Tennis coach Bob Hansen consistently serves up national champs

Men's tennis coach Bob Hansen (photo by Carolyn Lagattuta)

Bob Hansen may just be the country's best-kept collegiate coaching secret.

OK, so maybe the godfather of the popular Nike Santa Cruz tennis camps is well-known around the Monterey Bay. And, yes, the one-time pro who notched career victories over Brad Gilbert and other top-100 players holds legend status as a coach in Northern California's hardcore tennis circles. He's most certainly known on the campuses of other Division III men's tennis powers such as Kalamazoo, Williams, Swarthmore, and Emory.

But as good as he is, Hansen obviously does not operate on the grand stage of a Mike Krzyzewski (Duke men's basketball coach) or an Urban Meyer (Florida Gators head football coach). The ESPN cameras have never come rolling up Bay Avenue in search of Hansen's office at the OPERS building.

Hansen is known first and foremost to the players who venture from far and wide to become part of his magical band of racquet-wielding Banana Slugs. They are his most lasting legacy. And he wouldn't have it any other way.

Thirty years after hatching the crazy notion of creating a big-time athletic program at sports-nonconformist UC Santa Cruz, Hansen also isn't about to stop.

"I'm shocked that I'm as crazy about it now as I was when I started," said the coach of the reigning national champions. "But I'm as enamored with the process as I've ever been."

It's been three decades since the kid from rural Woodland showed up to work on his masters at the politically charged campus on the hill and thought: Hmm, this could be a unique place to build a tennis empire.

Seven national championships, an ungodly number of Final Four appearances, umpteen Coach of the Year/Decade awards, 111 All-American selections, and a million love stories about teamwork, camaraderie, and life lessons learned later, Hansen may just own the patent on athletic program uniqueness.

The reverential tones in which Hansen's former players speak of him conjure some imaginary blend of John Wooden, Atticus Finch, and Yoda. He's the ultimate teacher and motivator, an even-handed voice of reason, and a bountiful source of wisdom.

"He has the ability to make you a better person, not just a better player," said Thomas Oechel (Cowell '01, psychology), who won the Slugs' first-ever NCAA singles championship in 1999. "Tennis is secondary to life and relationships with him. He loves tennis and loves winning, but he loves to see people change and grow and create stories. And he loves his family and players."

Oechel, who now manages a restaurant in San Diego, still hears Hansen's voice echo in his head often. Usually it's when times are tough and he needs to rally. That's when he'll hear, "Pressure makes diamonds, Tommy, pressure makes diamonds."

Brian Cummings (Stevenson '99, psychology, who teamed with Oechel to win a NCAA doubles title in '98) and Matt Seeberger (Porter '07, economics, who rewrote the Slugs' record book in 2006-07) are two of Hansen's best-ever recruits, and both happen to have experienced tennis at the Division I level, as well.

Seeberger came to UCSC looking for something different after being disillusioned with his experience with the men's tennis program at the Air Force Academy.

Cummings, a Soquel native, actually left UCSC after two seasons to play at Cal; then he saw the error of his ways and returned to UCSC.

Being away "made me realize what I was missing back at Santa Cruz," said Cummings. "Bob's program had a team-first focus, whereas most D-I schools focus on the individual results. Looking back, I'm so glad I transferred back because we ended up winning another national title that I will never forget."

Not surprisingly, Hansen's Slugs are at it again. Despite losing its top five players from last year's squad that topped Amherst for the NCAA team title (the players graduated), UCSC somehow managed to win the ITA National Indoors in February and procure a No. 1 national ranking. ("I'm still scratching my head," Hansen said.)

No matter what the cast of characters looks like each season, somehow Hansen reaches into his bag of tricks and pulls out a national title contender.

"Whenever I come back to visit, I am blown away at how Bob can continually create the magic that I myself experienced, over and over, with new players and new situations," Seeberger said.

Hansen chalks it up to the challenge of creating a unique team chemistry with each group, as well as simple necessity.

"At Division I, with more polished kids, it's more about recruiting," Hansen said. "With us, it's more about who takes the bigger steps and grows.

"In tennis more than other sports," he continued, "it's about grit and what's between the ears."

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