Even though he had been at the helm for three decades, Dennis Emery was never going to be the coach who held on too long. Emery wanted to leave the position he had held for so long of his own accord. He wanted to leave the position he had held for so long at the peak of his powers.
"I always wanted to go out on top," Emery said. "I never wanted to feel like there was any slippage in my performance."
In announcing his retirement as head coach of Kentucky men's tennis on Tuesday, Emery did just that.
In his 30 years as a Wildcat, Emery redefined the program he so capably led. He left Austin Peay in 1983 to take the job at UK, one that paid $13,100 per year without benefits, a dollar amount Emery says is "burned into my mind." Since then, UK has been transformed into a team to be reckoned with on a conference and national level.
Emery finished his last season with 655 career wins - 568 of which came at Kentucky - ranking him sixth nationally among all coaches. He coached his Wildcats to 23 NCAA Tournaments and won three Southeastern Conference coach of the year awards, the last of which came this past season, fulfilling Emery's goal of finishing strong.
Throughout the 2012 season, it was clear whenever Emery spoke that he felt he had a special group. With a pair of seniors in Eric Quigley and Alex Musialek leading a team Emery called the most talented he'd ever coached, UK completed a perfect SEC regular season, a feat unmatched in Emery's first 29 seasons. Postseason play would lead to a disappointing Sweet 16 loss, Quigley would help ease the pain by advancing all the way to the finals of the NCAA Singles Championships, cementing his legacy as Emery's - and therefore UK's - most decorated player.
Like his coach, Quigley, along with Musialek, is off to the next phase of his life. The departure of the senior duo leaves a void that will not be easily filled, but Emery isn't leaving because of the program's uncertain future. In fact, it's quite the opposite.
"I know we're losing (Eric) Quigley and we're losing (Alex) Musialek, who were two great players, two top-10 all-time winners here, but we've got a really good, solid foundation and a good class coming in," Emery said. "I feel great about the direction we're going. In fact, I'm stepping away now because I feel so good about the direction we're going."
The search for Emery's successor will begin immediately, a process Barnhart expects to move "fairly quickly."
Listening to and reading Emery's comments, it's hard to miss his use of the word "we" when referring to UK. Of course, it would be hard to blame him for reflexively calling himself a part of the school he came to call home, but in this case, the term still applies.
The retirement announcement was accompanied by the news that Emery will remain on staff as special assistant to the athletics director. Emery will of course maintain close ties to the men's tennis program, but his new role is based on the countless relationships he has built in the community during his time as head coach.
"If you talk to Dennis at any point in time and you say, 'I met this guy' and you give him a name he will say, 'Oh, I coached his son, or I coached his daughter. Or, I saw his child play,' " Barnhart said. "Sure enough, he has."
Barnhart will look to Emery to assume immediate responsibility in fundraising - an area in which Emery has already shown an aptitude - and in serving as a representative for UK.
"I think that there are a variety of things that I would hope and I think that he would absolutely thrive on," Barnhart said. "It's the ability to be an incredible ambassador for things that I can't get to all of the time, places we can't go and places we need representation. Really, really important. Two, fostering relationships with people that we have not been able to, at times, do as good a job as we need to do."
Barnhart was the one who first conceived of Emery's new position, but Emery didn't need much convincing.
"Going forward, when Mitch came to me, it's something I've always wanted to do, what he proposed to me, it seemed like what he was saying fit perfectly with the skill set I have," Emery said.
The fit may have been perfect and the timing just right, but the decision to move on was not taken lightly and it certainly wasn't made without emotion. In spite of his best efforts to avoid displaying that emotion in announcing the decision, a tearful Emery couldn't hide his feelings.
"I just feel like God has really blessed me over these 30 years to do what I'm doing and I'm doing it here," Emery said. "It's a very special place."
Emery has come to be a big part of what makes it special and one that isn't going anywhere anytime soon.
"We are fortunate as an institution to have the Emery family and to have specifically this guy be a part of us for 30 years, and what I would hope is 10 to 15 more," Barnhart said. "Somewhere in that range, but I mean it is his call. We've got a spot for him to help us become the university that we want to be. We know how much it means to him and we want to make sure we honor that, but more importantly take advantage of all the skills that he has and the love he has for this university."