'Always going': Matt Jednak's nonstop energy led him to UNC's fencing head coach job
In a life defined by quick pivot after quick pivot, the audible Matt Jednak called in 2003 remains his best one yet.
Some background: as a first-year at UNC in 2000, Jednak worked his way onto the varsity swim team as a manager and joined a club team on the side. He stayed until he contracted a serious case of mono, lost a step and started getting beat by 15-year-olds in pool races.
He spent his next semester on the crew team, keeping up on his cardio with 5 a.m. practices. And when he finally arranged a varsity tryout for then-swim coach Frank Comfort early in his sophomore year, he decided to celebrate with pickup basketball — “because that’s what swimmers do,” he said with a grin.
Mid-game at the Morrison Residence Hall court, an accidental collision and nasty fall promptly left him with a swollen right ankle the size of a grapefruit. He couldn’t even walk across the parking lot to the nearby student health buildings.
The final diagnosis, a grade 3 strain and tear, kept him in a cast, on crutches and out of the water for a few weeks. He then spent close to a year rehabbing his ankle back to ideal health, and it still wasn’t 100 percent.
All this goes to say: when a junior Jednak stumbled across a flyer for UNC’s varsity fencing program on campus — “Come try out for fencing. No experience necessary” — he considered himself overqualified.
“I just caught the bug,” Jednak, now the 38-year-old head coach of that very fencing team, said in his office last week. “I was in there to win it.”
How did he do it? The short answer is that he impressed longtime coach Ron Miller and his staff with natural athleticism, a 6-foot-4 frame that lent itself well to fencing with the epee sword and a legitimate urge to learn and grow.
The long answer — which also explains how he landed the head coaching job last April, replacing the legendary Miller — is that the man is nonstop.
After he made the varsity fencing team, for example, Jednak also joined a club team. And scheduled extra bouts with teammates. And took lessons. And enrolled in an intermediate fencing class on teaching the sport to others. In all, he estimates he crammed seven years’ worth of training into about two and a half.
If you take a look at Jednak’s career path, one that includes stops in the restaurant and tax industries, you’ll see that theme — quick pivots, laser focus, going all in — virtually everywhere. And if you take a look at where it’s gotten him, you can’t argue it’s not working.
“That’s the easiest thing to pick up on,” assistant coach Kevin Nadeau said. “Just massive energy. All the time. Always going. Which is awesome.”
‘Let me help’
The Jednaks have roots in Russia and Czechoslovakia. Matt’s father, a first-generation American, grew up in Ohio. And a young Jednak remembers moving four or five times before the family settled in the Charlotte area, his mother’s hometown.
But since third grade, North Carolina has been home.
He fell hard for all the state’s sports teams, but nothing outshone his UNC obsession — so strong that when he was a high school senior at East Mecklenburg, it was the only college he applied to.
“Looking back at it now, both as a parent and as a coach, I was an idiot,” he said.
Over five years in Chapel Hill, Jednak fenced three seasons on the epee squad and grew close with Miller. He also earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematical decision sciences and met Ashley Kellum, his future wife, whom he began dating as a junior. They’d later marry at the Carolina Inn.
Although Kellum, like most, isn’t the most diehard fencing fan — “I expected Star Wars, Princess Bride kind of stuff,” she joked — she’s always understood why her husband has long obsessed over it. The minutiae, the challenges, the decisions made on the fly: it all fits for Jednak, whom she describes as “very hands-on.”
After graduation, the couple spent four years in the Charlotte area before returning to Chapel Hill so Kellum could attend UNC grad school. Jednak, naturally, reached out to Miller. His message was simple: “Let me help.”
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“We didn’t have a lot of money to pay assistants,” Miller said. “He was willing to come back and give it a shot. We were much appreciative.”
Jednak spent his first year as a volunteer coach, working with the epee squad (his specialty) and strength and conditioning. He joined as a paid assistant the year after and eventually coached foil and sabre fencers, too.
For extra money, Jednak did part-time restaurant work. On normal weeks, he’d spend his mornings and afternoons with the fencing team and his nights at The Rockford in Raleigh, where he far exceeded the duties of his “bar manager” title. Kellum worked full-time, too.
“Crazy time for both of us,” she said.
Once Nolan, their first child, was born, they knew something had to change.
Jednak left the fencing program on good terms in 2014 — Miller wanted to pay him more and just simply didn’t have the funds — and transitioned into full-time restaurant work. A tough decision, sure, but one Jednak has never regretted.
“Family is the most important thing in my life,” he said.
‘This is home’
After he left his UNC job, Jednak spent a few “frustrated years” in the food service industry.
He had less work on his plate, technically, but he didn’t enjoy it. And since he primarily worked nights and weekends, he still found himself away from Kellum and Nolan more than he’d like. (Nolan, now 6, is a kindergartner and has a 1-year-old sister, Adelaide).
Things improved significantly about two years ago, when a friend reached out about starting a tax firm. Jednak passed the necessary classes, and soon enough, Old House Bookkeeping & Tax was up and running.
The work was fulfilling. The hours were stable. And Jednak kept his coaching chops up with occasional work at the Apex Fencing Academy, proving one can opt for both the pen and the sword.
“He never really left the sport,” Miller said.
The elephant in the room was Miller’s imminent retirement. He was supposed to call it quits after the 2017-18 season, but he offered to stay on for another year after the athletics department’s “convoluted” first stab at hiring a replacement failed, Miller said.
Jednak was quite aware of the opportunity in front of him.
“I’m in my lane doing my thing over here,” he said, “but there's a big piece of me that says if I don't apply for this position at UNC, I’m going to kick myself later.”
Jednak filled out the application, stressing over his résumé in the process, and pitched his vision: balancing of team and individual success, using analytics, coaching physical and mental strength.
UNC announced Jednak’s hire on April 4; his first day was May 1. The ensuing nine months have flown by for Jednak, whose team started its season in November and will compete at Northwestern, Duke and the ACC Championships this month.
"Everything we do is really intentional,” senior Jackie Litynski said. “He’s very good at critiquing, in a good way, the very small things that make a big difference.”
“He definitely keeps you accountable, which I really love,” junior Firoz George added. “I think accountability is such a key part of having a successful team. He’s there to push you ... what more can you ask for when you're an athlete, when your coach is really there for you?”
Jednak has more on his plate, sure, but he hasn’t lost his laser focus. During an interview for this story, to give one example, he answered questions for an hour, let a call go to voicemail (“You guys have my time”) and shot up to close his blinds, adjust furniture and move a picture frame when it was time to take a portrait shot.
Case in point: the attitude that took him from a novice fencer to a self-taught starter to the now-head coach at a Division I ACC program is still there. The task at hand still gets his full attention at an Energizer Bunny-esque level.
And, if Jednak has it his way, there won’t be another quick pivot any time soon.
“If there was another fencing position in the country, I didn't care,” he said. “It was here. This was the only place I ever considered coming back to. This is home. This is where I learned, where I met my wife. This is it. This place is it.”