Going for Gusties
Wilkinson turns Gustavus Adolphus into tennis power
Posted: Tuesday February 26, 2008 6:09PM; Updated: Wednesday February 27, 2008 10:41AM
St. Peter, Minn., is a quaint town. Its few stores close early. Coming and going you have a better chance of encountering a deer than a speeding ticket. The people are nice. The weather is frigid. It is altogether ordinary.
But embedded in this town of barely 10,000 residents lies one of the most successful men's college tennis programs of the last 35 years. Since 1972, the program boasts an outrageously gaudy conference record of 328-1 (.997), two NCAA national team titles, six in doubles, four in singles, and you've never even heard of the school. The proverbial big fish in the land of 10,000 lakes, Gustavus Adolphus College dominates tennis at the Division III level.
On a typically cold day last month, the man behind the towering achievements stood on court six of the Golden Gusties's multimillion-dollar domed playground, the Swanson Tennis Center -- a 65-foot tall bubble complete with exemplary viewing, men's and women's locker rooms, a lounge/hall of fame, and eight adjacent outdoor courts for when the temperature creeps over water's freezing point.
There, on the only occupied court, a sexagenarian controlled a rally against a student less than a third of his age. Athletic and lean, Steve Wilkinson still moved nimbly around the court, his lustrous, silvery hair stubbornly refusing to flinch as he massaged another backhand slice crosscourt and deep into his opponent's corner.
The building in which he plays is a de facto shrine to past Gustavus teams, the trophies and pictures that line the walls tell its colorful story. In fact, the building's very existence is a testimony to Wilkinson's work over his 37 full seasons as coach -- a product of donations from successful former players whom, to this day, remain part of the Gustavus tennis family.
Since he came into the head coaching job in 1972, "Wilk" had a tough sell. Without the luxury of selling recruits on the picturesque location, like perennial foes Emory and UC Santa Cruz, or through the allure of scholarship money, like schools at the Division I and II levels, Wilkinson has had to work with players available.
Nearly all of his current team is local talent, from Minnesota or surrounding states, which has been put through the Gustavus tennis factory. Gustavus Adolphus College also lacks the academic draw of Division III contemporaries MIT, University of Chicago, Williams College, or Amherst. An Evangelical Lutheran liberal arts college, Gustavus Adolphus is home to just over 2,600 undergraduates.
After making standardized test scores "optional" as an application requirement, in 2007 GAC was listed as unranked in U.S. News & World Report's annual rankings. While Gustavus was still selected by Princeton Review as one of the Midwest's 161 Best Colleges, the school alone is unlikely to persuade a high school hot-shot that the blocky, prosaic Minnesota campus is the place for him.
"It's hard to recruit to a cold weather climate," Wilkinson lamented. "You look at the kids who are playing national tournaments from Florida, or California, or Texas -- we don't get those kids. Take Emory or Claremont-[McKenna-Scripps] for example, and look at the ratings of the kids they get. We're not even in the same ballpark."
Without the ability to reload each year with prized high school seniors, Wilkinson has found other means of pulling together nationally competitive. Chiefly, he undertakes a practices often overlooked in today's recruit-happy world of college athletics -- developing the players on his team.
"A lot of Division I coaches base their success more so on recruiting international players, and giving them scholarships than they do developing those players once they get there ... People recognize that when they come to Gustavus they are well-coached, and they get better during their time here -- we've got a track record to prove it," Wilkinson says.
Wilk has shown particular acumen in fostering successful doubles teams, drawing from his experience from his playing days at University of Iowa, where in 1963 he was Big Ten Conference runner-up in doubles. His teams have been feared for their high powered tandem lineups, and in the past five years alone, Wilkinson has coached 12 players to All-American status in doubles.
"With the right training, you can make a kid nationally competitive in doubles a lot sooner than you can do so in singles, and we've done it time and time again," Wilkinson said.
Perhaps the best example of this, albeit on a slightly larger stage, is alumnus Eric Butorac. Along with Great Britain's Jaime Murray, Butorac captured three ATP tour doubles titles in 2007 (San Jose, Memphis, Nottingham) and reached the round of 16 at Wimbledon.
Butorac, a 2003 graduate, transferred to St. Peter's crown jewel after playing a year and a half of Division I tennis at Ball State University. Burtorac's father, Tim, also went to Gustavus as part of Wilkinson's first recruiting class, and was an All-American during his time there. Eric asserts he too had always planned on attending, but when he produced better results as he aged, he decided to test the Division I waters.
"I actually really enjoyed my time at Ball State; it just wasn't the same experience I envisioned myself getting at Gustavus. I saw my Dad's relationship with Wilk, and I was like 'Wow, this guy is like a second father'. Wilk is like a mentor to my father, and when I didn't have that same experience at my school I thought 'I'm really missing out on something here'," Butorac said.
Asked if he thought he was sacrificing his game by transferring, Division III's only touring professional responded, "I knew it was a step down as far as the tennis, but at the time I had no aspirations of really playing pro tennis. I didn't really think that was even an option for me. I just wanted a well rounded college experience, great friends, and a mentor like Wilk to teach me not only about tennis, but about life."
When Butorac arrived, he had no idea his game would in fact flourish under the tutelage of Wilkinson. "Before I got to Gustavus I felt I wasn't enjoying my tennis as much as I should be, but once I transferred I couldn't wait to get on the court and practice -- and Wilk's emphasis on an attacking style really took my game to new levels.
