’s coaching on the court as he did early in his career. But that’s also coaching in the classroom, coaching other staff, coaching other coaches and faculty. Everyone needs a coach. … everyone needs a Dan Kenney.”
Kenney’s career highlights include being named national Athletic Director of the Year for the NCAA’s Division II in 2006. He helped lead the $4.5 million First and Ten Campaign that was the most successful campaign in UNCP history. During his tenure, endowed athletic scholarships increased from seven to 23.
He is the namesake for the athletics department’s Coach of the Year award and an endowed scholarship. In 2016, he was included in the Peach Belt Conference’s inaugural Hall of Fame class.
Dick Christy, UNCP’s current director of athletics, wore a 125th anniversary lapel pin on his suit jacket Thursday as a tribute to Kenney’s time with the Braves.
“He’s been here for over 30 percent of (the university’s) existence,” Christy said. “He’s probably — and I don’t think anyone will argue — in the top five of the most impactful people in its history.”
Four of Kenney’s closest friends offered their thoughts during the program, each doing their best to fend off the waterworks.
Steven Bourquin, a math professor at UNCP, said when he met Kenney he had finally found someone who loved college sports as much as he did and a friend that could relate every day life experiences to an episode of the sitcom “Seinfeld.”
“Dan, no one deserves retirement more than you,” Bourquin said.
“Your dedication and passion as a coach, as an athletic director, and the chief of staff at UNCP have made us a better university. Your friendship and guidance have made me a better person.”
Mac Campbell, an Elizabethtown businessman and 1968 graduate of UNCP, said he’ll miss the early-morning phone conversations with Kenney.
“I’m happy and I’m sad. I’m happy for Dan Kenney, (his wife) Mira and their family,” Campbell said.
“I’m selfishly sad for myself and this great university. When I would call Dan, he never would say, ‘Hello.’ He’d just say, ‘How you doing?’ He knew if it was 7 a.m. or 7:01 a.m. that it was me calling him. There are many great leaders that have come through this university. … none that have touched as many people as Dan.”
John Haskins, who has been at UNCP for 29 years and currently serves as the school’s women’s basketball coach, talked about the wealth of knowledge he acquired under Kenney’s leadership.
“Mentor. Role model. Servant leader. Dedicated worker. Trusted and loyal friend. Those are the words that come to mind when I think of Dan Kenney,” said Haskins, who served as an assistant men’s basketball coach under Kenney from 1989 to 1992.
“During those three years, I witnessed Dan’s positive attitude, his work ethic, his organization skills and his positive influence on young people. Dan gave me advice in many different areas of life.”
Marla Locklear batted cleanup for the speakers. Locklear, who works within the Chancellor’s Office, described herself as Kenney’s “work wife.”
“I don’t have a script. I’m speaking from the heart,” she said.
Locklear asked Kenney’s wife Mira and his daughter Becca — who held his granddaugter Bryleigh — to join her on stage.
“I would like to take my short time to thank Mira for all of the sacrifices she made for Mr. Kenney to be the great man that he is to this wonderful institution,” she said.
“There are no words to describe the many nights Mira was home with her children making them as great leaders as her husband.”
Once the speakers finished showering Kenney with praise, state Sen. Danny Britt Jr. presented Kenney with the Order of the Long Leaf Pine — the state’s highest civilian honor.
“The world needs more Dan Kenneys,” Britt said as he walked off the stage.
By the time Kenney got to the podium for his final remarks, he was as unprepared as the moment he got the call to come to Pembroke all those years ago.
For 3 minutes and 33 seconds, Kenney turned the spotlight to those who came to share in his moment.
“It’s so humbling. Two things I want to tell you. One, Mira wants to know who that person was y’all were talking about,” he said with a laugh. “And Bryleigh, I want you to remember everything they said.
“There are so many people in this room that have lifted me up. So, thank you, thank you, thank you. And go Braves.”
Rodd Baxley can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.