bleedCrimson.net Interview With Don Ball

bleedCrimson.net interviewed retiring Aggie men's and women's tennis coach Don Ball and talked about his coaching career, changes he's seen at NM State during his tenure, some of his favorite memories and advice for kids wishing to have a career in coaching.

bleedCrimson.net: Congratulations on your retirement.
Don Ball: Thank you. I will definitely miss working with the teams but there's part of the job that's kind of a pain in the neck. The paperwork. That I won't miss a bit.

bc.net: How was collegiate tennis changed over the course of your coaching career?
DB: The game has changed some but it's probably changed less than NMSU. The rackets have definitely made an impact. You can hit the ball much harder with less effort and I think the men's game, the talent level near the top is pretty much the same as when I started. The talent level at the middle and the bottom is much better currently. That makes it really really difficult to recruit. When I first started out, as a mid-major we used to go after the international players on a regular basis because the best U.S. juniors had no interest in New Mexico State, or any mid-major but especially New Mexico. They didn't know where it was so they weren't too excited about coming here. So we ended up recruiting internationally to a pretty serious extent when we could. We either did in-state or internationally. For the first four or five years I was here, that was what we did. And as time went on, now the best schools in the country are going international and we still have trouble attracting U.S. kids. We have a pretty good network of recruiting and have kept our teams at a very high level.

NMSU has changed a lot and the program has changed a lot. When I got here I think each team had two scholarships. That's a lot under the NCAA limit which for the women is eight full and for the men is four and a half. So you can see that we played with one arm behind our back for at least eight or 10 years at the beginning of my career here. We've been very fortunate with McKinley Boston's arrival, we've ended up getting more and more money so that we're reasonably well funded. I'd say for a mid-major, we can't complain. We've been taken care of very well. Our facility is one of the best in the country and that was something we kind of fell into. I was in the right place in the right time and I talked to the right people and amazing things happened there.

That's the key thing. The facility has changed. When I got here we had 20 courts, 10 of them were a skateboard park basically and the other 10, it was a public facility. We were competing with everybody in Las Cruces for court time. They had the most play in town, there's no question about it. In two or three years I was able to get it a little more exclusive in the fact that we had a membership. We actually had a building built and we were able to monitor the courts on a full-time basis. We got more access for the students and faculty and of course for the teams and limited some of the outside play and those who did play had to pay. That was probably the biggest thing that happened. And as we went along there, students decided they needed more parking about five or six years ago. They wanted our tennis facility. That's another one of those deals that you can't pass up. When the students want to come in and buy your facility and build you a new one. And they did and we were real lucky on that deal. We were able to build 12 fantastic courts with lights and a building. It's easily one of the finest facilities in the country.

bc.net: What has having the tennis facility done for your program. How have the benefits manifested themselves?
DB: Getting the facility, first of all it freed up a great deal of my time and my assistants' time. We were literally in a situation with the old courts where we were repairing them, because they had outlived their useful life, we were repairing and resurfacing them ourselves and that was insane quite frankly. We were very fortunate at that time because the courts were going to be unplayable very shortly. So that time factor has allowed us to be a lot more proactive in going after recruits. And having more energy, when you're not doing manual labor half of the time, you're able to focus on the team and it's paid off. Obviously we've got two very good teams. That's one concern that I don't have to worry about. I've got two fabulous assistants who have been named as the head coaches. They've got great teams and they're just going to go forward and get better and better. I can't wait to sit by and be a very interested spectator in watching the progress. I expect some really neat things to happen.

bc.net: What have Carlos Vargas and Ivan Fernandez brought to the program as assistants and what do you expect them for them to continue to bring to the program now as the head coaches of each respective program?
DB: We'll start with Ivan. When you do this you have to have a love for it. The first two years Ivan worked for us, this was a few years back, eight or nine years back, he came in and walked in our door and wanted to volunteer. The guy weighed 250 pounds and we kind of poo-pooed the whole thing. We're going, "This guy can't be a tennis player, he's too heavy and how's he going to help us?" He pushed the issue. He was there every day and began to help. It was obvious he could play a bit and it was obvious he had a very burning desire to be a tennis coach for his profession. Within a two or three year period he lost at least 100 pounds and was an unbelievable asset for us. He at that point actually took a job at Florida International as an assistant coach there and was getting paid. Of course we weren't paying him [as a volunteer]. From there he went to East Tennessee, he was a paid assistant and did a great job there and then came back when we had an opportunity to hire him. We always kept in touch, he was a fabulous guy. You could see his dedication at New Mexico State first of all because he worked for nothing. And he was qualified. He's only gotten better and better and better. He would be a good head coach for anybody. I'm thrilled he got the opportunity.

He will have a very very good women's team. He is an unbelievable hard work. He's got a fantastic rapport with the women on that team and he's going to build the program. It's not a maintenance thing that's going to be happening. He's not just going to perpetuate what's here, he's going to make it bigger and better. That's what you've got to be looking for and I'm confident that's what's going to happen.

