Dustin Kerns adds to his App State legacy

Men’s basketball head coach Dustin Kerns calls out to his team in a game versus Georgia State Feb. 12, 2022.
Men’s basketball head coach Dustin Kerns calls out to his team in a game versus Georgia State Feb. 12, 2022.
Hiatt Ellis

A freshly drenched Dustin Kerns made his way into the media room after navigating his first App State court storm. The Mountaineers just downed Auburn 69-64 for arguably the biggest home win in program history. 

Postgame, Kerns was asked about changing the perception of the basketball program. He took a moment, reflecting and pondering his answer while looking down at the stat sheet in front of him. While choking up, Kerns talked about his initial interview with Director of Athletics Doug Gillin, who asked him about changing the program’s perception.

“He believed I was the guy to do it,” Kerns said. “It’s been a lot of work by a lot of people and I thankfully think this perception of App State basketball has officially changed.”

On March 22, 2019, Kerns was named the newest head men’s basketball coach at App State, succeeding former coach Jim Fox.

Then second-year App State head coach Dustin Kerns speaks to the team during a time out on Dec. 1, 2020 against Bowling Green. (Courtesy of Andy McLean, App State Athletics)

Since his inception, the Mountaineers captured the Sun Belt Tournament title along with an NCAA tournament appearance in 2021, the program’s first since the 1999-2000 season. 

Additionally, Kerns led the Black and Gold to three consecutive winning seasons for the first time since before the turn of the century.

Entering his fifth season, Kerns is 70-58 as the leader of the Mountaineers. Last season, App State captured their first Power Five win since 2014 when the Black and Gold defeated Louisville 61-60 on the road.  

Despite the success in his first four seasons, Kerns said he is still growing as a leader and coach. During off-seasons, he and along with staff members frequent different coaching clinics around the country. This past summer, they attended a clinic in Florida in addition to a visit with the Charlotte Hornets’ coaching staff. 

“If I’m asking our players to get in the gym and to improve, I have to have the same mindset as a coach,” Kerns said. “I think that as coaches, we’re ongoing learners ourselves and we want that humble attitude just like we want with our players.”

Kerns spent 15 years as an assistant coach at Tennessee, Wofford and Santa Clara among others before getting his first head coaching opportunity at Presbyterian in 2017. 

In two seasons, the Blue Hose went 31-27 earning a playoff appearance in the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament in 2019. It was the first time Presbyterian finished with a winning season in 12 years. 

After the 2019 season, the Kingsport, Tennessee native drew interest from a program much closer to home.

“I’ve always had an admiration for App State. I’ve always had an admiration of Boone, North Carolina and this community,” Kerns said. “When this opportunity presented itself, it was a no-brainer for me.”

Head coach Dustin Kerns high-fives the Mountaineer student section after App State defeated Warren Wilson 142-74 in their first home game of the season on Nov. 7, 2022.

Kerns said the situation at App State was similar to what he inherited at Presbyterian, and it was a familiar feeling. Coming into a program without much recent success gave Kerns a sense of comfortability, knowing he had just turned around another Division I college basketball program. 

“He’s really good at building those relationships with a lot of different people,” said associate head coach Frank Young. “His approach at building a culture, on a yearly basis with the basketball program has gotten a lot better.” 

Young said he’s known Kerns for around eight years, dating back to Kerns’ time as an assistant coach at Wofford while Young was the Director of Basketball Operations at North Florida. 

While out on the recruiting trail, the pair met at a recruiting event in Atlanta. When Kerns was filling out his staff at Presbyterian, some mutual connections helped Young join the Blue Hose sidelines. Young followed Kerns when he accepted the coaching position in the High Country.

“He’s always been a good teacher on the court,” Young said. “I think as a coach, he’s just grown as far as continuing to be detail-oriented with scouts, with our offense, with our defensive schemes.”

Kerns earned a degree in secondary education from Clemson before transitioning to coaching. Originally, he wanted to coach high school basketball until he experienced college basketball from the sidelines. Kerns said having the degree helped in the long run with the different learning styles and demonstrations people require. 

With years of experience and a handful of different mentors, there were still things Kerns needed to learn. Always having to be “on” is something the seventh-year head coach tries to impart upon other coaches reaching out.

“I think that when you become a head coach, it’s something you don’t really think about,” Kerns said. “Being on all the time is new.”

Being in front of the team, at staff meetings, film sessions, timeouts, pregame, postgame, in front of media personnel among others can be exhausting. Kerns said being always on no matter the setting is something he had gotten used to over his tenure as a coach.

Whether the team’s expectations change, Kerns still tries to get the best out of each of his players. 

“The standard has become more and more every year,” said graduate student forward Donovan Gregory. “So more is expected of us. And that’s just what he shows, shows us that we just need to do more.”

Part of that standard has been inviting former players and coaches back to campus to help spread wisdom as well as uphold traditions of past players. For Kerns, any little bit of knowledge passed onto his current group is a win.

“I just think that’s the way it should be,” Kerns said. “That’s my mindset is like if we can impact one person during this 10-minute speech, then it is well worth it.”

Being a Division I basketball coach often involves long hours and, at times, spending days to possibly weeks away from family, friends and home. 

Scheduling, recruiting and other engagements are priorities among coaches hoping to continue or find success. Young said Kerns designs the schedule so everyone can be with family once the holidays roll around.

“He’s been a great example as far as how to be a father and a husband because he’s very family-oriented,” Young said. 

Kerns’ wife, Brittany, as well as his two kids, Emory and Riggs, are often seen around the program at games and other activities. Young said Kerns invites the team and his staff over to his home for dinners. 

“I think that is important,” Young said. “And so just seeing that, that evolution of how he’s able to balance and juggle. So, being a husband, being a father, also being a coach and handling all the duties that come with that has been impressive.” 

While winning and success on the basketball court are important, there is something that is more important off the court to the App State head coach.

“I want to be in the dad hall of fame,” Kerns said. “I don’t care about any other hall of fame other than the dad hall of fame and the husband hall of fame, and I think that basketball is what I do, but it’s not who I am.”

At media day, after all media personnel finished asking questions, Kerns’ children were given the microphone to ask some questions. They asked what his favorite Taylor Swift song and favorite Super Mario character were.

Kerns replied with “Blank Space” and Luigi.

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