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In the late winter of 1957 I was a freshman at the University of Texas in Austin. I was also a member of the tennis team. At 6'2", 245 pounds I was taller than most and, by far, heavier than anyone else on the team. I was, in fact, heavier than any of the 150-plus scholarship athletes then attending Texas, with the exception of a couple of ursine tackles who weighed between 250 and 260. I had inherited a large, robust frame from my grandparents and had put on considerable flesh through the weight training I'd been doing for 10 months or so and the almost embarrassingly large meals I'd been consuming regularly, both at the sumptuous table always set by my mother and in the kitchens of the many broad-built, food-loving kinfolk I had in and around Austin.
As can easily be imagined, the sight of me thundering around the courts was a source of considerable discussion in local tennis circles. Soon I was being compared to the legendary Carroll Chesson, a young man who had lettered in tennis in 1955 at what was then called Lamar State College of Technology (now Lamar University) in Beaumont while weighing approximately 550 pounds. Five-five-oh. According to the story making the rounds when I was in school, most of which turned out to be apocryphal, Chesson, whose family farm was located directly over a huge oil deposit, provided the Lamar Tech team with two Cadillac limousines for road trips. The part about the farm was true, but the only Caddy the team used was Chesson's own. Chesson was given an occasional turn on the No. 3 doubles team by Coach Lewis Hilley, who was understandably fond of saying that everyone wanted to pair with Chesson because his partner got a chance to play in the shade. When Chesson received his varsity letter, it was affixed to the largest sweater ever presented to an athlete at Lamar.
Although comparisons with—and tall, wide tales about—Chesson and various other dreadnoughts, human or otherwise, were amusing, I did take my tennis seriously. I was proud to be playing for Texas because I'd grown up in Austin hearing and reading about the tennis tradition at the school and especially about the ancient and revered coach, Dr. Daniel Penick.
The Good Gray Doctor, as he was known to everyone, had by then been the coach of the Texas team since the turn of the century. He'd learned to play as a freshman at Texas in 1887, and from that time on, almost without interruption, he was at the center of the growth of the sport in Austin and throughout the state.
Penick was a classics scholar, having earned his B.A. and M.A. at Texas and his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins in 1898, after which he returned to Austin to teach Latin and Greek at Texas. He also threw himself into efforts to gain university support for a tennis team and, upon succeeding, became the unofficial coach, serving without pay until 1940, when, at 71, he finally agreed to a slightly reduced professorial load and a compensatory stipend from the athletic department. He took the concept of amateurism so completely seriously that when he agreed to accept this modest remuneration for coaching tennis, he immediately wrote the United States Lawn Tennis Association and resigned his position on the governing board. His resignation, however, was not accepted.
In all respects his standards for his players and himself were high and firm. He insisted on white tennis gear, he allowed no play on the varsity courts on Sunday, and he absolutely forbade swearing, though he was not without a sense of humor about it all. Wilmer Allison, who won the NCAA singles title for Texas in 1927 and Forest Hills for himself in 1935, recalled before his death in 1977 that Penick approached him quickly after an explosive "Damn!" early in that championship collegiate season and explained in no uncertain terms that such language would not be permitted.
"An hour later," Allison remembered, "I missed another simple shot and said 'Damn!' again, and the Doctor told me straight off to go take a shower. 'Doctor,' I said, 'What am I supposed to say when I miss a shot like that?' He thought it over and said I could say 'Tut-tut' or 'Dear me.' In the shower I decided 'Tut-tut' didn't offer many possibilities and that I'd go with 'Dear me.' The Doctor always told me I could put more feeling into 'Dear me' than anyone he had ever heard."
Penick's teams won every one of the 10 Southwest Conference titles contested during his more than 50 years as coach, along with 27 of 41 conference singles titles, 31 of 41 doubles crowns, two NCAA singles championships and five doubles titles.
Penick also founded, and for years conducted, the university's Men's Glee Club, directed his church choir, taught Sunday school, served as president of the Southwest Conference from 1923 to 1935 and performed a variety of administrative functions at the university. He finally retired from the classroom at 85, but he was still reading Greek and Latin every day when I joined the team two years later.
When he told his athletes that they were to put their academic work before their tennis, he was most decidedly not giving that concept the lip service paid by many modern coaches. He meant every word of it, and we knew it. Texas is filled with the beneficiaries of his teaching and coaching. Dozens of Phi Beta Kappas lettered at Texas during his years there, and of the top four varsity players during my sophomore year, one is a prominent lawyer, one is a successful businessman, one is a doctor and one went on to a Ph.D. and an academic career.