Carlos has worked for me forever. Carlos has been an assistant here for 19 years in one form or another. He obviously is very talented or he wouldn't be here. He's been through the wars at New Mexico State. He's proven his loyalty to our program and to the university. I'm thrilled that Carlos gets the opportunity to jump in there. He has stepped it up in the last couple of years and has become a much much better recruiter. His team, we beat the No. 42 ranked team Hawai'i, who won our conference, we beat them here. We felt we underachieved a little bit and we still ended up in the Top 70. We're getting everybody back but one guy and so I expect this team to be easily Top 50 at the beginning of the season. The sky is the limit. We have another one or two recruits to bring in on that side. Ivan has completed his recruiting. Again, this is not "We need to keep this the way it is." This is, "We need to go forward and up" and I think we have two guys who can do that for us.

bc.net: Your teams have not only been strong on the court but they've also been very good academically. Talk about the success that your team has had in the classroom over the course of your coaching career.
DB: Number one, we're fortunate. Anybody who is in an individual or Olympic sport, traditionally they have to have unbelievable time management skills. Kids don't play college tennis unless they put in an awful lot of time in practice. This game is not something that you just pick up because you're a good athlete and then you're a starter at the college level. It's a slow learning curve and you have to put in a lot of time. You know what time management is about. That's what college academics is. It's being able to manage your time, know what's important and get it done. We literally from the first day of class to the last day of class every year are out there playing tennis or training or something. You can't play college tennis unless you do that. Because we practice so much we've always had the philosophy that if you need a day off, tell me. If you've got a class or you need to prepare for a speech or presentation or whatever, you've got it. We don't have to practice plays like football or basketball, it's one on one or doubles and we can certainly adjust if someone misses and not miss a beat and that gives us the opportunity to make sure that their academics are there. I'm pretty proud of what we've done academically. I don't think we've lost more than one or two players in my career to academics and I've certainly got a few who have been amazing, like Gustave Diep this past year. He graduated with a 4.0 in biology and chemistry, he's a special kid. Judy Kirk was one who had a 4.0 all the way through from an earlier team, probably 20 years ago or so she graduated. [Ed. Note: Judy Kirk was a First Team Academic All-American in 1989] We've had a bunch of very very talented kids both in tennis and academically.

bc.net: What are some of your most memorable experiences as the head coach?
DB: Well you know, I think the most memorable moments we had and it doesn't matter what year it is, is when we beat UNM. I don't know what it is, we have the utmost respect for UNM but we do get treated kind of like a stepchild. It's nice to beat them. By the way, we won both matches this year, the women and the men. It makes it a nice year to go out.

The memorable moments for me are the players. There are some very special players. Every kid out there, you have some good memories about. Sometimes they wash together a bit in a 25-year career. There are two very special kids off my first four-year teams. Par Sundquist from Sweden and Sara Peterson-Scott, both live in Las Vegas. They were two unbelievable tennis players, Par was as good as anybody in the country and Sara was as good a doubles player as any woman in the country. To have them on my first teams is probably why I fell in love with college tennis. The interesting thing is they're both very close and personal friends now and every year when we go to Vegas, they come to the courts. We go to dinner, either together or separately with their families and the scary thing is if I had stayed a few more years I might have had a chance to recruit Par's son to play, he's a fine player in his own right.

That is really, those are the special moments. The players are the special moments. We could go back and talk about tennis matches but tennis matches aren't nearly as rewarding as people. We've had some absolutely great people to go through here and have done some extremely good things, we've had lawyers, doctors, you name it. That's been the real exciting aspect of it for me. The real highlight is seeing the players grow up and then seeing them with their families and being able to sit down and kind of kibitz about what they did here.

bc.net: You've been at New Mexico State for a while and you've seen a lot of changes in your time here. What are some of the things that stand out to you in the athletic department over the past 25 years?
DB: I think started out in the High Country Conference with the women, which was a great conference, it was UNM and Colorado and it was like the old WAC but only not the women's side. On the men's side we were in the Big West and we were the one no one wanted to come play against because they didn't want to travel. It wasn't a matter of us being great or anything, they just didn't want to come play. They refused it. Literally would not even budge. If I wanted to play a conference match I had to play at their place. Then the women ended up in the Big West as well.

Moving from the Big West to the Sun Belt was a big move up, I'm sure the Big West people would cringe at that. But the Sun Belt treated every sport extremely well. I felt they held a great championship. I felt they were very receptive to every school's questions and wants and desires. That was a huge plus for us.

Moving to the WAC of course put us back in a region where we should be. I think those were the keys. The conference moves, I think it's been across the board for athletics, those were the most important things. Having the WAC be strong in the future is really critical for us. I think we're in a good place conference wise.

bc.net: What advice would you give to young kids or even college age kids who are contemplating a career in coaching?
DB: The first thing is it's not going to be very easy. Breaking in and getting a coaching job is very difficult. There are a lot of tennis players that come out and say, "I want to be a coach, that looks like fun." And it is, it's a great job. I'd say I have one of the best jobs a guy could ever have. But it's not just hitting tennis balls and coaching in the match. It's a lot more than that. There's a lot of paperwork involved. There's a lot of knowledge that you have to know about the NCAA regulations. The other thing is you have to be a very good salesperson. You have to sell your program to everybody. To your players, to your boosters, to your A.D., to everybody. Sales is the key. The best college tennis coaches may not be the best players but they're the best salespeople. They're good sales people because they have a product that they love. You've got to love it and you're going to have to pay your dues. There's a lot of people out there that don't want to pay their dues. They come out of college and go, "Well, I should get $50,000 to coach tennis." You're not going to get that. You'll be lucky to get $25,000 as an assistant coach IF you can find that job. Then you're going to have to work your way to a head coaching position. They're few and far between. People don't drop out of positions. Out of 300 plus college programs there's probably only 20 to 30 head coaching position that open every year. There's not a lot of opportunity. If you love it, you're going to put the time in and it'll all work out.

bc.net: What advice have you given to Carlos and to Ivan about being a head coach?
DB: I think the key thing is they earned their position. The tendency from the outside is to think, "Well they're the assistants to we'll move them up." Carlos and Ivan were qualified to go to any good tennis program in the country. They could, if they went out on the open market, would be hired. I'm trying to relay to them the confidence I have in them, the confidence the school has in them that they will get the job done. I'm sure they'll have doubts, we all have doubts. But that's the key thing. You have the talent, you have the knowledge and you will be successful.