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Just before the 23rd NCAA Tournament appearance of his 35-year head coaching career, UK men’s tennis coach Dennis Emery was approached by UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart with a proposal for his future: hang up his coaching whistle and move into the athletic department’s administrative office.
“He initiated this but it’s something I’ve thought about for awhile,” Emery said Tuesday at a news conference announcing his retirement from coaching. “Not because I didn’t want to coach, but because I feel that there are other things I can do also.
“I really love the university. I feel like this is something, I feel like I can really help Mitch achieve his goals. When Mitch comes to you and sits down and tells you, one-on-one, ‘This is my vision for the athletic department over the next seven years,’ it’s a very compelling argument.”
In his new role, Emery will serve as a liaison between the athletics department former athletes, donors and others in the community while working with the fundraising office.
“It’s the ability to be an incredible ambassador for things that I can’t get to all of the time, places we can’t go and places we need representation,” Barnhart said of Emery’s new job. “Two, (it’s) fostering relationships with people that we have not been able to, at times, do as good a job as we need to do.”
Emery, who came to UK in 1983 from Austin Peay University, leaves coaching with a 655-404 career record. In his 30 years as the Wildcats’ head coach, Emery led UK to two Southeastern Conference championships, 23 NCAA Tournament appearances and 38 individual All-American honors for 19 different athletes. Emery was named SEC Coach of the Year three times – including 2012 – and was a finalist for National Coach of the Year twice. He also led three players to the finals of the NCAA Singles Tournament, including Eric Quigley last season.
“I just felt like the stars really lined up perfectly on this,” Emery said. “For me, what Mitch was proposing was something that I’ve always wanted to do. I never kind of wanted to be wondering, ‘Am I slipping a little bit?’ or anything. This way, I know I’m not and we’re in great hands moving forward.”
Emery retires after one of the most successful seasons in his career. UK won its second SEC regular-season championship in 2012 with an undefeated record, and Quigley reached the NCAA Singles Tournament finals, setting a new record for career wins along the way.
The recent success of the tennis program is just one example of the improvement of the entire athletics department since Barnhart came to UK, Emery said.
“I feel like we’re really close to being a top-15 program in all sports,” he said. “For somebody that’s been here 30 years, let me tell you, that’s a completely stunning revelation. It takes a lot of time to build the overall program that he’s talking about. I think we’re right on the cusp of being a top-15 program, and with the hires that he’s making I think it’s almost inevitable with the support that he’s been doing. I really wanted to be a part of that.”
Emery’s 30 years as head coach at UK are a rarity in the modern athletics environment.
“In our business, not a lot of people hang around for more than five to 10 years. That is usually considered a long time,” Barnhart said. “Three decades is amazing. (It’s) truly amazing what he has given the University of Kentucky and the city of Lexington.”
Even after retiring from coaching, Emery will remain visible in the athletics department.
“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 hope is 10 to 15 more,” Barnhart said. “Somewhere in that range, but I mean it is his call. 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 ant the love he has for this university.”