It’s a moment Kirby Dean can recall without a hint of hesitation.
Stuck in a celebratory scrum on the court at Guilford College, the veteran coach at Eastern Mennonite University locked eyes with his point guard, George Johnson, from about 25 feet away.
“We started running toward each other,” Dean said Thursday. “And we jumped into the air, chest bumped and when we came down, we hugged.”
That celebration on the court, and one that ensued in the locker room after the Royals’ 2010 Sweet 16 win over Whitworth University out of Spokane, Wash., was one of the “greatest moments of my life,” Dean said.
On Thursday, EMU announced that Dean’s life will soon be moving away from the basketball court. Upon completing his 15th year as men’s basketball coach at the school, Dean will step down to become Rockingham County’s director of parks and recreation. Dean will replace former parks and recreation director Kathy McQuain. McQuain, who held the post since 2010, left her position on Nov. 28 after at least two weeks of paid administrative leave. Officials won’t say if she resigned or was fired.
County Administrator Stephen King said Dean’s salary will be $80,000, slightly higher than McQuain’s $79,591.
“The Rockingham County job just came out of nowhere,” Dean said.
Dean, a 1988 Spotswood graduate and former player for the Royals from 1988-92, said the decision to leave a program he led to new heights was not easy. But with his 9-year-old daughter, Maycee, picking up a basketball this summer, he said he didn’t want to live the rest of his life wondering “what if.”
“I started to miss stuff,” an emotional Dean said. “She had a game on Saturday, I had a game on Saturday. It’s only going to get worse. I don’t want her to get to college and say, ‘Dad, I wish you were around more.’
“Make no mistake, this job is going to require as much energy as my job coaching basketball. At least it’s more relegated to times that are more conducive to spending time with my daughter, at least in the evenings and nights, to see her play and do her thing.”
In the end, Dean said, the days of being on the road recruiting became a grind. After Wednesday’s 81-80 overtime loss to Bridgewater, Dean has compiled a 194-186 record since taking over at his alma mater prior to the 2003-04 season, making him the winningest coach in Eastern Mennonite men’s basketball history. Prior to his arrival, the Royals owned an all-time record of 310-577.
Before returning to EMU, Dean spent one season as boys basketball coach at Waynesboro after eight seasons as an assistant coach at VMI, where he befriended fellow assistant Kenny Brooks, now in his second season as women’s coach at Virginia Tech after a 14-year run in the same position at James Madison.
Dean said he broke the news to his team during a long postgame meeting after the loss to the Eagles. “They understood,” he said. “I didn’t want to tell them before the Bridgewater game because I thought it would throw them off. But I couldn’t wait any longer. I preach being upfront. But, looking back, I would have told them before the game. I think the emotion of it ended up being a good thing. It was positive.”
EMU athletic director David King, in his 13th year with the school, is now charged with his first men’s basketball coaching search, which he said will be national and begin immediately while Dean finishes the season.
“This is the kind of day I have not been looking forward to since I got here,” King said. “Someone who has done that much for the program, is that well known throughout the state and has an unbelievable amount of connections. To lose someone like that is a major loss. He knew us, he loves us, he understood the challenges of [coaching at EMU] and took them head-on.”
No season showcased overcoming the challenges of coaching at a small liberal-arts, faith-based university like the Royals’ run to the NCAA Division III Elite Eight during the 2009-2010 season. And Dean, who married his college sweetheart, fellow EMU graduate Regina, can reel off the names of those players during that “magical season” without batting an eye.
“That moment I experienced there was once in a lifetime,” he said.
And it’s a moment he and the former players relive as much as they can. Johnson, who Dean spotted at Miller School in Albemarle County and recruited hard, remembers the tournament like it was yesterday, even if he almost didn’t take part in it. Coming out of Miller School, Johnson, a Richmond native, said he watched plenty of teammates and friends head off to Division II and Division I basketball programs when the little school on the north side of Harrisonburg and its coach with the military-style haircut came calling.
And Dean just kept on calling.
“And I’m ignoring him,” said Johnson, who runs a health care consulting company in Houston, Texas. “He’s calling my mother, I’m telling my mother to ignore him, I’m not going to that school.”
Finally, Johnson relented, and on his campus visit, Dean told the recruit that the Royals had the opportunity to do something special despite the team’s 7-17 record to end the 2006-07 season.
“Long story short, I came and I got there with some good guys, and we made history for that town,” he said.
The history came in Johnson’s junior season when the Royals, returning all five starters from the previous season, went 25-5 and were one of four Old Dominion Athletic Conference teams to earn NCAA Division III Tournament bids — EMU’s first and only.
Former R.E. Lee star Eli Crawford, who won a pair of state titles and 85 straight games with the Leemen under retired coach Paul Hatcher, said he couldn’t believe the news of Dean’s impending departure.
“And still, at this moment, I don’t want to believe it,” he said.
But it was no surprise to the former EMU forward that Dean’s decision was based on family, the kind of atmosphere Dean fostered with his teams, Crawford said.”I can remember in practices Mrs. Dean being there and Maycee running around,” said Crawford, now a teacher and mentor at Pygmalion Alternative School in Staunton.
That family atmosphere, multiple former players said, extended beyond the court with the Dean family inviting the team over to watch football on New Year’s Day and both Kirby and Regina helping with studies.
“It was a pleasure to get an opportunity to play for him,” said Orie Pancione, a forward for the Royals during the Elite Eight season and now assistant principal at Hampshire High School, his alma mater, in West Virginia. “I was definitely surprised that he was walking away. After reading his reasonings and why he’s doing it, I’m happy for him.”
Dean will leave a Royals team that sits at 5-6 with an 0-3 ODAC record as of Thursday. His current roster features five seniors — Maleke Jones, Jerome Jones, RaShawn Latimer, Isaiah Harris-Winn and Kendall Hawkins — seven juniors and six underclassmen.
King said bringing in potential candidates while Dean is still coaching the Royals is “a bit unusual, but within the realm of men’s basketball, it’s not unusual.”
“Circumstances would be different if it were not an amicable departure,” King said.
Dean, who coached 21 All-ODAC players — including 2011 ODAC Player of the Year Todd Phillips, a Waynesboro graduate — and won the 2010 conference coach of the year, stressed the amicability of his future departure.
“I didn’t see myself as one of those guys that would coach into his 60s,” he said. “Some of those guys are just so into basketball. They just live and breathe and are constantly thinking about X’s and O’s. Me? I like watching NFL football. I like going to Dodgers games in the summer.”There was a time it was certainly looking like it was going that way. I loved working for Eastern Mennonite. I got to the point where I thought I could be a lifer.”
When he finally made it to one of his daughter’s basketball games, the notion of being a coaching lifer changed.
“I was more excited watching her play than I had ever been coaching one of my games,” he said. “But I’ll always remember my time coaching at a place I love.”
And those memories of the 2009-10 season won’t long be forgotten, Dean said, for him or the players. And Dean, a regular in the bleachers during Spotswood football games, said he’ll leave with one true belief — if point guard Austin Twine hadn’t torn his ACL in the penultimate regular-season game, things would have been different.
“That banner that hangs in Yoder Arena and says ‘Elite Eight’ would read ‘National Champions,'” he said.
Twine, a Pulaski graduate who now works as a loan officer at Union Bank & Trust in Blacksburg, laughed.
“I’ve been with him side by side while he’s talking to recruits, and he’s told recruits that I cost him a national championship,” Twine said with a laugh. “He influenced me to get into coaching. Seeing how he can relate to players and being himself around us made me want to get into coaching and help my community, because I see what he did for his.”
This article was published in the Jan. 5, 2018, Daily News-Record.