Brad Dancer admits he struggled to become a pandemic coach.
While tennis is one of the most socially distant sports, Dancer said he has still only managed to meet about 20 percent of the average off-season workload due to a late arrival on campus and the protocols in force. His players also simply haven’t spent much time together, missing out on opportunities to build team comradeship.
Dancer has used tools like Zoom to stay in communication, but the Illinois men’s tennis coach said he hasn’t been able to answer his players’ questions about getting back to a return to the game. And he just thinks he’s a much better personal mentor.
“I feel like I’m doing a terrible job, to be honest; Really, ”Dancer told Illini Inquirer. “I think coaching is so much about face-to-face interaction, being there in and in the moment. We can have all the Zoom calls we want, it’s not the same as being outside and being at the heart of things. I have learned that I am not a very good Zoom coach. “
A silver lining to the pandemic is that Dancer has been able to spend more time with his family. But Dancer said his wife, Haylie, and four sons even longed for him to get back to his normally busy schedule.
“I think they are probably ready to kick me off the sidewalk and see me go back to full power,” said Dancer.
Yet the pandemic did not only affect Dancer and Big Ten men’s tennis in the short term. Two of the 14 Big Ten men’s tennis programs – Iowa and Minnesota – will be eliminated from their respective athletics programs after the 2020-21 academic year due to financial shortcomings.
“I was really shocked in Iowa and just blown away by Minnesota,” said Dancer. “I think these are both very healthy programs with great technical staff. Minnesota has a tremendous history of success and community involvement in their program. So I think the best word is ‘shocked’. I don’t think anyone saw it coming. “
The cuts are worrying for men’s tennis, although Dancer said the men’s tennis community is not as concerned as the men’s gymnastics community. Iowa and Minnesota have also scaled back men’s gymnastics, cutting the number of Men’s Division I gymnastics programs to just 13 (including five Big Ten programs). Illinois coach Justin Spring is concerned about a snowball effect that could cause college-level men’s gymnastics to die out.
There are still hundreds of Division I tennis teams and a dozen Big Ten teams. But Dancer said coaches have been talking in recent weeks about how to keep more programs from falling by the wayside. The group has discussed two ways to help the sport: the first by cost-cutting measures of already relatively low program budgets and the other by increasing revenues, possibly through more broadcasts of college tennis matches on the Tennis Channel or the conference networks, such as the Big Ten. Network.
“I think we’re losing Iowa and Minnesota on a larger scale, we’ve had phone calls for the past five days to find out ‘How can we stop this or nip this in the bud?’ so you don’t start to see that the sport in general is unhealthy, ”said Dancer.
Like Spring, Dancer said Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman was extremely supportive, but also forthright about the situation of Illini’s athletics department and possible paths forward.
“These are remarkable times,” said Dancer. “Josh is great because he is so transparent and honest with everyone. He will be the first to admit that you really need to find creative solutions, and I think Josh is one who will keep doing that. I think that in Illinois – and I don’t want to come off as boastful or anything – but we have a great support group here of people from the community. So many people reached out to me this summer saying, ‘Hey, how can we help the program?’ which is really great. I think we’re really healthy here, but that’s kind of a microscope we’re in. “
Dancer is encouraged by the support the program has received from Illini athletics supporters and the community. The program offers some of the best facilities in the country. Late Clint Atkins, a passionate track and field supporter of Illini, funded the construction of the indoor Atkins Tennis Center, which was built in 1991 for $ 5.3 million. Shad Khan, a UI graduate who owns the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars and the Premier League’s Fulham Football Club, funded the construction of an outdoor extension of the Atkins Tennis Center called the Khan Outdoor Tennis Complex, which was completed in 2008.
The Illini have benefited from that support, with one of the better programs in the Big Ten and in the country. Craig Tiley, now the CEO of Tennis Australia, which leads the Australian Open, led the Illini to a national championship victory in 2003 and nine consecutive Big Ten championships from 1997-2005. Dancer led the Illini to second place in the NCAA Tournament in 2007 and the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament in 2008, and he also led the Illini to one Big Ten regular season championship (2015) and two Big Ten Tournament titles (2012, 2015). The Illini have made the NCAA Tournament in 24 consecutive seasons.
“I appreciate Craig (Tiley). He was the one who really stimulated the community around it, ”said Dancer. That said, Clint (Atkins) did his gift before Craig got here. So Clint built this beautiful tennis center and Shad (Khan) just expanded it and made it even better. I tell everyone all the time that we are spoiled for choice in terms of all the community support we have, and our Advantage Illinois fundraising group is doing a phenomenal job of keeping those people active in our program. I just think we have such a great infrastructure here. “
Dancer doesn’t expect the men’s tennis to compete this fall, even if the Big Ten relaunches the fall sport. Illinois has also had to stop and start workouts because of “some instances where we couldn’t keep exercising,” Dancer said. He said his players have kept busy in professional tournaments, which is quite common during the fall as players prepare for the spring season.
“It’s been really interesting because you’re trying to fill your days,” said Dancer. “You always want to feel useful and impactful in what you do, and I often feel like we’re spinning our wheels a bit.”
Dancer said he sometimes “felt very poor as a leader” during this unprecedented time for men’s college tennis. But he’s given some pretty good advice to his team: Embrace and cherish your chances of preparing for the moment tennis starts over – because he’s sure it will eventually happen in Illinois.
“All I think it changes with the path 48 hours later,” said Dancer. ‘I told them to be patient. There will come a time when we will be able to do what we do, and Illinois tennis will host professional tournaments and play against other schools. We look forward to that time. In the meantime, I think it’s appreciated all of our guys just for the opportunities they have to exercise every day. I know that sounds ridiculous because guys are usually against getting into the practice, but there’s definitely a different spirit right now, and I’m hearing that from coaches across the country. “
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