Not every athletic contest is the Super Bowl or the Final Four. Great games occur everywhere. There were some great contests, team efforts and fine people in NAIA tennis. I’m grateful I saw twenty-eight tournaments. Dick Gould of Stanford was the “Coach of the Era” (25 years) in the period of time I coached. No doubt he was the best.
But, our absolute best was Jim Verdieck, a competitor, the coach at Redlands University (California). 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.
I’d admired him and then befriended him. I need to write some of what I saw, one could learn a lot from Redlands and their coach. I asked him one time why he didn’t write about his vast knowledge. Our kids were about to face each other. He pointed to the court and said, “See that match. If you told me we could win that match if I’d write 200 pages, I start right now.”
I asked where, over his coaching years, the non-scholarship Redlands team would rank in California, including the Division I giants of USC, UCLA, Stanford, Pepperdine and all the rest. “Sixth.”
The teams wore national championship warm-ups. Only for Kansas City.
No one got to the courts before Redlands. We mimicked that too.
“But what if it dies,” I asked about his knowledge.
“If I die, it dies.”
He proved true to his word. Suffering a major heart attack, he was told he needed an emergency treatment.
“Not before Kansas City.”
Told he may die if he went, he boarded the plane.
He knew his business. Janice Metcalf, a fine California player, played #6 on one Redlands men’s team. It was early 1970 and there were no girl’s teams in the NAIA. I was on the rules committee that denied Coach Verdieck’s appeal for a substitute for Janice, who’d injured her knee after the substitution deadline. The rule was clear and Coach Verdieck accepted the decision.
He flew Janice out for her first round match, which she won easily, and then boarded a return plane to Redlands. Redlands University won the national title by that one point. When I asked Verdieck about that move he explained. “I’d figured the draw pretty close. I knew Janice could probably beat this kid easily, and told her to walk off if it was bad at all.”
Perhaps as impressive as Jim were his sons, Doug and Randy. Doug won NAIA singles all four years. He won the doubles, I think three times, twice with Randy. When Coach Verdieck was inducted into the NAIA Hall of Fame, Doug flew from Hawaii to introduce him. As Doug tried to speak, tears, not words, came. He backed out and tried again with the same results. Another attempt. The NAIA official next to him stood as if to relieve him. “No, dammit, no. I flew all the way from Hawaii to do this and I’m gonna do it.” Angry now – his level voice stated: “My dad is the greatest,” and sat down.
Coach Verdieck told me that three times he had lights approved for the university courts. Somehow the school procrastinated every time they said yes. Later he found out that when he’d tell his wife the lights were to be installed, she nixed the deal. She simply went to the administrators saying, “If you put lights up, he’ll stay there all night, and I’ll leave him.”
His roster included twenty-four players – a very large team. Not only that, each week every player in the top eight had a one hour private lesson with Verdieck. Sixteen remaining players got a half hour per week with him. This, in addition to team responsibilities.
Upon learning he’d retired at age 65, I called to congratulate him. He was within sixty or so wins of 1,000 wins. No one else is close.
“Did you consider staying until you break that barrier?” was one of my questions.
“No, I promised my wife if I got to 65, I’d stop. A deal’s a deal.”
Though he quit coaching he couldn’t give up teaching. I asked Coach Verdieck early on if he knew Dennis Van Der Meer. Not only is Van Der Meer the world’s most prolific tennis teacher, he was very close to my mentor, Jim Leighton. Verdieck said, “Know Dennis? I taught him 90% of what he knows!” When I asked Coach Leighton if he knew Coach Verdieck, he said no. I told him of the Verdieck comment about Dennis Van Der Meer. Leighton was appalled, and said he intended to ask Dennis about that! A couple of years went by and I asked Leighton if he’d asked about Verdieck. Leighton admitted that Dennis had responded, “Yes, that’s probably about right.”
In retirement, Verdieck worked with Dennis at Sweetbriar College, in the mountains of Virginia. I called Coach Verdieck and asked if I could hire him. “What for?” he asked. I told him I wanted to know more about coaching and that he was the one who I most respected. I’d been coaching 25 years at this point. Still not convinced, he argued that his knees had gotten so bad he couldn’t move enough to hit many balls. I replied, “Coach, I just want to talk with you.” He contended he didn’t talk much, but to come on and we’d probably be done in thirty minutes. My wife went with me and waited patiently for three and a half hours. “Tom, we have to set the babysitter free at 8:00 pm.”
You’re never to old to learn, and I learned a lot that day. When I became Director of Athletics the first thing I did was book an hour with five different athletic directors I admired. Dylan said you had to get up close to the teacher if you want to learn anything.