Photos by Hillary Ehlen
Head tennis coach Tom Wynne has seen the program change drastically in his four decades surrounding the sport in Grand Forks.
The game of tennis has brought Tom Wynne tremendous highs and lows. Wynne has been involved in or around UND and Grand Forks tennis for his entire life. A native of Grand Forks, Wynne played at UND before becoming an assistant coach and then head coach. He has held that title of head coach since 1986. While UND tennis has seen tumultuous times in Wynne’s playing and coaching tenure, he remains loyal to the sport and the university. So much so that he does not foresee stopping anytime soon and he believes he will be involved with UND tennis even after he retires.
“I can see myself involved in UND tennis even after the day I retire. They are always going to need advice or someone who can raise some money or whatever it might be,” Wynne said. “If I happen to move away and I’m around other players, I’ll say there is a good tennis program at UND.”
However, that day of retirement seems to be relatively distant from Wynne as we sit and talk in the UND tennis club room at Choice Health & Fitness in south Grand Forks. The team room, decked out in UND gear, logos and old photos, is a testament to the work Wynne has put into this program. Back when he played for UND and well into his coaching career, the university did not have a facility like this. Now, they practice and hold matches exclusively at Choice. “I remember we used to get into a station wagon and drive ourselves to the matches,” he said of his playing days. “We paid for our own uniforms at that time. So things have changed quite a bit.”
Wynne was no slouch on the tennis court either. He enjoyed a wildly successful career at North Dakota from 1975 to 1979. In that span, he won the North Central Conference’s singles championship once (1976), was NCC singles runner-up twice (1975, 1977) and qualified for the NCAA tournament in 1977 as well. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment for Wynne as a player was leading UND to an NCC conference championship in 1979. That was North Dakota’s first conference championship in 42 years. Wynne went on to play professionally in France before coming back to Grand Forks as an assistant coach for the tennis team.
It was in 1986 where Tom Wynne was given the reigns to the UND tennis program. He held that position until 1990 when some untimely news came down the wire. Tennis was being discontinued at the University of North Dakota. Wynne, who was a part-time coach at the time, was distraught by the decision back in 1990. “At the time, it was a very small part of my job. It wasn’t like I was hitting the panic button or anything like that. For me, I didn’t like the concept of an athletic team getting dropped,” he said. “Like SDSU dropped their tennis program last year and I don’t like seeing it. Ever since then, we are just trying to get to the point where we have a product that they don’t want to drop. But I remember it wasn’t a happy day for us. “
Obviously, tennis was reinstated, but not until the fall of 1998. Though it was only women’s tennis that was brought back, Wynne resumed coaching the team. This was still some 10 plus years before the school made the leap to Division I competition. However, Wynne was elated to see UND tennis back on campus. “I was excited about it. I wanted to see UND tennis again,” he said. North Dakota enjoyed some tremendous success after being brought back as well. Wynne led the team to conference championships in 2003, 2004 and 2008. The team also made NCAA postseason appearances in the final seven years of competition at the Division II level.
That is when UND and the tennis program embarked on their leap to Division I competition. For Wynne, it meant turning a part-time job into a full-time one. It also meant that he needed to be consistently concerned with the players he was bringing in. Lastly, it meant bringing back men’s tennis too. According to Wynne, when the Fighting Hawks looked to join the Big Sky in 2012, the conference required their member schools to feature both men’s and women’s tennis. Because of this, Wynne was once again head coach of the men’s and women’s programs.
“To be honest with you, when we were Division II, 90 percent of our recruiting was just who showed up at the door. Everybody would be from within a 200- mile radius of Grand Forks too,” he said. “As we came into Division I, it became apparent that there wasn’t enough local talent to even do well. So we had to expand our horizons, obviously. As you go on, you learn about different agents and recruiters and academies, so you get to know recruits through that. A lot of kids advertise on YouTube, so we go through that too. If you hang out long enough, you get to know other coaches and they show a kid who might be good for our team. We’ve done everything as far as recruiting goes. It will only get better from here on in.”
Part of that recruiting tactic requires tennis coaches to explore student-athletes overseas. Much of collegiate tennis teams are made up of products from different countries. North Dakota is no different, sporting student-athletes from eight different countries across both the men’s and women’s tennis teams this season. Wynne has not found it challenging to bring international athletes in. He has found it difficult to acclimate some of his international students to Grand Forks and the United States.
“I don’t really have any secrets to getting someone acclimated. It’s been my knowledge with the team that the kids that are international are a lot smarter than the kids we have in America. I don’t know if their education system is better or what, but we had four internationals last year that got 4.0 GPAs,” he said. “We had a kid from Belarus last year that wasn’t very good in English and I started thinking ‘if I went to Russia and try to actually go to college, it’d be really hard’. We have a girl on our team from Japan this year and they do have a TOEFL test that tests your comprehension, but she said she didn’t speak a lick of English when she came to the United States. I think she’s doing fine now though. We have a girl from Zimbabwe who had never seen snow in her life and I’m sure we have other kids where that’s something new for them. It’s definitely an eye-opener when they wake up October 6 and there’s snow on the ground. The hardest part is to get them here. But we practice in 70-degree weather every day, we try to sell the university and tell them about the facilities and how we play a tough schedule. UND treats them right so there’s a lot of good things to tell them. We sell them that they’ll be in the lineup and they’ll play.”
As Wynne alluded to, his tennis teams feature some of the most intelligent student-athletes on campus. The tennis coaching staff finds it imperative that academics be at the forefront of a student-athlete’s world. So much so that Wynne will hold players out of matches if their academics are not up to their standards. Wynne believes the UND athletic department holds academics in high esteem, which he reaps the benefits of as a coach.
“Most of the kids who play tennis take their academics seriously. Even when we were a Division II program, it wasn’t too much of a concern because everybody knew they weren’t going to be playing at Wimbledon. They knew they better do well in their studies and since we’ve added scholarships and gone to the Division I era, the players are a substantial investment and they’ve been given scholarships valued at $40,000,” he said. “They can’t have them just not be eligible, so they run lots of programs from study halls to having evaluations done halfway through the semester to also getting tutors and everything else. They obviously do have the concept of a student-athlete correct. I as a coach get updates on all that sort of stuff too. If a kid isn’t doing what he’s supposed to be doing in the classroom, we let them know and try to do what we can and most of them can turn it around. We’ll even take them out of tennis matches if we have to.”
Looking at his present situation with the UND tennis teams, Wynne remains excited. Tennis at UND has been given tremendous support by the athletic department since moving to Division I. This has provided Wynne with more scholarships, a beautiful facility to practice and play in and opportunities at the highest level of collegiate tennis. All of these things were a far cry for Wynne and his teams when he was playing and in the early days of his coaching tenure.
“We’re not fully funded yet, but we are at the point where we can scare some people,” he said. “What’s been my goal is when I do choose to pull the plug, we have somewhat of a tradition and everything is going in the right direction. A lot of times programs are dropped because they haven’t got any fans or alumni support. Those are all important and we do have people who come out to watch our tennis matches now.”
That day is still a ways away for Tom Wynne. His lifetime of service to the sport of tennis and UND is remarkable as it is. However, in speaking with him, you’ll quickly find out that he is not done yet, not by a long shot.