Men's Tennis Headline
GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- When Athletic Director Jeremy Foley went looking for a new Florida men’s tennis coach, the search began with a recommendation from his women’s coach.
Roland Thornqvist, who last month won a second straight NCAA title, put together a short list of candidates for Foley, but he really only had one name in mind.
“And he’s the best in the country,” Thornqvist said. “On the men’s or women’s side.”
The endorsement was for Bryan Shelton, a former touring pro who took over a ramblin’ wreck of a reclamation project at Georgia Tech and guided the Yellow Jackets women to a national championship -- the only NCAA title, in any sport, in school history.
Thus began a whirlwind courtship that concluded Thursday when Shelton was hired to succeed Andy Jackson and charged with the task of taking a UF men’s program that has reached the NCAA semifinals just twice in 80 years (failing to advance past the Round of 16 in eight of the previous 10 seasons) and moving the Gators to the next level.
Shelton, 46, is beaming with enthusiasm for the challenge before him.
“I think that Florida and Florida tennis speaks for itself,” he said. “In my mind, this is the best job in the country.”
It had to be for Shelton to leave Georgia Tech, his alma mater, for which he signed the No. 1 incoming freshman class in the nation, according to tennis publications.
As a player for the Yellow Jackets, he was a four-time All-Atlantic Coast Conference selection during the 1980s, winning league titles in both singles and doubles, eventually being inducted into the school's sports Hall of Fame. After seven years on the pro circuit -- and career earnings of more than $1.2 million -- he retired and turned to coaching in 1997.
In ’99, Shelton returned to Atlanta to take charge of Tech women’s program that had never even qualified for the NCAAs and was the dregs of the ACC. Eight years later, the Yellow Jackets stunned the collegiate tennis scene by winning the women’s crown in a sport dominated by Stanford and destination schools the likes of Texas, Georgia, USC, UCLA and, of course, Florida, fresh off a sixth title less than three weeks ago.
“I’m talking about resources. I’m talking about academics. I’m talking about the opportunity to grow and develop a program to the highest level; the opportunity to win championships and be successful year in and year out,” Shelton said. “This place is a gold mine.”
And UF officials believe they’ve found the right person to pan for and unearth the potential gem of a men’s tennis program.
“I don’t tell coaches how many games or championships they have to win, but men’s tennis needs to be in the hunt every single year,” Foley said. “Does that mean the Final Four every year? No. But when the season starts, you need to be one of the teams that has a chance to get there.”
That will be Shelton’s charge and Thornqvist knows first-hand what his longtime friend does not only as a recruiter but as a coach and tactician. He’s witnessed Shelton’s uncanny ability to work, motivate and adapt his players during matches.
“He’s the one guy, honestly, who can cut you up when a match is in progress; just a master technician when the ball is in play,” Thornqvist said. “There are a lot of good coaches who do good jobs maintaining their teams each week and have their players do the things to make them better -- and then there’s Bryan. He sees things, sees trends, and coaches his players through those adjustments. They trust him.”
Trusting a great women’s coach to his men’s program was no problem for Foley.
“Just calling it like it is, when you’re out there looking for a men’s tennis coach you’re not looking at women’s coaches, so Roland was a huge factor in even getting Bryan to the table,” Foley said. “Once he was at the table, he finished. He recruited us. His interview was spectacular. He’s got a plan, I love his plan. I love his background, which includes coaching a lot of good men. I don’t worry about that at all.”
After retiring from the pro circuit, Shelton worked two years as a national coach for the USTA, where Andy Roddick and Mardy Fish were among his pupils. He later became the personal coach for Malivai Washington, a 1996 men’s singles finalist at Wimbledon.
“I coach all different styles of play,” Shelton said. “I’ve got players who are counter-punchers. I’ve got players who are serve-and-volleyers. I’ve got players that are aggressive baseliners. The same things I’d be doing with a counter-puncher that’s a female are the same things I’d be doing with a counter-puncher that’s a male. We’re trying to develop an all-court game, working on developing the same tools and same type of mindset, and putting those into a game plan.”
Woven into those plans and mindsets will be sky-high expectations; and without much tradition to draw from when it comes to recruiting. Last month, UF wrapped up a 16-10 season by losing to Ohio State 4-1 in the NCAA Round of 16.
Jackson announced his resignation shortly after.
Thornqvist knows Shelton well enough. Expectations will not intimidate the new UF coach, who figures to have back a solid nucleus from the 2012 roster, including No. 1 singles player Bob van Overbeek.
“He completely understands. Florida is about performance. You not only have to have great student-athletes, you have to have great student-athletes that win matches,” Thornqvist said. “He will thrive in this environment, not because of any external pressures, but because of his inner drive and confidence. This is not a place for underdogs. Believe me, Bryan understands that.”
And he can’t wait to dive in.
“Absolutely,” Shelton said. “I think we can do some amazing things at Florida ... starting today.”