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"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."