Lo, the poor palefaces

The Sunbelt elite may have a lock on the NCAA championship, but Coach Brian Eisner and his pallid Michigan kids are out to tan their hides
March 29, 1976

It is late March in the subarctic clime of Ann Arbor, Mich. Somewhere under the melting snow, hidden as far from sight as the cyclotron on the North Campus, Michigan's someday-champion tennis team is working out: 12 players hitting and running in musty air and artificial light, playing tedious matches with each other day in and day out. They are merely killing time before this bunch of nice, pale, indoor kids from—heh, heh—the Midwest will come up against the suntanned elite from the palm-tree and court-laden worlds of every land developer's daydreams: California, Arizona, Texas and Florida. One of these years, if Coach Brian Eisner's relentless ambition has anything to do with it, Michigan is going to beat them all down. Which is like expecting the Brazilian national ice hockey team to turn the Russians to mush.

Since Michigan is associated with marching bands and fullback plunges rather than backhand crosscourts and overhead smashes, the notion that a university located in a region where the average school-year temperature is 39° and the snow can start falling in October will probably win a national championship in tennis before it wins one in football is slightly baffling. That is, until one runs down the 35-year-old Eisner, who can be cornered about as easily as a cockroach. He is in his office from seven till noon, at practice in the new Tennis and Track Building from two to five and at his own Liberty Racket Club from seven to midnight. The rest of the time he is dreaming up new ways to make tennis work in this winter wonderland—trying to get matches televised, creating crowd-drawing spectacles and arranging pro tournaments to raise money for his ambitious program. On weekends he persuades future stars of the game and their parents—particularly the parents—that a player ought to spend the most crucial part of his career at Michigan, for goodness sake.

Now, about that hockey in Brazil.

"Why not?" snaps Eisner. "Rink ice in Brazil is as good as rink ice in Moscow." Are we to suppose then that indoor tennis in Michigan is as good as outdoor tennis in California? "Maybe not as good as playing in sunshine all the time, but indoor tennis means the game has shed its geographical limitations."

Which is about half of a good point. Future tennis greats can sprout just about anywhere—of the top ten U.S. players, only three were born in the Sunbelt—but almost without exception they were quickly sent South or West, where the coaches and players are, to "get their potential developed." All but one of the top-tenners played college tennis in California, Texas or Florida.

Stanford Coach Dick Gould says, "The point is that California is where all the best players are. Kids there have so much varied competition. There are tournaments all year round, and within 100 miles of Palo Alto a kid can play against a hundred other players in his class or better. Even though indoor tennis has done tremendous things to the game, there's still too much tradition in California. The kids love it. They don't know what indoor tennis is."

Eisner will clear his throat loudly, nod affirmatively and proceed to explain why he can buck those odds, as though he were Custer explaining how he has Sitting Bull dead in his sights. "Look, nobody will ever win nine championships like George Toley at USC. Nobody will ever get the kind of talent he's had. Gould and Glenn Bassett at UCLA will always get top people. Arizona State, Trinity, Miami—there are so many players in those areas, a coach's problem is not who to recruit, but who to turn away. I have everything going against me: weather, facilities, money. How can I possibly compete with USC, Stanford and UCLA?"

Before one can supply the seemingly obvious answer, Eisner will do it for him: "Coaching."

He says, "In a situation like California, a boy who may have a tremendous lot of potential can get buried early and lose all his confidence. There are so many players there is little room for coaching. What I can do once I get my 12 players is give each one my complete personal attention. My players aren't off in Santa Barbara one day, Redondo the next. They're not at the beach or lying in the sun. They're working and I'm working. I'm developing a team."

Eisner's confidence and powers of persuasion are commanding. His aim, when talking to parents, is to turn every promise of fun in the sun made by his Sunbelt rivals into a threat. He is high on the strong academic tradition at Michigan and actually sings The Victors when high school seniors visit the campus on football Saturdays. He presents to the parents an impressive picture of serious tennis without the alarming prospect of California party life, and a resulting grade transcript full of incompletes.

