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Lo, the poor palefaces
John Papanek
March 29, 1976
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
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March 29, 1976

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

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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.

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