Dustin Kerns was in a car on Wednesday, heading to Winston-Salem. While in transit, he communicated with an old boss.
Kerns, the first-year Appalachian State men’s basketball coach, texted with Mike Young — a man he worked with at Wofford for seven years and the recently named coach at Virginia Tech. Kerns was heading to an event as part of the App State athletics’ spring tour, a six-city journey spanning a little more than a week to visit with alumni in the state.
The back-and-forth messaging was casual conversation between friends. But later, Kerns talked about the parity of their current situations. Kerns was hired by App State on March 28, and Young got his new job on Sunday.
“I’ve talked to him the last couple of days,” Kerns said of Young. “We talked about this.
“We talked about how cool it would be to, at some point, break the band up and both go do our own thing, and try to emulate building a program on our own, different than Wofford.”
It’s why Wofford will remain firmly in the past for Kerns. He’s picked the new goal of turning App State into a Sun Belt Conference contender.
Kerns worked at Wofford in two stints: from 2004 to 2007 as an assistant, then again from 2013 to 2017 as associate head coach. He opted to leave for a head coaching opportunity at Presbyterian College, where he churned out a 20-win season in only his second season.
Young’s departure created an opening at a school where Kerns experienced high success — he was part of two straight trips to the NCAA Tournament for the Terriers (in 2014 and 2015), as well as a Southern Conference championship in 2015. And that’s why it’s not an absurd idea that Kerns, with time at Wofford and success at PC, could serve as a strong successor of Young.
Kerns quickly dispatched that notion shortly after holding a microphone and laying out his plans for the Mountaineers’ program.
“We did it to a point where — I don’t want to say you can’t do much more but 30 wins, winning the (SoCon) tournament, and from being there and seeing the whole transformation — there’s something cool about going somewhere else and trying to do that,” Kerns said. “That’s what fuels my fire: coming to App State and OK, I’ve got the blueprint, I’ve done it there, I’ve been able to do it as a head coach and flip a program, and now I want to do it here.
“And I want to get this program to where that program is. But I want to do my own thing.”
Kerns mentioned that Wofford, at least for the short term, will still very much be connected to Young. The 55-year-old coach spent 30 years at the school, the last 17 of which as head coach. The appeal to replicate that fortification is what caused Kerns to “break the band up” earlier by going to Presbyterian.
He also said that if being the head coach at Wofford was in his long-term plans, he wouldn’t have left the Spartanburg, S.C. school in the first place.
“That chapter is closed,” Kerns said. “I have great memories there, championships. But that chapter’s closed. And so we’re excited about the next chapter.”
Kerns said he doesn’t intend to turn App State into a carbon copy of its former SoCon foe — he pointed out that he didn’t run Wofford systems at PC either. Instead, he merely wants to replicate the success the Terriers have had. That’d be a welcomed change for App State, which hasn’t registered a winning season since 2010-11.
That starts with the essentials for Kerns. He expects the rest of his coaching staff to be announced shortly. Jason Allison has remained with App State as the lone holdover of Jim Fox’s assistants.
And on Tuesday night, Kerns interacted with members of App State’s incoming recruits. Since Kerns took over, Appalachian lost one player in the 2019 recruiting class — junior college forward Anyeuri Castillo opted to reopen his recruitment last week. App State granted his release, a move that Kerns said was a mutual decision.
But while in Charlotte for the Mountaineers’ spring tour, he said he met with the other two remaining signees: Donovan Gregory and J.C. Tharrington. Kerns said both were decked out in App State gear.
“They chose App State, and they like the direction of the way we’re going to do things too,” Kerns said. “I think the way we’ve already started out, our players are telling them, ‘Hey, you’re going to like this.’
Kerns has gone through this process before. Now, he’s doing it again, only this time it’s stride for stride with his mentor. And Kerns just happens to be attempting another rebuild with a brand that’s always garnered his interest.
“This is a place that I’ve always been really fond of,” said Kerns, who grew up about two hours from Boone in Kingsport, Tenn. “And this is a place where I’m like, that’s a gold mine.
“That’s a place you can win in.”