May 1, 2009

By Amy Farnum Novin

Gustavus Adolphus College longtime men’s tennis head coach Steve Wilkinson will be stepping down from the helm of the program at the end of the season, but not without leaving an unparalleled legacy.

Wilkinson, who has led the Gusties for 39 years, is the winningest coach in collegiate tennis history with a 923-278 record, but the two-time NCAA champion head coach is not only known for what his teams have accomplished on the court.

After beginning his career as a professor in the religion department at Gustavus in 1970, Wilkinson eventually combined his interest in ethics with teaching and coaching tennis.  To reach more than just the student-athletes in his program, Wilkinson decided to teach the concept during the summer, and formed the Tennis and Life Camps, where each year they serve 1,800 participants of all ages.
Wilkinson developed the philosophy called the “Three Crowns”, incorporating the school’s logo that symbolizes its’ Swedish royal heritage.

“These are three things within your control – emphasizing a positive attitude, giving total effort and good sportsmanship,” said Wilkinson.  “The central concept that kids that come through the program, and the summer camps, get is focusing on the things within your control and letting go of the things outside your control.  I think it really makes a huge difference in their approach to both tennis and life.”

The former University of Iowa tennis player has also been involved in numerous national tennis organizations, serving on the executive committees of the United States Professional Tennis Association, the Intercollegiate Tennis Association, and the United States Tennis Association.
Wilkinson cultivated a long friendship Arthur Ashe through these associations, whom he credits with a profound influence on his beliefs in the importance of living a balanced life.

“If you were to look at the national level for someone who personified what tennis and life was all about, I’d point to Arthur,” said Wilkinson.  

Wilkinson, who recently led the Gusties to their 21st consecutive Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title, has compiled a league record of 334-1 (.997), along with NCAA championships in 1980 and 1982.  

Although Wilkinson’s dedication to the program kept the Gusties on a consistently successful path, he notes that the competition has gotten tougher during his tenure.

“There are so many more high caliber teams in Division III than when I started coaching,” said Wilkinson.  “A lot more good tennis players are recognizing that the model of putting academics first and athletics second and thinking about going to a school where they receive scholarships not for their athletic ability, but for their academic achievement or financial need.”

Wilkinson will continue to work with the college as the school’s club team director, and will focus on fundraising to endow the college’s tennis facilities and coaching salaries.  This week, it was announced that Wilkinson’s assistant coach Tommy Valentini – a 2002 Gustavus graduate – will take the reins from his mentor.  Valentini, who is finishing his doctorate in sports ethics at the University of Minnesota, plans to lead the program in the model Wilkinson set for him and so many others.

"I am humbled and honored to have the opportunity to follow my coach and mentor Steve Wilkinson as the men's tennis coach at Gustavus,” said Valentini. “I am excited about continuing the tradition of Gustie tennis that means so much to so many of us. The example that Coach Wilkinson modeled for me as a player is what inspired me to pursue a career in teaching and coaching."

No. 10 Gustavus is hosting the MIAC Championship on May 1-2, which decides the leagues automatic bid to the NCAA Division III Championships.  The Gusties received a bye in the quarterfinal round, and will play the lowest remaining seed on May 2 in the semifinals.