Dennis Emery watches a UK tennis match. (Photo by Jon Hale)
By Ethan Levine
For 30 years, the UK athletics department had one constant. For three decades, under three different athletic directors, men’s tennis coach Dennis Emery walked into his office, sat down at his desk and got down to business. More than 500 victories and 23 NCAA tournament appearances later, Emery announced his retirement from coaching to take a position in the athletics department’s administration, ending an era with little deterrents and plenty of success.
While the likes of Krzyzewski, Summit and Bowden have been immortalized for their accomplishments and longevity, most fans, even in the Bluegrass, won’t recognize Emery’s name. But the lasting impact he has made on the university, the community, the sport and the hundreds of lives he has touched during the past 30 years outweigh any superficial object that could honor him.
When Emery arrived at UK in 1983, after five years as the head coach at Austin Peay, he vowed to build the program into a consistent winner.
“When I came here I wanted to stay somewhere for 30 years and just see what I could do,” Emery said. “I didn’t want to be a coach who moved around a lot. I’m really most proud of the fact that we’ve been very consistent with our results.”
Consistent is an understatement. Emery has led the Wildcats to a top-40 ranking nationally in 29 of his 30 seasons at UK, 23 times finishing in the top-25 in the country and seven times finishing in the top-10.
From 1984-95, Emery coached 12 consecutive teams to top-25 finishes, winning the 1992 Southeastern Conference championship. During that time, Emery was named SEC Coach of the Year (1992) and was twice a finalist for National Coach of the Year. Emery was named SEC Coach of the Year again in 1999 and 2012.
In 2012, Emery put forth one of the greatest coaching jobs of his career, leading UK to a perfect run through the SEC en route to his second career conference title. The Wildcats finished the regular season ranked No. 6 in the nation, clinching back-to-back top-10 finishes for the first time since the 1988-89 seasons.
“He is a student of the game, evolving as the game of tennis evolves,” Cedric Kauffmann, former Kentucky tennis player and Emery’s associate head coach, said. “Most of his thoughts during the day and every day are about becoming a better coach, helping his players become better on and off the court.”
Dennis Emery (UK photo by Chet White)
Emery reached the NCAA tournament 23 times at UK, second most among active coaches when the season came to an end. Behind him in third is Andy Jackson, a former player under Emery at UK who now coaches at the University of Florida. In front of Emery on the list is Georgia head coach Manuel Diaz.
Georgia has been a nemesis for the Wildcats throughout Emery’s career, but the two programs have developed an intense rivalry atop the SEC standings.
“The thing about Georgia is they are so stunningly consistent,” Emery said. “They’re always in the Elite Eight, they’ve made a lot of runs to the Final Four, they’ve won six National Championships. We haven’t been able to do that, but we’re trying.”
UK has defeated the Bulldogs two straight years, earning the Wildcats some of the most memorable victories in their head coach’s career.
“Beating Georgia in the semifinals of the SEC tournament last year, even though we lost in the finals; Georgia had beaten us and kind of rubbed it in our face a few times, so that was another one that had a special day,” Emery said.
When asked if any other matches stood out throughout his long career, Emery could only think of one other.
“We beat Stanford when they were ranked, I think they were ranked No. 1 in the country, if not they were the best team, and they had Bob Bryan on that team and Paul Goldstein,” Emery said. “It was a team that won two NCAA championships. We beat them in the national indoors. Carlos (Drada) actually won the deciding point in that match, he beat Bob Bryan. It was Carlos’ freshman year.”
In 2012, UK senior Eric Quigley cemented his name atop the program’s record book, winning more singles matches in a career than anyone else in program history. Quigley credits much of that accomplishment to Emery, who has known Quigley since he was 13 years old. Emery’s daughter, who is the same age as Quigley, played juniors with the Wildcats’ superstar, and a friendly relationship between the two formed. A few years later, Emery began recruiting Quigley and a few years after that, Quigley has become one of the most accomplished players to ever play in the Bluegrass.
“I’ve grown so much as a player since I got here, gotten so good under every area of tennis,” Quigley said. “He helps me so much.
“It’s really helped my game, knowing I can go out there and he gives me the peace of mind and the confidence to go hit my shots.”
Those are the sentiments almost all of Emery’s current and former players expressed about their coach: that he not only made them into good tennis players, but instilled a confidence in them that took them from good to great.
“I feel like with my coaching style of trying to get the best out of each player while adapting to what they do,” Emery said. “I feel like I’m very consistent with my approach. I’m never trying to make people play my style.”
Emery has coached 10 different All-Americans who earned the honor a total of 38 times in his tenure at UK and led three players — Drada (2000), Jesse Witten (2002) and Quigley (2012) — to the NCAA Singles finals.
“None of us would be in those positions right now had it not been for him seeing something in us that we could eventually grow to,” Drada said.
Away from UK, he coached professional women’s player Susan Sloane from the No. 133 world ranking all the way to No. 18 in just six years, helping her to earn seeds in both the French Open and Wimbledon in that time.
