My language gets me in trouble, but I already know I’m going to heaven
because God sent me Roland Thornquist.
About 25 Swedish men played for me. Ron Smarr, longtime 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” Thornqvist 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’s 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 two Swedes. It was
unusual for the NAIA team winner to have an American starter in the 80s
and 90s. Four “plain vanilla” Tar Heels were proud as punch. With Roland,
it was like having a tough big brother in a fight. He “buoyed” the rest of
us. He also was 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 Record 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, 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 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 Thornqvist. One set each. The puzzled commentators watched
Thornqvist as he spoke to the chair umpire. Then one commentator said,
“Well, you don’t see that every day.” Thornqvist 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. Roland won 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 Thornqvist
deserves the award. I move we waive the rule for one year.” Roland won
his third National Sportsmanship Award.
Dean Smith, Carolina’s legendary basketball 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
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’s school, the Kansas Jayhawks. Williams came back to Carolina,
and Roland did too. Carolina bolted into the top 10 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.