BOONE, N.C. — Presented with an Appalachian State jersey as he posed for a family picture with his wife, Brittany, and two children, Dustin Kerns didn’t realize that his name adorned the back of it.
Not surprisingly, in the opening moments of his introductory remarks as App State’s new men’s basketball coach, Kerns asked the crowd to give a round of applause to the players who were in attendance.
The name on the front of the Appalachian State jerseys and the players who wear them matter most to the person whose hiring drew a large crowd to the Ricks Athletics Complex on Friday.
“Our program will always be about the players first,” Kerns said. “This is a players program.”
Director of Athletics Doug Gillin introduced Kerns as the 22nd men’s basketball coach in App State history. A native of nearby Kingsport, Tenn., Kerns inherited a Presbyterian program that had yet to achieve a winning record at the Division I level, led a six-win improvement in his 2017-18 debut and directed the Blue Hose to a 20-win season in 2018-19.
Prior to becoming the head coach at Presbyterian, he had two stints as an assistant coach at recent NCAA tournament qualifier Wofford (2013-17, 2004-07) and worked in an assistant’s role at Santa Clara (2007-13). After graduating from Clemson in 2002, he was Tennessee Tech’s director of basketball operations from 2002-03 and a graduate assistant at Tennessee from 2003-04.
In praising Kerns, Gillin noted how well he fits with App State’s core values of academic integrity, social responsibility, competitive excellence and giving student-athletes a world-class experience.
“If we’re going to compete and put the ‘A’ on and put the jersey on, we’re going to put it on to win,” Gillin said. “That’s where we’re really excited about what Dustin brings to us here in terms of competitive excellence.”
“You have to have a reputation of integrity and moral character,” Gillin added. “We found that in Dustin. That’s really, really important. There’s no cutting corners. There’s no gray area at Appalachian. Integrity is where it starts and finishes.”
Kerns said he wants his teams to be defensive teams that play at a fun, up-tempo pace and score at a high rate. This past season, Presbyterian had the second-most made 3-pointers in the country, ranked in the top 25 nationally in 3-point percentage and had an assist-to-turnover ratio that ranks No. 5 in the country.
Kerns’ work ethic and coaching philosophy come from the long-standing influence of his parents, who were in attendance Friday, as well as his grandfather.
“My grandfather was a coal miner,” Kerns said. “My dad was drafted in Vietnam. My mother was a blue-collar worker. They taught me the importance of hard work and a ‘taking the stairs’ mentality.
“Our program will take the stairs. We’re not taking the escalator or elevator to success. No one in my family has ever done that. They taught me the importance of chasing your dreams the old-fashioned way.”
As Kerns has climbed the coaching ranks, he’s had mentors such as former Clemson head coach Larry Shyatt, former Santa Clara head coach and App State assistant Kerry Keating, former App State and Tennessee head coach Buzz Peterson and current Wofford head coach Mike Young, whose team won an NCAA tournament game this year before losing a close contest against Kentucky.
Kerns also stressed that, while he’s learned valuable lessons from all of them, he has his own style and preferences.
Directly and indirectly connected in several ways to App State Basketball, he’s already embracing the program’s history. Kerns called previous App State head coaches Bobby Cremins and Kevin Cantwell earlier this week and also chatted with standout alums such as Donald Sims and Matt McMahon.
“When I began the process of talking to Doug, I felt this place was real,” Kerns said. “I felt this place, there is genuinely something special in these mountains and a place me and my family will be truly happy to raise my family. What makes special organizations are the people within an organization. Doug and his team made this so comfortable, and it made you believe even more that this was the place for us.
“I think timing is everything in life, and I think the time is now at Appalachian State. We’re excited to get going. We look forward to the process of establishing a work ethic and embracing the challenge. We will be very process-oriented and we will represent App State with class and an intent to make everyone proud. We’re going to recruit student-athletes who are going to come here and say, ‘Wow’ like I did and recruit student-athletes who fit Appalachian State’s core values.”