Ask the Experts
Adding to a Tennis Legacy: A Conversation with USC's Peter Smith
by Colette Lewis
, 24 June 2010
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Peter Smith completed his eighth year as men's head coach at the University of Southern California exactly the same way he finished his seventh, leading the Trojans to the NCAA team title.
Becoming only the third Trojan head coach since George Toley took the reins in 1954, Smith joined the program in 2002, following the retirement of Dick Leach, who had just captured his fourth NCAA team title. Toley won ten of the Trojans' 18 team titles in a legendary career that ended in 1980, so Smith knew expectations would continue to be high for one of the nation's perennial tennis powers. His extensive coaching experience prepared him for the challenge of following those Trojan icons.
Smith began his coaching career at his alma mater, Long Beach State, having returned to complete his degree after 15 months competing on the satellite circuit. As a four-year letter winner at Long Beach State, Smith was in the unusual position of coaching his former teammates while attending classes with them, but led them to three winning seasons before the program was cut. In 1992, he joined Fresno State, reaching the NCAA quarterfinals once and the Sweet 16 three times during his six years there. Moving to Pepperdine in 1998, Smith took the Waves to the NCAA quarterfinals twice, and under his direction the team finished in the top 20 all five years.
In addition to over twenty years of college coaching experience, Smith also has the perspective of a junior tennis parent, with three sons, ages 9 to 15, playing competitively. After the Trojans captured their second consecutive NCAA team title last month in Athens, I sat down with the 2010 Wilson/ITA Coach of the Year to get his views on some of the major issues in junior and college tennis.
Questions and Answers
Colette Lewis (CL): USC has always been one of the premier programs in college tennis. How do you view that legacy?
Peter Smith (PS): The one thing about USC that's so different from other schools is the expectation. I feel I've been successful everywhere I've been, but when I was at Fresno or Pepperdine, it was like playing just a normal tournament, and going to USC, it was like being at a Grand Slam tournament.
At first, that was easy for me, I felt that the first two years we had great years. We didn't have a very good team the first year, but we were still 20 in the country, and the second year we got to the (NCAA) semis, but in the third and fourth years we really struggled - after that fourth year, we didn't make the tournament. I really made some mistakes recruiting, and I had a lot of question marks around me. It hurt me that people would question me, because I'd done this for 20 years, I wasn't a guy who had just started, and it was really difficult on me. I realized that in sports, there's a really short memory.
CL: When did you realize that you had put together a special team, one that could win an NCAA title? PS:
I would say I found out that we were really special after we beat Ohio State
(to win the 2009 title
). You could see how shocked I was after that. Shocked because I had never won one before. The experience of winning an NCAA title is a lot. It is purely and simply overwhelming, so I couldn't be prepared for that.
It was a complete out-of-body experience, and to this day I look back and chuckle about it. It was very different from this year. Coming back this year, I really thought we could win every single match (in each dual). I thought that's how good we were. Nothing ever goes as planned and nothing's ever that simple, but we were smart this year. We kind of held back and held back and got everyone healthy, didn't rush it. We knew (the NCAAs) was going to be it, and we waited for that.