George Acker stalks the Kalamazoo (Mich.) College tennis courts with a white kitchen timer cupped in his sizable palm. Occasionally he barks instructions over the steady thwack of balls against rackets, keeping various drills moving like clockwork. "Coach," yells a player running laps around several nearby courts, "I thought you retired as cross-country coach."
No smile. Acker doesn't have time for light conversation as he juggles two dozen young men on the tennis team at this Division III school. "My Hertz and Avis squads," he says, referring to his starting six players and his we-try-harder backups. Most of Acker's players did not play No. 1 in high school. He cuts no one.
On this spring day Acker is working with Andy Alaimo, a junior he calls his diamond in the rough. Acker yells across the net, "Feather it a little bit!" Then he mutters, "He has the touch of a dinosaur. But if you keep feeding it to him and feeding it to him, he'll get pretty good."
Acker's one-on-one work with senior Lewis Miller, who hits two-handed off both sides and thus had trouble volleying, has been especially rewarding. As a freshman Miller was not good enough to play singles. Now he is Acker's No. 1 player and the two-time defending Division III singles champion. "I really didn't feel comfortable at the net before," says Miller, "but Coach stresses making the most out of your game."
Acker's trusty kitchen timer isn't the only quaint piece of machinery he has depended on in his 34 years as coach of the Hornets. Last summer he finally gave up his ancient automobile, a 1976 Checker cab. It was a gas guzzler and had a gaping hole in its floorboard, but, says Acker, it was fine for getting around Kalamazoo. That boxy car and several others like it—gifts from David Markin, a former president of the U.S. Tennis Association and, since 1970, CEO of Checker Motors Corp. in Kalamazoo—had long been symbols of Kalamazoo tennis. (Alas, Checker stopped making cabs in 1982.) Every spring either a Checker "Aerobus" or a couple of Checker cabs would pull up at the tennis facility of a Division I powerhouse like Miami or Florida, and a dozen young men would leap out and begin unloading balls, rackets, water bottles and squeegees. Acker and his players have made a southern trip each spring for 35 years to help prepare for the upcoming outdoor season up north, but this year's trip was his last. The 64-year-old Acker plans to retire at the end of this season.
Acker is a conservative man. When you are the coach of the Division III national champion and your teams have 54 consecutive Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association (MIAA) titles, a string unmatched by any team in any sport at any school in the country, you are understandably reluctant to change your ways. Acker's achievements are so impressive that his fellow Division III tennis coaches decided that mere coach of the year awards didn't do him justice. In 1990 they named him coach of the decade.
Under Acker the Hornets have qualified for the NCAA Division III championship each year since the tournament was established in 1976 and have won the title a record six times. Last spring Kalamazoo defeated UC Santa Cruz in the final for the second year in a row. And Miller became the first player in Division III history to win consecutive singles crowns.
A streak like Kalamazoo's is usually the work of a uniquely committed person. The college has been lucky enough to have had two such people—Acker and Allen B. Stowe, who coached the Hornets from 1928 to '57. Stowe, a Kalamazoo grad ('20), returned to his alma mater five years after having earned a doctorate in chemistry at Clark University and eventually became head of the chemistry department. Although he was not much of a tennis player—few ever saw him lift a racket—he loved the sport and was an outstanding motivator. "He was somewhat frail, really not in good health," says Thomas Smith, who played for Stowe in the mid-1950s. "But he had a tremendous drive and will to win. People responded to Doc because he gave so much of himself."
Stowe coached the Hornets to their first 18 MIAA championships, a streak interrupted by World War II. It was Stowe who produced Kalamazoo's only famous player, Vic Braden, class of '51, who has gone on to enjoy far more success as a teacher and operator of a tennis camp than he did as a player. Braden had entered college as a pudgy, 5'6½" high school state champion from Monroe, Mich., and under Stowe's guidance, he won the MIAA singles and doubles titles as a senior. "Doctor Stowe had a scientific approach to tennis and was on the cutting edge," says Braden. "He saw tennis as a statistical problem; he came at it from the viewpoint of a chemist."
Many other well-known names in the sport—from Rod Laver to Jimmy Connors to Jim Courier—are associated with Kalamazoo for another reason, thanks largely to Stowe. He was instrumental in bringing the national boys' 18 and 16 tennis championships from Culver, Ind., to Kalamazoo, where the tournament has been held for 50 years. After Stowe's death in 1957, Kalamazoo's athletic director, Rolla Anderson, was handed the reins of both the college's tennis program and the junior nationals. In December 1958 Anderson hired Acker, who had been the captain of Northern Illinois's undefeated and untied football team in 1951 and the captain of the Huskies' tennis team in 1951 and '52. "Rolla was looking for a crazy football-tennis combination, and that's why it took a year and a half to find somebody," says Acker.
In addition to coaching the Hornets' tennis team, Acker served as the football team's line coach during his first 10 years on campus, started the school's now defunct varsity wrestling program and coached the cross-country runners for three years. He also was the athletic department's head trainer, and in 1979 he was made a professor in the department of physical education.
When Acker took over the tennis program, little, if any, recruiting had been done in the two years after Stowe's death. Although the unbeaten streak remained intact—Stowe's last team, undefeated in 22 dual meets, may have been his strongest—much work was needed to protect the record. However, on April 27, 1962, in Acker's fourth season, Hope College stunned the Hornets 4-3 to end their 27-year string of consecutive conference victories at 156.
"Dr. Hicks [Weimer K. Hicks, Kalamazoo's president at the time] called me into his office," says Acker. "I figured this was it. But all Dr. Hicks told me was not to get discouraged. He wished me luck for the rest of the season."
The Hornets won the season-ending MIAA tournament to salvage a tie for the title and maintain their streak of consecutive conference championships. Kalamazoo hasn't lost an MIAA match since.
Acker takes no guff from his players, but he has learned to share the burden of responsibility. "I used to be kind of a czar, a dictator," he says. "I found out after about 10, 12 years here that I could do a much better job if I had guys on my side. So we elect four captains, and when any problem comes up, the captains and I meet to discuss it."
To Acker, who grew up four blocks from Ronald Reagan's home in Dixon, Ill., that is as it should be. Acker's father, George Sr., ran the local gas station, and Acker, not one for flashy inspirational speeches, has tried to pass his father's traditional values and work ethic on to Kalamazoo students. Yet despite their great respect for Acker, from time to time his charges have tested him.
"The Vietnam War, the March on Washington, Woodstock and the Kent State shootings were in the forefront of campus conscience," recalls Bill Struck, class of '70, now a teaching pro in Okemos, Mich. "George struggled with long hair and anti-U.S. sentiment. He told me that his brother had died in the service and that he couldn't think of a more noble way to die than to die for your country. It was with fear and trepidation that I asked him to write the draft board and support my efforts to be classified as a conscientious objector. Months later, reviewing my file at the draft board, I saw that letter for the first time. He had written that although he disagreed with my view, he thought I was sincere, and he supported my right to believe as I did. I was deeply touched."
Jim Burda, who graduated in '87 and is now a teaching pro in Northbrook, Ill., says it is Acker's concern for his players that best defines him. "If you're getting bad grades or you skip a class, he cares," says Burda. "If you drink too much or you don't groom yourself properly, he's disappointed. Sure, winning is important—it is to every coach—but being the best you can be, on and off the court, is much more important. All four years Coach was my best friend. He was everybody's best friend, whether we knew it or not."