It will be hard to imagine an NCAA Division I Tennis Championship without the Southern accent and warm smile of “Big Jim” Russell.
An institution in collegiate tennis, Russell died on June 26. He had served as the head referee for the NCAA Tennis Championships for the past 20 years, as well as the referee for several other college tournaments during his lengthy career.
A native of Belton, S.C., Russell, 67, was a certified USTA official and long-time tennis volunteer and was known by coaches and players to always be fair-minded.
“Jim was a true Southern gentleman,” said Cathy Beene, Georgia Southern Senior Woman Administrator and chair of the NCAA Men’s and Women’s Tennis Committee. “He had an aura about him that could diffuse situations before they escalated. He had the respect of coaches across the country, and they trusted his judgment and to put the fires out. He was probably one of the best officials this country has ever had. He was so easy to work with and understood and knew the game very well.”
Beene, also a former head coach at Houston and Georgia Southern, fondly remembered Russell for his calming demeanor.
“He made the championships run much smoother,” Beene said. “He had a way about him … he had foresight to see things before they ever happened.”
Kristin Fasbender, an associate director of championships at the NCAA, spent the past five years working with Russell on the NCAA Tennis Championships.
“He was a great champion of the college game,” Fasbender said. “He had been refereeing the tournament since 1991 and was a wealth of knowledge. I always knew that if I had a question dealing with officiating, I could call ‘Big Jim’ and he would be there to offer assistance and guidance. I will miss his smile and demeanor on and off the court.”
Tom Jacobs, who currently works at the USTA in player development, oversaw the NCAA Championships as an NCAA staff member from 1993 to 2006. Jacobs will always remember the first time he met Russell, as the referee extended his hand and introduced himself as “Big Jim.”
“Everything he did was big,” Jacobs said. “He had a real zest for life and loved being around people. He had a real gift of making people feel important.”
“I don’t even know where the name came from … that’s how we’ve all known him forever,” Beene said. “To me, it was the size of his heart. He had the biggest heart, and he loved tennis so much. He had a way of bringing the group together and was a fun, fun guy and always had a big smile on his face even during the most enduring situations.”
During his career, Russell served on the boards of both the South Carolina and Southern Tennis associations, and was elected to the USTA Board of Directors for a two-year term in 1997. He had been inducted into three halls of fame, the South Carolina Tennis Hall of Fame (1991), the ITA Men’s College Tennis Hall of Fame (2003) and the Southern Tennis Hall of Fame (2005).
“There are definitely going to be some big shoes to fill,” Jacobs said. “He meant so much to so many people. There were so many things that he did behind the scenes that people don’t even realize, helping young people and serving as a role model and mentor for officials coming up through the ranks.”