PEMBROKE — “Let’s do it.”
It’s what Dan Kenney needed to hear, what he wanted to hear, during a phone call with Allen Meadors, then the chancellor at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, on the Friday before spring commencement in May 2004.
After being told football was a no-go four years prior following an ad hoc study, UNCP’s athletics director was directed to begin work on a football feasibility study now that enrollment had surpassed 5,000 students.
“‘Do what?’ I had no idea what Allen was talking about at the time,” Kenney said. “The idea was put to bed when the board of trustees and former Liberty Athletics Director Chuck Birch told us it couldn’t happen without the students in 2000.
“Then things changed.”
Kenney contacted Buddy Sasser, the brains behind the birth of football at Coastal Carolina, and during the next six months, built the case for football before presenting their findings to the UNCP board of trustees.
“Our report was approved and the start of football began,” Kenney said. “They told me we could hire a coach in January 2006 and start having football players on campus the same season before beginning play in 2007.”
Led by Kenney, now UNCP’s chief of staff in the Office of the Chancellor, the football advisory committee began the tedious task of transforming ideas into reality and putting words into action.
The committee included Fair Bluff’s Carl Meares as the chairman of the board; Lumberton businessman Dick Taylor; Elizabethtown native Mac Campbell; Bob Caton, a local businessman and former football player at Florida State; former UNCP All-American Alphonso McRae; Math Department Chairman Steven Bourquin; Jesse Oxendine; and Jervais Oxendine.
“The university did a very good job of building a team and planning and they didn’t deviate from their plan,” Kenney said. “We created good habits. There were some surprises, but for the most part, we stuck with our plan.”
At age 8, UNCP football will host its first playoff game on Saturday, a reward for a nine-win regular season that included triumphs over Valdosta State, which won last season’s Division II national championship, and Winston-Salem State, the team Valdosta beat in the title game.
“It’s been a great ride and very rewarding,” said UNCP coach Pete Shinnick. “We’ve had a bunch of great players come through here and great coaches. The university had a vision when we got this thing started and I’ve been very blessed to carry out that vision. I’m very fortunate to have witnessed a lot of neat things have happened here the last couple years.”
Shinnick, whose late father Don starred 13 seasons for the Baltimore Colts, was an assistant at several stops during a 10-year span before becoming a first-time head coach in 1999 at Asuza Pacific, a private Christian university in Asuza, Calif.
A chance encounter with Kenney on UNCP’s campus long before applicant screening and the interview process began put the university at ease with one of its West Coast candidates. That 90-minute conversation altered the search’s direction.
“When I left him, I thought, ‘Wow, that was not anything like the perception I had,’” Kenney said. “In athletics, there’s this culture which I don’t necessarily appreciate that you just bombard a school with reference calls and letters and that’s how you get the job. We didn’t believe in that.
“Our head coach had to trust in our plan because we knew he was taking a leap of faith. He had to believe in the plan that was laid out. The proof’s in the pudding.”
Shinnick met with several of the university’s leaders during the first week of December 2005 for a three-day final interview. He was invited to join UNCP’s faculty full-time on Dec. 8 when Meadors gave his approval to the football committee’s hire recommendation.
Shinnick was announced head coach on Dec. 13, 2005.
“The pieces were in place to give me an opportunity to be successful,” Shinnick said. “I felt good about the university and what they were trying to get done with their football program.”
The football committee cycled through several offensive- and defensive-minded coaches before narrowing their focus on someone who encapsulated both and was a strong recruiter. Only a third of DII football players are on scholarship — a maximum of 36 at each school — and in Pembroke, the number is considerably smaller.
That makes for an annual numbers game for coaches whose signing classes are limited and picked from a pool of talented players several region programs also have on their big board.
“It was pretty difficult early, but not as difficult on us now,” Shinnick said. “We feel great about our brand and what we put on the field and we hadn’t yet established that back then.”
A 5-0 record against Interstate 95 rival Fayetteville State in the annual Two Rivers Classic has certainly helped the college football newcomer go into Cumberland County and grab players.
UNCP defensive end Devante Bush is the school’s all-time sacks leader, senior linebacker Fred Williams holds the record for total tackles and Quentin Pate is the Braves’ first four-year starter in the secondary.
All came from Cumberland County high school programs.
