ULYSSES — Tragedy struck Ulysses High School and the entire southwest Kansas community and beyond Tuesday with the sudden death of Jason Kenny, the long-time athletic director and football coach at UHS.
Kenny died early Tuesday morning, according to long-time assistant football coach Jack Wolf, in a telephone interview later Tuesday. Kenny was pronounced dead at Bob Wilson Memorial Hospital in Ulysses. He died of unexpected, natural causes. He was 47.
“Gosh, he’s mentored all of us in the classroom and on the field,” Wolf said. “He’s gonna tell you straight out what you need to hear and it was always such great advice.”
Wolf, who has served as an assistant in football to Kenny for the entire 18 seasons Kenny was the head coach of the Tigers, said there is no replacing someone of Kenny’s stature.
“He’s gonna be missed and it’s gonna be a big job to take over on such short notice,” Wolf said of the upcoming football season and fall school year just a few weeks away. “He was well-liked by everyone in the community.”
Dave Younger, superintendent of schools for Ulysses USD 214, said everybody in the community was shocked at the news.
“We’re just operating in a haze right now,” Younger said in a telephone interview early Tuesday afternoon. “As good a coach and athletic director as he was, he was even a better husband and father. He has a terrific family.”
Younger, who said it would be some time before the school would formulate plans to have an interim AD and football coach in place, indicated the UHS football staff was a solid group of individuals.
“He has a great staff and we will get together at the appropriate time to make some plans, but right now our thoughts and prayers are with his family,” Younger said.
Younger had high praise for Kenny’s organizational skills as the school’s athletic director.
“The guy’s schedule was just unbelievably crazy, and he would do his darndest to be there and support the kids no matter what sport it was,” Younger said of Kenny. “I can recall our fall cross country meet, and Jason would push back the start time for football practice and encourage his football kids to go and support the cross country runners -- and he would do the same for volleyball and any other sports. He was just a great supporter of the Ulysses Tigers.”
Younger said the sudden loss of Kenny left him, the school and community stunned.
“You can’t express in words what the loss means,” Younger said. “He was such a positive influence on everybody here.”
Tim Hofferber, who will be entering his seventh season as the head girls basketball coach at UHS, and was hired by Kenny, said it was a sad day for the entire community and for anyone who had been touched by the veteran football coach.
“It’s a tragic day for all of us,” said Hofferber. “As an athletic director, he was able to wear both hats and do it equitably. He was a mentor both as an administrator and a fellow coach. He was able to walk that line and knew how to associate with you.”
Hofferber said Kenny just had that extra sense of knowing what to say, how to say it and when to say it.
“He knew what you were feeling and he always knew how to take care of you,” Hofferber said. “He was a mentor and friend and he was the kind of guy who would do anything for you.”
Hofferber said he was always impressed by the leadership skills that Kenny possessed and demonstrated every day.
“He was an excellent leader and was well-involved in the community,” Hofferber said. “He would always go help you find resources for your program. Honestly, he was just the foundation for all of the UHS athletic programs and for the athletes. He cared deeply about the kids.
“For me as a colleague in coaching, he was just a coach’s coach.”
Hofferber was with his own family in New Jersey when he received the news early Tuesday morning.
“It feels a little helpless here, but I’ve spent time on the phone with some of the other coaches and called some of my own players,” Hofferber said. “You’ll see a lot of people in the community coming together, and this is just a reminder that God’s plan is not always the plan we might have. This has shocked us all.”
Hofferber said he had just talked with Kenny a few days earlier about some of the summer programs in which the coaches had been involved.
“You just take a deep breath and realize there are more important things in life than athletics,” Hofferber said. “I think one of Jason’s great strengths was he taught everyone how to be a fighter and never quit. He brought that fight to all of the athletic programs at Ulysses. It will be a big hole to try and fill.”
Carlos Prieto, who now serves as the wrestling coach at Garden City High School, was on the coaching staff at Ulysses and was an assistant to Kenny for five seasons before departing the school.
“I spent a lot of time with Jason away from the field and he was certainly a mentor,” Prieto said. “I recently told one of my assistants that when Jason hired me, I told him that I really didn’t have much football experience, but he told me that he would rather have someone in the program that the kids respected.
“He was all about building relationships with kids and it was a great opportunity to work with him,” Prieto said. “I taught social studies with him and I’d always look to him for leadership and advice. I think he had a great relationship with all the coaches at the school.”
Another head coach/assistant coach who has served with Kenny for nearly a decade, Kyle Shryock, said Kenny just made things run smoothly.
“He was easy to get along with and he took time to mentor all the coaches that he had,” Shryock said. “He was very detailed as a head coach, very well prepared.”
Shryock said Kenny’s strongest trait as an athletic director was his ability to support the coaches in a variety of ways.
“He always would bend over backwards to make sure the coaches had everything they needed to be successful,” Shryock said. “He just made things work very well. Someone like Jason is irreplaceable.”
It was on the football field, though, where Kenny derived his own success as a coach.
In 18 seasons, starting with the 2000 season, his teams posted a 135-60 record, a winning percentage of .692. His teams reached postseason play in 15 of those seasons, with his most successful team coming in 2005 when the Tigers placed second in Class 4A, losing to Holton, 28-27, in double overtime, finishing with a 12-2 mark.
Four other UHS squads reached the state semifinals, all in a span between 2000 to 2007, each time coming up just short with a number of those coming against eventual state champions. His teams were 19-15 in the playoffs.
Kenny, a native of Sharon Springs, graduated from Wallace County High School in 1989. He was a 1993 graduate of Kansas State University with a bachelor’s degree in secondary education. He received his master’s degree in administration from Fort Hays State University in 1999. He served as an assistant girls basketball coach at Valley Heights while working on his graduate degree in the 1993-94 school year. He began his teaching/coaching career in Ulysses in 1994 as a social studies teacher and assistant football coach. He became the school’s athletic director in the 2009-10 school year.
Kenny is survived by his wife, Andrea, and three children -- Kali, a 2018 UHS graduate who will play volleyball this fall at Oklahoma-Panhandle State University; Koy, a sophomore-to-be at UHS; and Kami, who will be an eighth grader at Kepley Middle School. The Kennys had just recently celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary.