MENTORS (67) + JIM LEIGHTON (68)

In the mid-’80s I began writing a coaching manual. Maybe I’ll add the
next 20 years’ experience to that in a “tennis coaching book” later. If I do,
one person will be responsible: Coach Jim Leighton of Wake Forest
University.
North Carolina had, for years, featured the East-West High School All-Star
Games. The state added more sports, then girls’ all-stars, and the games
progressed. My team had just won a trip to the NAIA Nationals. We finished15th in the nation. The first tennis clinic held in Greensboro was an after-
thought. Coach Ira Norfolk was going to the basketball game, and I figured I’d pile in with him. My running buddy, Jack Hussey, was at the clinic, and
we were off. We were all over Guilford County and Greensboro as well.
Norfolk was in bed when I sneaked into the shared motel room very late.
The tennis clinic was the next morning. I knew Norfolk was awake because
he smoked 11 Viceroys before taking a morning trip.
I dragged myself out of bed just in time to make the 9:00 AM clinic at
Latham Park in Greensboro. There were four coaches there including me.
Coach Leighton rolled up with racquets and balls. He wore traditional
white, and it matched his hair. He looked just like Colonel Sanders. After
pleasantries and introductions he began speaking in a new language. Two
puzzled coaches left after 10 minutes. The other coach left at noon.
Coach Leighton was a master teacher, and my first introduction to
someone who was knowledgeable about the game. I was fascinated. One
of his players, Paul Caldwell, was with him. When the other guy left, leaving
only me, I was embarrassed, both by how much Leighton knew, and my own misjudgment about my greatness. I offered to abandon the afternoon
session. I was delighted and impressed when Coach responded, “Tom,
we’ve agreed to stay until 4:00. I can tell you are interested in learning. As
long as you’ll stay, we’ll stay.”
Our college offered $200 per year for “professional growth” at convention
trips. I never again spent mine on anything but my new mentor, Coach
Jim Leighton. He would try to refuse my money, but I’d have paid triple. I
was in his home, at his club, at his varsity practices, watching tapes on
everything from his current players to sequential pictures of Ellsworth
Vines. He had just completed Inside Tennis: Techniques of Winning. This
book, much of the information by Leighton himself, also included
contributions by Dennis Van Der Meer, Welby Van Horn, Chet and Bill
Murphy, Wayne Sabin, Pauline Betz Addie, and others. I loved Leighton and the book. I had so many questions. I’d schedule time in his Winston-
Salem home. We’d talk about the book, and with explanations by Coach Leighton, I felt like Moses on the mount.
The USTA held our annual teacher’s convention just prior to the U.S.
Open in Flushing Meadows. One year Jim and I made almost every session.
Every coach seemed to want to use his session to further his tennis
standing. At one session Leighton’s “bull” detector kicked in. A coach was
trying to sell a lame idea as the end of all tennis instruction; Leighton
politely questioned the man’s premise. The clinician sloughed off this old
white-haired guy’s puzzlement. Again coach queried, “I want to make sure
I’m understanding what you’re saying.” An abrupt, “Am I not speaking
plainly enough?” was his answer. Selling the same lame premise, the
clinician was startled when Leighton rose and stated, “Sir, you are
addressing the tennis teachers of America and beyond. Never have I
heard such a crock of baloney.” He turned to me and said “Get up Tom,
we’re getting out here!” I followed him.
One day at the New York host hotel he asked, “Do you want to hear
someone who knows tennis?” My immediate response was “Sure!” Coach
said, “Meet me in the lobby at 6:30 for breakfast.” I joined Coach and Chet
Murphy in a downtown café. Chet and Bill Murphy were Californians who
knew the biomechanics of tennis. I’d heard Chet Murphy as a clinician. He
seemed nervous but once the first technical question was asked, he was
off and running. This morning Coach Leighton did something I’d never
seen him do. He deferred to Murphy, asking questions the way I’d asked
him. And while there was great mutual respect, I’ve got to say Murphy was
impressive. I was all ears. This was a time when all kinds of research was
being done in tennis. I was pleased with the next question asked by Coach
Leighton, “Chet, how do you feel about what we’ve done?” (Meaning the old-time proponents of “classic” tennis instruction.) Chet thought a moment and said, “We should have let them hit more western grip forehands. Other than that everything was right.”
Coach Leighton was buried the day the Jimmy Powell Tennis Center was
dedicated at Elon, North Carolina, in 1988. The
funeral was in Wait Chapel on the campus that had
named their stadium after this fine man, coach, and friend. People say
you don’t have to play to be a coach. Or that you don’t have to have much
other than good players (“You can’t make chicken salad, until you get the
chicken”). I became a much better coach after meeting my mentor. I know
it made me money. I taught everyone in Wilson and the surrounding area
for years. I took Leighton’s advice and sought out private sessions with
Dennis Van Der Meer and Welby Van Horn. They couldn’t have been nicer
to me. As my ability to see broadened, I could connect to my own experi-
ences, while coaching college tennis for 40 years. I learned from television, professional tennis, coaching in 28 national team championships, my own
players, players from other teams, other tennis coaches, and coaches of
other sports. I learned particularly from Coach Jim Verdieck of Redlands
University. It would be unfair to omit Coach Verdieck. The following article
looks at this outstanding coach.

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