“We have great relationships with high school coaches around the state of North Carolina, especially locally,” Shinnick said. “We’re not just recruiting with words now, but we’re welcoming players to our brand. The coaches in this state, seven years in,know their young men are coming to a good home.”
Early, Shinnick’s recruiting tool was trust. He established a culture within UNCP’s 90-member inaugural class in 2006, but without any game action and not-yet-finished facilities, promises were just that. Shinnick wanted players who bought into a new system and understood the difficulties of being an infant football program.
Three years in, the Braves had placed their footprint on the local recruiting landscape, going into Fayetteville for several playmakers who contributed to UNCP’s first nine-win season in 2009. Before this year’s victories over a ranked team in a nationally-televised Thursday night opener and a blowout win at Division I Charlotte, the Braves’ biggest W came in 2011 when Shinnick’s group went into Jefferson City, Tenn., and beat power Carson-Newman.
Two years later, with Shinnick coming off his 50th career victory at UNCP, the Braves are 9-1 for a second time entering the playoffs.
UNCP’s averaging a school-record 5,258 fans at home.
“I’ve been blessed with how it’s all unfolded,” Shinnick said. “One of the greatest things that has happened here at UNCP over seven seasons is that we’ve averaged more fans every home game than our stadium holds. That shows how much this university, our students and the local community care about Braves football.”
Whispers from sources within the program began circulating months before the Braves’ first football signing day.
UNCP was close to luring an all-state quarterback from California, a kid who could make assistant coach Rich Kacmarynski’s offense a formidable threat during the school’s first football season in 56 years.
“We were excited,” Shinnick said. “And as it turned out, this guy was a great young man and eventual ambassador for our program.”
Matt Evans didn’t have dreams of grandeur on his 2,600-mile plane ride from Ventura, Calif., to North Carolina in 2006. He was just appreciative a start-up college football program was interested in him becoming its first quarterback.
“It sounded like something few people get to do,” Evans said. “The whole idea behind building a foundation for football in Pembroke pretty much sealed the deal.”
The star signal caller was coming off a 32-touchdown senior season for state champion St. Bonaventure High, which went unbeaten and climbed up to a No. 13 national ranking.
“Chancellor Meadors knew all my stats,” Evans said. “I knew I wanted to go play for him and the Braves.”
UNCP got in early on Evans thanks to Shinnick’s connection with Seraphs coach Jon Meck. The two built a relationship during Shinnick’s stint at Asuza Pacific, where several of Meck’s players found success.
Evans’ career as a starter was cut short four games into his freshman season following a neck injury, but he does have the program’s first touchdown pass and was the starter in its first win over Greensboro on Sept. 8, 2007.
“We really thought he’d be a neat fit in Pembroke,” Shinnick said. “He did a fantastic job and worked really hard during his career here. He’s one of the many great players we’ve had.”
Today, Evans lives in California, doing what he enjoys as a prep offensive coordinator and fitness trainer. He spent the 2010-11 college basketball season as an assistant for former UNCP strength coach Daniel Roose at Virginia Commonwealth and witnessed the Rams’ first Final Four run in program history.
Tucked away inside the Jones Center, first-year athletics director Dick Christy hasn’t stopped to take a breath during his first six months in Pembroke.
Working away from his wife, Windy, has been the biggest challenge. As a physician’s assistant in Raleigh, Windy visits on weekends before returning for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday shifts.
On Dec. 1, the challenges of a long-distance relationship will end.
“It’s been a blessing and a curse,” Christy said. “She’s been out of town most of the week work wise, so I’ve been able to burn the midnight oil and work some extra hours to move projects forward. My staff’s awesome and we’ve had a great response within the community, but personally, the transition’s taken a little longer than I expected.”
After inheriting nationally-relevant programs in football, wrestling and baseball, Christy has moved quickly in his efforts toward pushing the Braves into the region spotlight with enhancements to the gameday experience for students along with facelifts to several varsity sports.
While UNCP’s brand is still developing under its new regime, Christy’s job in directing the department’s ship on its continuing voyage toward DII prominence has been relatively seamless.
“Dick was able to come into a good place where the coaches have established their cultures,” said Kenney, who spent 14 years as UNCP’s athletics director. “We’ve got unbelievable high quality head coaches and he has helped supplement what they’re doing.”
One question Christy’s always asked is how soon UNCP’s football program will join a conference. The Braves have been in preliminary talks with the South Atlantic recently while conversations with the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association have cooled to a simmer.
