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Ten years ago Rooney was more or less drafted to coach the first women's team at Fordham. He accepted any aspirant who could hold a racket. Since that maiden 2-3 campaign, the Lady Rams have been 172-24 against the likes of Vassar and Barnard.
Rooney is so inconspicuous a coach that he's practically invisible. If something works, he won't tinker with it. "I believe in coaching minimally," he says. "I'm a tremendous believer in a relaxed attitude in sports. I like people to work things out themselves. And I never yell. It's totally destructive. Do you follow me?
"I like my girls to get off the courts in an hour and a half. That way they can have dinner at a reasonable hour and still have time to crack a book at night." This emphasis on academics may account for his squad's collective 3.5 grade point average.
Having supervised the ball kids at the Open since the mid-'50s, Rooney was the logical man for the Virginia Slims people to turn to in the early 70s to assemble a crack cadre of ball girls. "The girls' aim didn't always match their enthusiasm," Rooney recalls with some chagrin. "They tended to throw the balls into the stands. Do you follow me?" He has trained the ball boys and girls for Madison Square Garden tournaments for 20 years.
To fill out the corps of 160 ball chasers for this year's Open, Rooney held tryouts for candidates from all over the country. They ranged in age from 16 to 28 and had to impress Rooney with their speed, agility and common sense. "For heaven's sake!" he says. "If they don't have any common sense, they'll ruin us." The ideal ball girl or boy is unobtrusive. Over the years a few "wise-guy kids" have become too visible, but Rooney is far too tactful to name any of them.
John McEnroe, he says, was a model ball boy. Rooney watched him hound balls for three years at Forest Hills. "I never had a moment's problem with Johnny," he says. McEnroe remembers Rooney lacing his sideline commentary with Latin phrases. "Res ipsa loquitur," Rooney might say after a service ace. That is, the thing speaks for itself, or "Enough said."
Mr. Rooney's quirky speech brought a mild rebuke from Fordham's new president this summer. "I just met you," said the Rev. Joseph A. O'Hare, "and all you want to know is whether I follow you."
It's all subconscious, Rooney insists. "I guess I want to make sure that I have people's attention," he says. "Do you follow me?"
Then, catching himself, he says, "There I go again."