One of the great coaches I ran into along the way was a competitor. Redlands University (California) was coached by Jim Verdieck. Jim was the best at winning I ran into, in any sport. And he was already a legend when my team made its 1970 trek to Rockhill Tennis Club in Kansas City, home of the NAIA Championships.
Verdieck was a strong willed football – tennis coach. His teams won 12 of 13 NAIA titles, starting about the mid-sixties. There was a “one-foreigner” rule in the NAIA early on, so battles pitting Texans against Floridians versus Californians were heated. The coaches were tough. Clarence Dyer of South Eastern Oklahoma coached in twenty-two straight tournaments, finishing 2nd to 4th of fifty teams or so, every year. He never won. Why? Verdieck and Redlands. Unlike the NCAA team format, the NAIA featured a single elimination, 256 draw men’s (and later women’s) tournament. The draw separated team members from early on meetings, but a #1 player could play a #4 guy on your team at any time. It was vicious, the draw could kill you. Pressure caused many seeded players to wilt. Endurance was the biggest factor. To win singles and doubles both, a player had to win 8 singles matches and 7 doubles. Fifteen matches in five days. And match #1 began at 7:30 AM. Early on, you played three singles matches the first day if you won. Tired puppies, and sore bones the next day.
The number one tough coaching trick was to get college kids to go to bed at 9 o’clock for a week. “Morning acclimatization” was crucial. You were up at 5:00 am, hitting to shake the cobwebs loose. My sidekick, Russell Rawlings and I would pound on the local McDonalds’ door, begging for egg McMuffins and juice for the players. They’d play at six different sites early on, so to get them up, fed, crapped, and distributed was hair-raising for a Robbins redneck. Russell helped immeasurably.
It was magic; 7-6 in the third set everywhere, hamburgers and ice cream from the Rockhill Grill, throngs of business men on their lunch hour-watching youngsters from all over. Mostly, they wanted to see Verdieck and his Redlands team. Doubles was great, particularly the Texans and Okies teams. They seemed a lot like us, but could play better. I began to pick up what Verdieck was doing, and watching various great players from all over. It was like popcorn going off. Later, as an old coach having moved up to Division I NCAA, I’d tried to tell the new ones how much fun the NAIA was. And how good.
It’s true, there were very weak players and teams there. I took some of them. A draw that pitted you against Donne, Nebraska or Cedaville, Ohio meant you at least had a chance. And every kid got to play, often 3 or 4 or 5 days. If you won you got to play again. Each match won counted a point for your team and the team with the most points won. One point could make the difference in your team finishing tied for 3rd in the nation, or being 6th. Kids played hard. They got to fly on a plane. There was a great banquet with good support from the NAIA staff, college volunteers, and the people of Kansas City. Our kids were taken in by our “honorary coaches,” a program that used volunteer townspeople to help out. Joanie and Bob Mullet drew our team, lucky for us.
Once you had hosted a team you could be reunited by choice at the next year’s tournament and my sidekick Russell had made note of a big hill near their house. Russell had been born with a hip problem, he couldn’t run on it and it limited his ability to exercise. This was one of life’s cruelties, as Russell really loved sports. His limitation caused him a weight problem and he was a big boy. Later, he did go from 320 pounds to 160 pounds, or “two good-sized Orientals,” he contended. One of my true joys was watching him conquer obesity. He did love to eat. As we exited one all-you-can-eat buffet, the Kansas City proprietor whispered to Russell, “Sir, it’s okay if you don’t come back.”
I was puzzled one year at the pre-tournament picnic the Mullets hosted at their home. After the meal, Russell asked Mr. Mullett if he could borrow his bicycle.
“Sure”, Bob said.
“And your station wagon?” asked Russell.
Puzzled, but courteous, Bob agreed again, “Sure.”
“Come on coach,” Russell enthused.
The hill was a constant decline for about three miles and Russell sent me and the station wagon down to the bottom. He then glided all the way down the winding road to me and the wagon. We put the bike in the back and drove back uphill to the Mulletts. It was his first long bike ride.
Soon after, sans about 150 pounds, he rode his bike from Wilson to Morehead City, one hundred plus miles.