Former Illini leads Wolverines

By Amber Greviskes

Two years ago, Bruce Berque came to a crossroads in his life. He was already a successful associate head coach at Illinois. In 2003, he coached the Illini to the team, singles and doubles titles at the NCAA Championships and was named the Intercollegiate Tennis Association National Coach of the Year. Berque had helped build a dynasty at Illinois and watched as the Illini swept through the conference schedule each year.

On July 27, 2004, Berque made a decision that has already altered the future of the Big Ten Conference when he took the head coaching position at Michigan. Then he appointed former Illinois tennis player Michael Kosta to be his assistant. Now the duo is on a mission to return Michigan tennis to its glory days of the 1970s.

In just less than two years, Berque’s team is turning heads. The Wolverines beat then-No.25 Alabama at Alabama and then-No. 37 Rice at home. Michigan’s record is far from perfect, but the team has improved significantly since Berque took the reigns. This improvement has heightened the competitiveness of the Big Ten – a conference which was once the laughing stock of college tennis.

“The guys are actually starting to believe that we can beat these teams whereas before they didn’t really know,” Kosta said.

Although the Wolverines could not overcome Illinois’ execution and skill level, Berque – a meticulous, detail-orientated, bright-eyed coach – said he is excited about how the season has shaped up for his team that came in third in the Big Ten one year ago.

“I’m proud of our team; I feel like they competed well and were in the matches and did a good job and represented Michigan well,” Berque said after his return. “It’s nice to be back, it’s weird to be on the other side of the beating. But it is nice to be back.”

The Illini beat the Wolverines 6-1, but the match was much closer than the score indicated. Two Wolverines had match points in their singles matches that could have been converted to points for their team. Michigan was also up a break in the decisive doubles match, which, had they won, would have given Michigan the doubles point.

“I was proud that they didn’t get intimidated by the moment,” Berque said. “Because we’ve played such top teams throughout the year it isn’t such a novelty.”

If less than a handful of points had gone Michigan’s way, Berque would have walked away with a 4-3 victory over his former team.

Although the Michigan coaches’ return to the Atkins Tennis Center was not highlighted with a victory, Berque and Kosta both said they enjoyed their trip.

“It’s great to see so many faces, and so many friendly faces – no one was booing me,” Berque said. “I still think about my time here a lot, and I gained so much from it.”

The current Illini that Berque coached know that Michigan is already on an upward path, Illinois senior Ryler DeHeart said.

“We like to take a little credit for starting that, but it’s good,” DeHeart said. “You want more challenges and you don’t want to go through the Big Ten season feeling like it is a waste of time and that you’re killing teams. We’re at least experiencing some losses and know that every time we go on the court we are going to be challenged. It is not just a walk in the park.”

Berque is already putting his blueprint for creating a Big Ten powerhouse in place, crafting a tougher schedule, recruiting top athletes and demanding only the best from the current Wolverines.

The blueprint for a program may be similar to the way the Illinois program looked when Craig Tiley was at the helm, but Berque’s unique imprint stands out.

“There is no doubt that I learned a ton from Craig (Tiley) and walked away feeling like I was a better coach than when I came here,” Berque said. “I feel like I also brought a lot to Illinois. I didn’t come here as a complete novice, pick Craig’s brain and leave to implement (his design) at Michigan. In coaching, like anything else, you’re always stealing stuff from people you respect.”

Watching Berque’s design succeed has been exciting for Kosta, the Michigan assistant coach. As a 2002 University of Illinois graduate, and former professional tennis player, he was one year removed from Illinois when the team won the NCAA title in Athens, Ga. He and his teammates were part of the end result in Tiley’s plan for Illinois to take over collegiate tennis.

Now he is getting an appreciation for the work it took to turn Illinois from a team with only four wins to a NCAA champion in about a decade.

“The beginning part is the most fun, even though we might not have as much success early on,” said Kosta, a native of Ann Arbor. “The end result is just a product of hard work, every day, trying to improve.”

Michigan’s improvement is not only an advantage for the Wolverines and their alumni. The Big Ten, its athletes and fans will also benefit.

Illinois will not be the only Big Ten team to qualify for the NCAA tournament. Instead, the Illini could be joined by a number of other conference teams.

Ohio State, which is ranked in the top 10, should qualify for the NCAA tournament. Michigan and Minnesota could qualify as well. Wisconsin, which gave Illinois a scare Saturday, should improve in the future too, Berque said. The Illini narrowly defeated the Badgers 4-3 last weekend.

“In all the time that we were here (at Illinois) we were frustrated because it’s great to keep winning the (Big Ten) titles every year,” Berque said. “But it’s not good for the development of players to have a conference that is comparably weaker to the other conferences.”

For now though, the men’s tennis teams in the Big Ten conference are busy. With the conference championships taking place at the end of April, there is no time to think too far into the future or worry about last season’s results.

“I’m not going to say that we can’t win a Big Ten title this year, because you can’t count yourself out, but I don’t think that we’re the favorite,” Berque said. “But if we’re not going to win it, I would love to see Illinois win it.”