May 7, 2008
By Robert Davis
The news trickled in via text messages from Mumbai, India. Nathan Thompson and Ryan Young, two former Clemson University players, would be playing each other in the final round of a Futures tournament in the subcontinent. For Chuck Kriese, the good news could not have come at a better time, because his current Clemson Tigers players had just been whipped by Florida State without even winning a set. For the winningest coach in ACC history, the writing was most definitely on the wall.
If Coach Kriese thought that things could not get any worse, he was wrong. Two weeks later, a first round loss at the ACC tournament in Orlando to Virginia Tech and, just like that, it was all over. There would be no storybook ending to a once proud program that won eleven ACC Championships and produced thirty-eight All-American players.
While the record books will say that this year’s team will go down as the worst in his history, rankings and results were the last things on the minds of many of his former players and assistants in attendance at a recent farewell dinner in Kriese’s honor.
USTA National Coach Kent Kinnear, a former Kriese player, attended the event. “His impact has been and will continue to be felt all over the map. He has so many streams of influence that have impacted thousands: the players he has coached, the camps that he has run, the books he has written, the coaches he has mentored, and the list goes on. For me, what made him so great was his willingness to invest himself in others.”
In the early 80’s, Kriese’s star was fast rising, his teams constantly challenged at the top and he was named National Coach of the Year three times. He was also handed the reigns of the US Junior Davis Cup squad. What followed were appearances on the ESPN tennis instruction show Play Your Best Tennis and speaking engagements across the nation. He was even fictionalized and made the anti-hero in Bleeding Orange, a book written by former player Pender Murphy that depicted a grueling season under Kriese. And, in 1984, when freshmen Lawson Duncan played the NCAA’s singles final, few if any thought that it would be Kriese’s last trip to the final round of the big tournament. While his 1987 team made a strong challenge for the title, eventually losing to Stanford in the semi-finals, it would soon be obvious that Kriese’s teams had peaked. Like some sort of Shakespearean character, Kriese would rise and fall.
David Benjamin, Executive Director of the ITA (Intercollegiate Tennis Association), reflected on the great coach, “Chuck (Kriese) was a pioneer in the world of college tennis coaching in his emphasis on fitness and conditioning. His players were physically stronger and more match tough than virtually everyone else, and his teams’ results reflected his own intensity and degree of total commitment.”
Coach Kriese’s colleagues point out that the NCAA constant changing of rules hurt the Clemson program. While Kriese is quick to makes no excuses, and even points out how schools like Illinois and Virginia built programs through hard work and developing raw talent. He does admit with a touch of bitterness that the continuous rules changes by the NCAA had an adverse affect on his teams.
“When the NCAA imposed the twenty hour per week practice limit and the twenty-five match date restriction it hurt our team tremendously. Why? Because what success we had, we got by out working other teams. We played more matches than anyone else, and we often had players play as many as seventy or eighty matches per year. We were able to bridge the gap between ourselves and some higher profile schools with late bloomers athletes whose hunger and work ethic was superior.”
Throughout his career, Kriese has been called many things and not all of them flattering, but according to his peers, he was often misunderstood.
“Chuck was sometimes very unorthodox in his coaching approach,” says Jay Lapidus, men’s tennis coach of Duke University. “He was able to get the most out of the talent he had. From year to year, you could see his kids get better and they always won and lost with class. I honesty can never remember one of his players being disrespectful or dishonest in any way. In today’s college tennis world that is saying a lot, and is what I will always remember about a Chuck Kriese coached teams.”
What is obvious is that Kriese will be most remembered for what his players did after leaving his program. Forty-four went on to play professional tennis, and twenty-six became collegiate coaches, including current USTA National Coaches, Jay Berger, Kent Kinnear, Jean Desdunes.
Paul Lubbers, USTA’s Director of Coaching Education, also remembers Kriese, “Coach Kriese has become an icon in college tennis as a coach who believes passionately in tennis as a means to becoming a better human being. He really promoted the idea that tennis is a team sport and the idea of sacrifice and working for something more than one’s self.”
For as long as he can remember, Kriese always wanted to be a teacher. A math teacher, just like his father, that is until an internship under Harry Hopman set his heart on coaching. “Had I not worked for Mr. Hopman,” Kriese admits, “I am sure that I would never have gotten into tennis.”
Eventually, it would be the recruiting that would prove to be Kriese’s Achilles heel. “Last year, I was at (the USTA National Championships at) Kalamazoo, and I noticed all these coaches with multiple Blackberries sending out sms’s, mms, and plenty of b.s. When I began coaching, recruiting was exciting, then it became tolerable, and then it was just a plain miserable thing to have to do.”
‘At its best, (recruiting) it is rewarding that you found someone that grows well in the environment that you have provided for them. However, so very many times, your heart is broken repeatedly by lost recruits. There becomes a time where compromises with family should not be made over the benefit of recruitment of a player. It is that very fine line of commitment effort to the job that has wrecked a family and rewarded a team. Or wrecked a team and rewarded a family.”
Through it all, the highs and lows of collegiate coaching, Kriese remains grateful. “The beautiful thing about college coaching,” Kriese states, “is that you have an experimental lab where you can train guys for four years and see how the process impacts the product. There is nothing more powerful than a group of men working and suffering together for a noble cause, and to be fortunate enough to see it come to be.”
While Chuck Kriese will be leaving college coaching, he will not be leaving team coaching. He has been contracted by the Lawn Tennis Association of Thailand to be the national coach, which includes Davis Cup and Fed Cup. In addition, he will serve as Technical Director of the newly formed Southeast Asia Tennis Federation. Kriese has been charged with working together with the ITF and grooming both coaches and young players in developing nations like Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and East Timor.
Chaiyapak Siriwat, President of the Southeast Asia Tennis Federation is optimistic about Kriese’s future in Asia. “We believe that Chuck Kriese can unite and develop all of the talent and potential that we have in Southeast Asia,” he says. “Southeast Asia needs Kriese’s expertise.”
Back in Mumbai, Kriese’s was still on the minds of his former players, Young and Thompson. “After we shook hands at the net, we said to each other,” Young recalls. “This is for Coach (Kriese).”
Chuck Kriese Coaching Activity Winningest Coach in ACC History Top 10 in NCAA Career Wins 3 Time National Coach of the Year 11 ACC Championships U.S. Junior Davis Cup Coach U.S. Sunshine Cup Coach South Carolina Tennis Hall of Fame Inductee Tennessee Tech Sports Hall of Fame Inductee 38 All-American Players Coach of 4 National Senior Players of the Year 26 Former Players or Assistants in Collegiate Coaching 44 Former Players in ATP World Rankings 7 NCAA Elite 8 Finishes 13 Years as a Top 10 Division One Team
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