It took a lot of wins and a lot of losses on the way to becoming the winningest men’s tennis coach in NCAA Division I history for Ron Smarr to realize that wins and losses weren’t the most important things.
“Don’t kid yourself,” said Smarr, 70, who will retire as Rice’s tennis coach at season’s end. “I want to win right now just as bad as I did when I was 25 or 29.
“But when you weigh everything, a 4-3 loss isn’t doing to change the world.”
There are ways, though, that a tennis coach can change the world, one break point at a time.
Back when Smarr was just starting out in coaching at Wingate (N.C.) Junior College (now Wingate University, a Division II school), one of his first players was a young player from Jamaica.
“He’d been a ball boy at Montego Bay Racquet Club,” Smarr recalled. “Showed up with one Jack Kramer racquet and a suitcase. Now both of his kids have graduated from Ivy League schools and his wife teaches dentistry at Columbia. That’s rewarding.”
Afterthe Owls were ousted in the Conference USA semifinals on Sunday, Smarr’s career record stood at 873-344. He ascended to the top of the list late last season, sliding past retired Furman coach Paul Scarpa (853-542-3) – and old rival from Smarr’s days at South Carolina – though frankly, the milestone escaped his notice.
“I didn’t keep up with it,” Smarr said. “That’s the God’s honest truth. When I got ready to get inducted into the North Carolina (Tennis) Hall of Fame (in 2011) they asked me for an update. I knew I was maybe in the top 10. Actually, it was a surprise to me.
“It means you’ve been coaching a long time. That’s basically what it is.”
A long, successful time. In 42 seasons, Smarr has had just two losing campaigns. He’s won conference titles in the old Big 8 Conference (at Colorado), and WAC and C-USA titles at Rice. His Owls are gunning for their 11th NCAA tournament appearance in his 15 seasons at the Houston school. Smarr also won a pair of national junior college titles at Wingate.
But with the wins and trophies stacked off in a corner of his memory, it’s the players he’s had come through his programs that he remembers most.
“I’ve been blessed not to have any bad kids,” Smarr said. “I’ve seen them grow up, get jobs, have familites. I’m still in touch with some of them from Wingate.
“In 42 years, .9991 percent of them have been very good guys. And some of them had to grow up, just like all of us.”
Smarr will be inducted May 23 into the ITA Men’s College Tennis Hall of Fame in a ceremony in Athens, Ga., right in the midst of the Division I Championship being held at Georgia. He’ll go in alongside Scarpa and former Clemson coach Chuck Kriese, another old rival from his South Carolina days.
But Smarr isn’t focused on that. He’s focused on getting his Rice team into the NCAA field in Athens.
Whenever his coaching career at Rice comes to an end, Smarr will leave satisfied in his legacy at the school. His replacement will be long-time assistant and former Owls player Efe Ustundag, Smarr’s hand-picked successor. And soon the Owls will be moving into an new $8 million on-campus tennis facility that will include six competition courts for Rice tennis players and eight more for students and club members.
“It’ll be a great thing for the community,” Smarr said, “and hopefully it’ll entice some recruits, too.”
Even as one significant chapter of his life closes, Smarr is one of those “on to the next thing” kind of people. Retirement will hardly find him idle. While he and his wife Becky are building a house in her hometown of Pamplico, S.C., Smarr will be making a regular commute to nearby Florence to serve as a volunteer coach at Division II Frances Marion. He may also be doing a little coaching at a local high school, to boot.
“When he asked me I jumped at it,” said Frances Marion coach Garth Thompson. “I’ve been doing this 20 years, but he’s been doing it twice as long as I have.”
Though Thompson was aware of Smarr’s legendary status, he said it’s almost as though Smarr is not.
“He’s very down to earth,” Thompson said. “It’s not what he’s accomplished, but what he can still accomplish. He’s always looking forward.”
The next season. The next challenge. The next chapter. Maybe that’s how you get to the top of the coaching heap without even really trying.