Thornquist and Sportmanship (22)

My language gets me in trouble, but I already know I’m going to heaven…I voted against George W. Bush, and God sent me Roland Thornquist.

About 25 Swedish men played for me.   Ron Smarr, long time Men’s Tennis coaching friend, and NCAA National Coach of the Year in 2004, got me started.   Ronnie’s “hand-me-down” letters included one from Roger Ossmin, of Linkoping, Sweden.   He had an interesting resume result: Bjorn Borg, beat him 6-3, 7-5.   He had to be pretty good to be on the same court with Borg, who was tearing up world tennis.   Many Swedes would excel in the post–Borg era.   They were bright, tough, attractive and understood team tennis.   They took me for a ride, Atlantic Christian and Elon, too.

“Thumper” Thornquist was beautiful.   All smiles, 6’6” tall, and just blossoming as a player.   People repeatedly ask me how I recruited him.   They assumed a gigantic sales coup.   Stefan did it.   A “pipeline” is a coach’s dream.   One kid begets the next.   Stefan Hager, a senior Swede, told me about Roland.

“He might come to Elon, coach.”

Roland didn’t like the junior tennis circuit.   It was lonely and required a lot of travel.   I always let the current Swede talk to their “recruits” in their own language.   Two minutes of watching Stefan eyes told me the conversation was going well.   He handed me the phone  . My great recruiting job went like this:

“Roland, we can give you a scholarship in the spring.”
“I’ll be there,” were the first words he spoke.

International recruiting is like “buying the proverbial pig in a poke.”   I always checked them out with the other kids. My deal was play hard, get your degree, and we’ll replace you with a countryman.   They felt a responsibility to the next Swede, whomever he may be.

I knew Roland was good, but when he lost the first three games of his first match, I gulped.   Not to worry!   Nerves settled down, he went on to win that match 6-3, 6-0. And the next 44 matches.   He lost three sets all year, won the NAIA Singles title and teamed with Stefan to win the doubles.   We had four North Carolina starters in addition to the 2 Swedes.   It was very unusual for the NAIA team winner to have an American starter in the 80’s and 90’s.   Four “plain vanilla” Tar Heels were proud as punch.   Roland was like having a tough big brother in a fight.   He “buoyed” the rest of us.   He was also selected as the “Freshman of the Year” in NAIA tennis.   And he won the NAIA Sportsmanship Award.   It was a dream season.   We were treated to dinner at the Governor’s Mansion in Raleigh. Jim Martin served as host.   We were cited in the Congressional Records, sponsored by Congressman Howard Coble of our District.

Roland was a potential pro and I knew it was in his best interest to move “up.  ” Still it was hard for us.   I think we both shed tears as he transferred to UNC Chapel Hill to play for Coach Allen Morris, a great player, and friend, and protégé of Coach Jim Leighton.

Roland was in the top two or three college players in America.   And, as a junior, he was also given the NCAA Division I Sportsmanship Award.   This award is a one-time award, but an odd thing happened.   Playing in the NCAA Division I Indoor Singles Championship in 1993, senior Roland was down a set to Georgia’s Mike Sell, a fine player.   This final match was on ESPN and Sell served a second serve.   Down 4-5, 30-40, it was a precious service break point for the set. The lineman called the serve out.   Double fault, set to Thornquist.   One set each.   The puzzled commentators watched Thornquist as he spoke to the chair umpire.   Then one commentator said, “Well, you don’t see that everyday.” Thornquist had overruled the linesman on his opponent’s behalf.   Roland told me he’d seen the ball hit the line and he couldn’t have returned it.   He gave Sell the point.   He did win the second set and the third.   More than that, he exemplified the best in sport.

At the Spring Coaches Convention, the question of the Sportsmanship award came up for vote.   It was noted Roland, though a logical candidate, was ineligible.   An unattached Coach rose in the meeting and suggested, “Men, we can give this award to anyone we wish, but Roland Thornquist deserves the award.   I move we waive the rule for one year.”   Roland won his third National Sportsmanship Award.

Dean Smith, Carolina’s basketball legendary coach found out about Roland and had him on his TV show.   Smith had himself won a rather significant sportsmanship award that year:“Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year.”

Coach Smith commented, “You know, I’ve never argued with the official to call that foul on us, rather them.   Roland’s one up on me!”

Coach Smith helped Roland get the women’s coaching job with Roy Williams’ school then, the Kansas Jayhawks.   Williams came back to Carolina, and Roland did too.   Carolina bolted into the top ten women’s tennis teams.   Roland then accepted the Gators job at Florida.   In his second year, his girls won the NCAA Division I Women’s title.

Roland has never failed to cite Elon…as a great place to start.

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