Wilkinson's history in the coach role for Butorac began many years earlier, during the elder's annual Tennis and Life Camps. Alongside his wife Barb, Wilkinson runs 16 weeks of camps during the summer, hosting a hundred boys and girls aged 11-18 each week. For years they have sold out the sessions, and with each camper paying $490 per week, his summer camp income significantly supplements Wilkinson's salary as head tennis coach.
The idea for the camp came from Wilkinson's background as a teacher at the college, where he began before volunteering to coach the tennis team in 1972.
"I had been teaching religion and ethics, and I was particularly interested in bringing ethics together with a sports activity. I had seen it done in the Far East -- with the different codes that pertain to judo and other martial arts, and I thought that a similar combination of spirit and body could be an emphasis within American sports," Wilkinson said.
Likewise, Wilkinson's practices have been known to encompass progressive relaxation, breath awareness, visualization, and concentration exercises.
"When you focus on things outside of your control, like winning a match or grades in school, that's when you tend to get uptight because you can't control the outcome you want," Wilkinson said.
As Butorac put it, "Playing each week for pennies at futures and challengers events is tough to do," but remembering the Zen-like lessons of Wilkinson helped him stay focused. When I got out on the tour, I had a totally different approach than everyone else. Everyone else felt like they were expected to be there, and I was just out enjoying myself because I had that balance/"
In keeping with his "control what you can" axiom, some would say that Wilkinson has found something that he can control, and has repeatedly done so for his advantage -- certain variables within Division III tennis.
For years Wilkinson's teams have benefited from the lightning-fast Decoturf laid down at their facility, befitting the Gustavus mold of playing a big-serving and attacking game style. One player described the skidding, low bounces of the courts as, "like playing on glass coated with olive oil."
With a yearly rollover in national college rankings, Wilkinson's teams have also enjoyed the luxury of being "king of the hill" in remote Minnesota, scantly leaving their compound to play quality competition at the D-III level unless on spring break. Any team desiring to slay the mighty Gusties forced to endure a long commute and play in their house.
As NAIA and Division III Coach of the Year two and three times; respectively, Wilkinson has procured a fair amount of power in the college tennis world. In 2006, he decided to exercise this when he drafted a position paper advocating a change in the match scoring format. The essay called for a departure from the then seven-point system (a point for each singles match and another for the majority winner of doubles) used by Division I, and favored a switch to a 9 point system (where every match counts as a point).
The latter arrangement bestows far more weight on doubles, something that undoubtedly plays into the Gustavus wheelhouse. The argument against the switch was two-fold: An eight game doubles pro-set is not equal to a best of three sets singles match, and that such a format put undue emphasis on doubles and would increase the likelihood of fluke results.
At the annual coaches meeting during nationals that year, a discussion of the topic was planned. "It was basically Steve for the change, and the rest of us against it. It was obvious why he wanted [the rule change], he coaches great doubles. The whole thing is b------, and it's favored to him. Division III tennis is changing, getting much stronger, and he was protecting himself. It should be all about fairness, and there is nothing fair about that system. For a coach of that caliber to be on board with it... I think it tarnishes his legacy," lamented one coach present at the meeting.
Despite the resistance from the coaches of the nation's top teams, the proposed change was put to a full vote by the over 420 Division III teams. Wilkinson's paper ultimately prevailed by a large margin, perhaps by convincing the Division's bottom-feeders that they too could become the next Gustavus Adolphus under a new system. "We were very happy when they switched," Wilkinson offered.
During the first big test, at Indoor Nationals -- held in, you guessed it, St. Peter -- the system produced an anomaly. In the third-place contest between Gustavus and Emory, the Golden Gusties swept all three doubles matches, propelling them to an early 3-0 lead. Gustavus merely needed to post wins in two of the six singles matches in order to clinch the victory. Emory, however, swept all six singles matches and claimed a 6-3 victory. Not surprisingly, the nine point rule controversy would resurface again.
Having once again swept all three doubles points, the Gusties found themselves in a familiar situation during the NCAA quarterfinals against Williams College. In order to advance to the Final Four, they again needed only two wins. This time, however, things went Gustavus' way when then-sophomore Mike Burdakin clawed his way to a victory at 6-3 in the third set of the deciding match.
Still, though, they had lost four of the six singles matches. An effort that would've seen Gustavus sent home a 4-3 loser at the previous year's tournament had now landed them 5-4 triumph, and a trip to the Final Four. MVP? Wilkinson.
At the retirement-popular age of 66, Wilkinson's legacy is already assured. So after leading his team to 19 consecutive conference titles, 14 straight trips to the National Tournament, and having himself garnered the No. 1 USTA adult ranking at four age divisions, Wilkinson is stepping down as head coach. In the fall of 2009, he will relinquish the reins to assistant and 2002 Gustavus graduate, Tommy Valentini. While "Wilk" promises to stay involved at a "yet undetermined position", it is hard to believe a man so enamored with his life's work would stray far from his merited post as Division III tennis czar.
Asked whether he would consider moving to a more hospitable climate, Wilkinson responded, "No. Never. I believe we're put here to serve others, and I see my greatest opportunity for service to be here." Being a tennis player, here happens to be in the most unlikely of places, where snow canvases the ever-frozen ground seven months out of the year. Not exactly ideal, but Steve Wilkinson has made a career out of taking the ordinary and making it, well, Gustavus Adolphus' tennis, the ever-feared "Abominable Program" of St. Peter.