PEMBROKE — During the past few months, Dan Kenney’s retirement has been congratulated at ceremonies where the longtime coach, athletic director and Chancellor’s chief of staff took the stage to thank those that helped him during his time at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, but Friday was different.
In a fitting way, one of the last times Kenney’s retirement would be recognized was by those close to him that shared stories and thanks in a light-hearted toast at the sixth annual Cash Bash, an event that Kenney founded in 2012 as director of athletics.
The athletics department’s main fundraising event got an overhaul with the English Jones Center gym being dimly illuminated with spotlights and candles on tables for the event titled: “A Toast to Dan Kenney.”
The speakers at the event addressed Kenney as Coach Kenney, Dan and dad, but they all paid homage to the man that impacted UNCP for nearly 40 years in some capacity.
“This may be the funniest Cash Bash that we have had in our history,” UNCP Director of Athletics Dick Christy said beforehand.
”Undoubtedly, I think this is going to be the most meaningful because we celebrate my good buddy Dan Kenney. In 2013, we had 120 people here to hear what the new athletic director had to say. Tonight we have 450 people here to hear about the old athletic director.”
From one Coach Kenney to another, Kyle Kenney, Dan’s son and the assistant soccer coach at Winthrop University, told of his father’s two-year stint as the men’s soccer coach that came at the request of then UNCP Director of Athletics Ray Pennington, despite a lack of knowledge of the sport. The Braves won two games in two seasons, and Kyle mentioned stats that were staggering and made him cringe at times.
“I would hate to see the two teams they beat,” Kyle said. “In 1978, he conceded over 100 goals. Dad, that’s really hard to do.
“Dad, you weren’t the best college soccer coach, but you’ve always been the best team player. Your dedication to this university has been amazing.”
While laughs came from documenting Dan’s soccer stint, Kyle said he knows that his influence in sports and his life is what drove him into coaching.
“You’ve been influential on my life and I know that no matter what you are going to support me,” he said. “My decision to be a coach was my own decision, but it was manufactured by you — I think mom let it happen too.”
When Jim Gane thinks of Kenney, the ability for the outgoing fixture at UNCP to bridge the towns of Lumberton and Pembroke is what stands out. Gane was a former UNCP basketball player and was the son of Lacey Gane, the former all-time winningest men’s basketball coach at UNCP.
“Dan, we’re here for a lot of good reasons, but we are here for you too,” he said. “I think in my mind, the nickname for Dan is he is the bridge that bridges Lumberton to Pembroke, Pembroke to Lumberton and everyone else in Robeson County and the neighboring counties to UNCP.”
Lacey Gane also knew from the start that Kenney’s attention to detail would be a big part of his success going forward when he first saw him as an assistant coach in 1977.
“He said that when Dan was an assistant halfway through the year, ‘I’ll tell you one thing, that Dan Kenney gets it done. He’s the most organized person that I’ve seen,’” Jim recalled his father saying. “Dad saw something really early in Dan that is still true today.”
Abdul Gahfar came to UNCP and quickly learned lessons on hard work from Kenney as a player. Gahfar’s playing time increased from seven games as a freshman, to playing in every game as a senior.
“I wouldn’t be here without Dan Kenney,” Gahfar said. “He made a dream possible for me to play college basketball and I thank him for that opportunity because I didn’t want to be anything but a college basketball player. When I got here, I wasn’t ready to be a student, I wasn’t ready to be an athlete and I realized I wasn’t as good of a player as I thought.”
In his final season, Gahfar was a part of the winningest season in UNCP basketball history, but the run that his team took as a junior and how Kenney acted leading into the tournament is a life lesson he still carries with him.
Heading into the Conference Carolinas tournament, Kenney told the team that they were champions, despite being outside of the top two spots in the conference. The team was pessimistic to buy in, but recognized the possibility after wins over Mount Olive and High Point, before beating Pfeiffer in the championship game in overtime.
“We went out and won the conference championship and there was one person that believe from the beginning that we could do that and that’s Coach Kenney,” Gahfar said. “That encapsulates Coach Kenney to me, always positive.”
Former assistant coach to Kenney and current women’s basketball coach John Haskins spoke of a few of the countless stories the two had on the recruiting trails. Although Haksins didn’t share them all, they all had an underlying theme that has forced the friendship of the two now going on 30 years.
“I cherish those moments because we got to bond,” Haskins said. “That was awesome.”
Haskins was hired to be the successor to Kenney in 1992, when Kenney took over the men’s basketball program at Winthrop, after serving as his right-hand man for four seasons.
One thing that Haskins admitted to hating was the use of buzzwords like “upside, sense of urgency and the brand,” but he took exception to his rule on Friday.
“There is one buzz word that I would like to use and that’s legacy,” he said. “You’ve created a lifetime legacy here at UNC Pembroke and it’s not because of what you’ve done, although you have done some great things. He’s done a lot of great things, but it is who you are. It’s integrity, it’s character, it’s work ethic and dedication, it’s all those things that makes your legacy here at UNC Pembroke.”
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977 or by email at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.