"I make a sincere effort to indicate a real interest in the individual," he says. "I'm selling his parents a family, not a team. I tell them that there's a lot of winning at Michigan that has nothing to do with tennis."

This puffery notwithstanding, Eisner's strongest selling point is his record. In the last three years, Michigan has finished fourth, third and seventh in the NCAA championships. No other team outside the sunshine states has finished as high as third in 10 years.

Eisner has had to buck one obstacle after another since he arrived at Ann Arbor in 1969 after winning four straight Mid-American Conference titles at Toledo. Michigan was already the perennial Big Ten tennis power, a tradition begun in 1949 by Coach Bill Murphy. But the team had to practice on the slick hardwood of the Intramural Building basketball courts, no way to prepare for Michigan's second national championship (the first was in 1957, with Barry MacKay), or even a serious assault on the California teams that have won 25 of the 30 NCAA titles. By his second year Eisner had his team working at a new Ann Arbor tennis club, but the rates were high enough to give the athletic department nosebleeds.

Under extreme pressure from Eisner and a student and faculty community of 40,000 hungry for court space, the university built the $1 million Tennis and Track Building, an adequate though less than perfect facility. And in four of his seven years Eisner has taken his team on a California swing during spring vacation, "so by NCAA time, my players know that the California players are not gods on Mount Olympus."

Then there is a problem in recruiting, which Eisner approaches as aggressively as any Woody Hayes. The most recent NCAA legislation cut a tennis team's allotment from eight to five full scholarships at any one time. Moreover, the Big Ten permits only 80 scholarships for the seven nonrevenue sports during a four-year span.

In Eisner's first recruiting year, 1972, he stunned every other tennis power by corralling three of the very best junior players: Freddy DeJesus from Santurce, Puerto Rico, Victor Amaya from Holland, Mich. (via Puerto Rico) and Eric Friedler from Evanston, Ill. As freshmen, those three led Michigan to a sixth-place finish in the NCAA. The following year, Eisner grabbed a little-known junior named Peter Fleming from Chatham, N.J. The next two years Michigan finished third and fourth. Last year a back injury to the 6'7" Amaya, who has possibly the hardest serve in tennis, may have cost Michigan the championship.

But this year, when Amaya and De-Jesus would have been seniors and Fleming a junior, giving Michigan one of the strongest teams since Toley had Rafael Osuna and Dennis Ralston at USC in 1963, the championship is once more beyond Eisner's reach. Amaya decided he had played past all of Ann Arbor's competition and Eisner's coaching and turned pro. Fleming decided he belonged in California and transferred to UCLA, where he has emerged as the man to beat in college tennis this year. DeJesus concentrated too hard on tennis, and violated Eisner's strictest rule—studies first—and is now trying to get his grades up to law-school standards. He will probably miss the season.

Only Friedler remains, a Connors-quick 5'9" stylist, skilled and confident enough to beat any collegian in the country, the best of which are Fleming, San Jose State's Hank Pfister, USC's Butch Walts and Stanford's Bill Maze. Beyond Friedler, Michigan has unheralded though well-coached players and a good chance to finish in the top ten for the fourth consecutive year. And with two scholarships to give away, Eisner is hoping to get another first-class group of freshmen for next year.

Most other college coaches are little more than country-club pros. Their toughest task is putting high-gloss players on the court and saying, "Play." Not so Toley, the man who introduced the tennis racket to Mexico and has reigned for 22 years as the majordomo of tennis' fertile crescent, Southern California. "Eisner is a special kind of coach," he says. "He's a teacher, and a very aggressive recruiter. Unfortunately for him, the very best players need to be where many other good players are. That's why Fleming transferred and Amaya turned pro."

What then? If it is tough enough to get tennis players to come to Michigan, how are you going to keep them there? "First," says Eisner, "there is just no more room in the pros, except for the truly exceptional player. Second, I'm telling players they don't have to go to California to become No. 1 in the world. They can be No. 1 coming out of Michigan. All they've got to do is believe that."

What would make them believe that? "One championship," says Eisner.


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