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Coach Wins With Home-Grown Talent

April 07, 1998|DAVE McKIBBEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Conventional wisdom says that in order to compete with the elite of men's college tennis, a coach better recruit his share of foreigners. Other than Stanford, which has its pick of blue-chip U.S. recruits, the top 25 is composed mainly of foreign-dominated teams.

But there is another way to the top and a foreigner has found it. Illinois Coach Craig Tiley, who grew up in South Africa, has built his program around Americans.

"I think the spirit of college tennis is to provide opportunities for American juniors to further their career in tennis and to provide a minor leagues for them to do it," Tiley said. "Many of them don't have the opportunity and skills, so they could use college tennis to develop the skills. If it doesn't work, they still can get their degree."

In Tiley's first season, he won four matches. In his fourth, he led Illinois to its first Big Ten title in 51 years. Now in his fifth season, Tiley has the Fighting Illini ranked third in the nation, behind Georgia and Stanford. Five of Illinois' six starters are American and only one of them--Cary Franklin of Dunwoody, Ga.--was a top-20 recruit.

"More coaches should have the approach to stick with the spirit of college," Tiley said. "It's about coaching and player development. It's not a short-cut approach. The shortcut is to just recruit foreigners."

Tiley said it's easy to fall into that trap.

"The moment you add the pressure of winning into the mix, the whole direction begins to change," he said. "The coaches are under pressure to recruit the best players and many of them are overseas."

But Tiley vowed he'd never succumb to that type of pressure.

"I told myself that I'm going to recruit American players," he said. "I'm going to find players who are hungry and then I'll develop them. If it takes me five years, so be it. If every coach in America went that route, American tennis would dominate internationally."

Tiley said he is not totally against recruiting foreign players. He has one on his team--Oliver Freelove from Bromley, England, who is ranked 35th in the Rolex rankings in singles.

"I could easily recruit foreign players and have a pretty good team," Tiley said. "I have enough contacts. I played satellites in Europe. But it doesn't take any creativity to recruit foreign players and it doesn't take nearly as much work to coach them.

"I don't want to come off sounding like I know everything, and I'm certainly not going to tell an American institution who they can give scholarships to. But I'm going to work hard to recruit Americans. I'm working hard to develop another model that I hope some other coaches will follow."

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