Coach’s career comes full circle with return to Big Ten

Online Poster

By Amber Greviskes

It took just more than a decade, but Brad Dancer has finally made it back to the Big Ten.

Dancer, the associate head coach of the Illinois men’s tennis team, started his collegiate tennis career at Michigan State in the fall of 1989. This season, after traveling on the pro tour, coaching Grand Slam Champions and serving as the head coach of two other college teams – the Arizona women’s team and the Fresno State men’s team – Dancer has made his way back to the conference where he was a four-time All-Big Ten Academic honoree to work with the Illini. This week, he will attempt to lead the Illini to their third-straight Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) National Indoor Team Championship.

But Dancer has taken all of the transitions – from college athlete to professional athlete to college and professional coach – in stride. He is, he said, still the “small-town kid” from Mason, Mich., who began teaching tennis lessons in high school to help pay for his first car. Each summer for seven years, Dancer returned to coach the same group of boys – boys who would eventually win a state title before Dancer’s tenure as their coach was through.

“That was the breeding of me becoming a coach,” Dancer said. “I was really, really fortunate to be a part of that group.”

Throughout his collegiate and professional tennis career, Dancer would be exposed to many different environments and people who “kept feeding the fire” and made him want to become a coach, Dancer said.

One of those men, Michigan State head coach Gene Orlando, helped Dancer transition into college coaching. While Dancer was competing on the pro tour, he served as a volunteer assistant coach at Michigan State whenever he would return from playing on the tour.

“I’ve been a Michigan State fan my whole life,” said Dancer, whose parents and grandparents attended Michigan State. “Everything we did was green and white growing up.”

Now he has traded the Spartans’ green and white for Illinois’ orange and blue. The former and current members of the Illinois men’s tennis team could not be happier either.

“He’s exactly what this program needs right now,” said former Illinois tennis player Phil Stolt, who stayed with Dancer during the Northwestern Mutual/Wright Financial Group USTA Challenger in November. “He works very hard – just as hard as (Illinois head coach) Craig (Tiley). He’s eager to improve this program, eager to improve the freshmen. I see nothing but an up side to having Brad around.”

Dancer, who is known throughout the collegiate and professional levels for his intensity and love for tennis, has brought a new dimension to the Illini team.

“Brad is a great guy – he brings a lot of energy and emotion out there,” said Illinois junior Pramod Dabir, who won his Big Ten consolation singles title under Dancer’s guidance. “He definitely loosens things up and makes things more fun.

“You don’t feel the same pressure you do with Brad there.”

Dancer estimates that he is on the court for six or seven hours a day between practice and lessons. Unlike many coaches, though, who only shout words of encouragement from the side of the court, he can often be found sprinting alongside the men – and, more often, setting the pace.

“It’s motivating because you never want your coach to go out there and beat you and it’s tough because he’s very fit and he’s very in shape,” said Illinois senior Evan Zeder. “It’s humbling to have your coach go out there and beat you.”

Dancer’s day ends long after the athletes head home too. Once the team leaves the Atkins Tennis Center there are a few hours of recruiting work every day. There are clinics for the members of the Champaign-Urbana community. Most importantly, he is always available for the members of the tennis team, even when their concerns have little to do with tennis.

But, he said, the long hours are well worth it.

“Some of my favorite times are when we do social clinics here for the community,” he said. “You get a chance to really just be goofy with the little kids.”

Since Dancer’s arrival at Illinois this fall, Illinois junior Ryler DeHeart has already won one national title – the ITA National Indoor singles title, the first individual national title of his career – while under Dancer’s watchful eye. Dancer also coached DeHeart and sophomore GD Jones to their first ITA Midwest Regional title in October.

“We’re going to have more and more (success) stories like that,” Dancer said.

Watching both men reach new heights in their athletic careers is among the highlights of Dancer’s short Illini career. Following Jones’ progress since the U.S. Open, where he competed in the juniors tournament days after Dancer was named Illinois’ associate head coach has also been exciting, Dancer said.

Now that the fall season, which is focused on individual improvement, is over, the Illini have regrouped and are ready for team competition – which is where Dancer’s job can be increasingly challenging.

With six freshmen, the coaches have spent the majority of their time trying to correct bad habits and change techniques. But even older athletes have improvements that need to be made. It is Dancer’s goal to get the men to improve without shattering their confidence.

“We put them through difficult circumstances in practice and training and then show them a path and help provide a dream for them,” Dancer said. “They’re setting their sights on something, going after it and building confidence – that way when they walk out of here they are tremendously more confident. In the real world, there is a strong necessity for confident people.”

Dancer’s strategy has paid off in the past.

He coached Martina Navratilova to Grand Slam victories and has coached the Delaware Smash, a World Team Tennis team, to the league title in 2003. He has also worked as an assistant to Billie Jean King for the Fed Cup team.

“Brad brings a great deal of skill and expertise to our program. His experiences with the professional tour and World Team Tennis will be a great addition to our players,” said Illinois head coach Craig Tiley, when he named Dancer the associate head coach in August. “Each year our goal is to win a National Championship and with the addition of Brad to our program that will further our ability to do so.”

The Illini said they feel privileged to have a coach with so much experience and energy. Throughout the matches Dancer is hardly still for long. He is constantly scribbling notes about each athlete’s match. He picks apart the little details that few other people would notice. When one of the Illini wins a tight match, he is there, cheering loudly. If an athlete does not do as well as he would like, he waits on the court as long as the athlete needs, and reminds him to come back ready to play the next night, walking with “a swagger (of confidence).”

“He knows if your opponent has a weakness and what you need to do to improve your tennis,” Zeder said. “He’s as fired up as you are on the court. He may not show it necessarily, but you feel a lot of energy coming from him.”

As for Dancer, who researched the position at Illinois and visited the campus before leaving his head coaching position at Fresno State, he is excited about the unlimited growth potential of the Illinois program – although he will admit that he misses the California weather and mountain climbing in Aspen, Colo. – two of his former homes. He said he was excited about the opportunity to work with Tiley, making an impact on the team and becoming “ingrained in the community.”

“It’s such a tremendous feeling to walk on any Big Ten campus, but particularly, here at Illinois you see the Quad and the buildings; you get a rich sense of the tradition and what has happened here, whether it’s academically or athletically,” Dancer said. “It’s a very pride-inducing feeling to walk around this campus.”

Dancer is already well on his way to becoming a vital role in the “Illinois tennis family” too. He keeps in contact with former Illini, many of whom he has never worked with or had seen play professionally before this fall. He was among the many people cheering for the former Illini who competed at the Northwestern Mutual/Wright Financial Group USTA Challenger in November.

“It’s tough to put down roots,” Dancer said. “My initial intent when I got into college coaching was to be at one school and one school only and now, here I am this many years later and I’ve been at three different schools. One of these days, I’ll buckle down.”