Promoting the university, its academic prowess and success on the field against common opponents is the easy part.
“I wish that it was my decision because I’d tell you we’re really close,” Christy said. “But it’s not up to us. We’re doing everything in our power to describe why we would be an asset to a conference. We’ve had face-to-faces and sat down with presidents. We’re encouraged by the conversations, but we won’t be sitting in those rooms when it’s time to vote on us.”
Christy’s hoping he won’t have to endure the harsh reality of looking for a new head football coach once this season’s over for the Braves. Should UNCP advance deep into the playoffs, a sideline leader with Shinnick’s track record would be an ideal replacement for more lucrative openings.
It’s something athletic directors — at all levels — face every offseason.
“I won’t entertain speculation, but I thoroughly enjoy working with coach Shinnick and hope that continues for many years,” Christy said. “With that being said, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I wasn’t prepared for possible coaching transitions in every sport.”
Since UNCP was awarded a first-round bye on Nov. 17, the Braves have used a team effort of Christy, Assistant Athletics Director Scott Warner and several others to ensure a mass exodus of students during the holiday doesn’t affect Saturday’s attendance.
The dining hall is open throughout the week and dorms will not close.
“We want everyone to enjoy time with their families, eat some turkey and get back here for Saturday’s game,” Christy said.
Reach staff writer Brad Crawford at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @MrPalmettoSDS.
Pete Shinnick’s travel itinerary during his final interview at UNCP before being named head football coach on Dec. 13, 2005. This was obtained by The Robesonian through former athletic director Dan Kenney.
Saturday, Dec. 3, 2005
8:45 a.m. — Depart LAX on US Air 172
4:12 p.m. — Arrive in Charlotte
5:10 — Depart CLT on US Air 2426
5:56 — Arrive Fayetteville, picked up at Airport by Dan Kenney
6:30 — Check in Holiday Inn, Lumberton
Sunday, Dec. 4, 2005
12:15 p.m. — Tour of area neighborhoods
1:45 — Tour of UNC Pembroke Campus and Jones Center
3 — Meeting with UNCP Student Athlete Advisory Committee; Head tennis coach Robin Langley will chair the meeting
3:30 — Meet with UNCP Athletic Training Staff; Matt Lundin, Tim White, Bev Justice, Susan Edkins, Athletic Training Staff
6 — Back to Hotel
7 — Dinner with Dan and Mira Kenney
Monday, Dec. 5, 2005
7:45 a.m. — Dan Kenney Breakfast
9 — Meet with Jeff Bolles Strength and Conditioning Coach/Compliance Officer
9:30 — Meeting with UNCP Head Coaches; John Haskins Assistant AD will chair the meeting
10:45 — Meeting with UNCP Faculty Athletic Advisory Committee; Mike DeCinti and Mass Communication Faculty Member will chair the meeting
11:30 — Academic meetings
12:30 p.m. — Lunch with Dan Kenney
1:30 — Meet with Dr Tommy Thompson, HPER Chair
2:30 — Media and Photograph session, Kevin Rhodes Sports Information Director
3 — Meeting with UNCP Executive Staff; Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, Dr Charles Harrington; Vice Chancellor for Business Affairs, Neil Hawk; Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs. Dr. Diane Jones; Vice Chancellor for Advancement, Sandy Waterkotte; Vice Chancellor for University Relations, Dr. Glen Burnette; Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Management, Jackie Clark; University Counsel, Donna Payne; Associate Vice Chancellor for International Programs, Dr. Alex Chen
3:45 p.m. — Meeting with Advancement Staff about First and Ten Campaign
4:30 p.m. — Leave Campus for meeting with Football Advisory Committee, Eagle Distributing Company Lumberton; Wendell Staton will drive
5 — Meet with Football Advisory Committee
6:30 — Return to Holiday Inn
7 — Dinner
Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2005
7:20 a.m. — Check out of Hotel and drive to UNCP
8 — Meeting with Chancellor Dr Allen C. Meadors
9 — Breakfast at Chavis Center
9:45 — Wrap up meeting with Dan Kenney
10:15 — Depart for Fayetteville
11:15 — Arrive Fayetteville Airport
12:25 p.m. — Depart Fayetteville US Air 4377
1:15 — Arrive Charlotte
3:50 — Depart Charlotte on US Air 137
6:06 — Arrive LAX