His coaching tree is as extensive as it gets in collegiate tennis, with former players and assistant coaches taking jobs all over the country. Drada, now UK’s women’s coach; Kauffmann, Emery’s associate head coach; Jackson, men’s tennis coach at the University of Florida, and Mario Rincon, men’s tennis coach at the University of Miami, are among the many former Emery players at Kentucky to go onto coaching careers of their own.
It is the lasting impact that Emery left on his players after they depart from the program that make them successful in the sport going forward. A number of former players and current coaches still close to Emery credit him not only with their playing successes, but their coaching successes as well.
“Every day I do many things as a coach that I learned from Coach Emery,” Jackson said.
“I credit him a lot for becoming a coach,” Kauffman, who is a favorite to replace Emery at UK, added. “I think the positive environment he created at UK helped me realize that I could make a difference in young adults just like Coach Emery did with me.”
But behind this laundry list of achievements on the court lies another story entirely, a story only known by those whose lives have been impacted directly by Emery as not just a coach, but a man.
“I’d like to think that those guys are doing it the right away and they understand the right way to do things, and I think that they do,” Emery said.
“Now that I’m getting older you start realizing how much influence you have had from Coach Emery and how much influence he has had on so many people,” Drada said.
Emery has seen eight of his former players go on to be ranked in the top-200 in the world on the Association of Tennis Professionals tour, but he is just as proud to see his former players go on to succeed outside of tennis after school. He made mention of former UK tennis player Paul Varga, one of the most accomplished players during Emery’s time in Lexington, who went on to become the CEO of Brown Foreman.
“You want all your guys to be really special to you,” Emery said.
Jackson, who had been cut from UK’s team two straight years before Emery came on as head coach, credits the man with his lasting involvement with the sport and passion for the game 30 years later.
“Playing for coach made me love NCAA tennis,” Jackson said. “It looked like so much fun to coach. It inspired me to a career in his footsteps. In short, playing for coach was an incredible life changing experience.”
His lasting impact on the sport is enormous, but his lasting impact on the sport specifically in the Commonwealth is irreplaceable. Emery has always tried to bring more tennis tournaments, at both a youth and adult level, to the Hillary J. Boone Tennis Center (home of the Wildcats) or other venues in Lexington, Louisville and the rest of the state.
“I’d like to feel like I’ve done more than fill the spot,” Emery said. “I’ve always tried to be very community-oriented, tried to help the community grow in tennis. I’m always trying to be someone who brings a lot of tournaments and events to the Lexington area, to the state of Kentucky, and try to grow the game that way.”
Emery, who helped to raise more than $1.8 million for a new indoor tennis facility in his time as head coach, will now work as a special assistant to UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart, continuing his fundraising efforts in UK’s development office.
“We are fortunate as an institution to have the Emery family and to have specifically this guy be a part of us for 30 years, and what I would hope is 10-15 more, somewhere in that range,” Barnhart said at the news conference announcing Emery’s retirement from coaching. “We’ve got a spot for him to help us become the university that we want to be. We know how much it means to him and we want to make sure we honor that, but more importantly take advantage of all the skills that he has and the love he has for this university.”
Despite all the All-Americans, all the runs to the NCAA singles finals, all the top-10 finishes, the conference championships, the Coach of the Year honors, Emery was never able to call himself a national champion.
And even though that championship is the ultimate goal in collegiate tennis, Emery was still able to keep it in perspective.
“We’d love to win a national championship,” Emery said. “Our players are very competitive. When we’re recruiting our guys, we’re recruiting people who we feel like can help us achieve the goal of a national championship. That being said, I’m also older and I know how important it is for these guys to be balanced. I know how important it is for them to grow spiritually, for them to grow academically, and in all ways. Not just to be great tennis players.”
It is that kind of a coach and that kind of a man that make a legend; someone who achieves greatness doing things the right way. Who earns his players’ respect and leads them on to greater things. Who not only acts as a coach, but also as a father figure and a role model. Who not only coached at the flagship university of the state, but acted as an ambassador for the sport in every corner of the Commonwealth. It’s the kind of coach that still has former players, grown men, getting emotional 30 years later.
“Except for my parents, coach has been the most important influence in my life,” Jackson said.
“My relationship with coach Emery has grown stronger since my playing days,” Kauffman said. “He has always been there for me and I believe will always be there for me. I am blessed to have him around.”
“Coach knows a lot about tennis and he knows a lot about life,” Drada said. “He is not only coaching me on coaching but coaching me on life.”
All the while, Emery almost forgets the kind of impact he made in his career. He just woke up every morning, headed to the Boone Center, walked into his office, and once again got down to business. Now as a special assistant to the Athletic Director at UK, that work ethic seems unlikely to change.
“It’s funny. You’re so busy and you’re so caught up in what you’re doing, you’re really not thinking of what the perception of that’s going to be down the road,” Emery said. “What I’d like for it to be is I’d like for people to feel like this is someone who worked really hard at the job, who put the players first, who really enjoyed being around the players and somebody who did things the right way. Just try to do things the right way and in a humble fashion.”