Albers retiring after 31st national tournament to look for new challenges to conquer
May 8, 2014HOOSIER SPORTS 365
In the summer of 1980, Vincennes University’s tennis program had been defunct for five years, but a brand new small cluster of tennis courts had been constructed on campus and a desire among VU decision-makers to field a tennis program had resurrected itself.
It was time to add the human element to the equation.
Little did Vincennes University know, but the heart and soul of VU Tennis was about to walk on campus for the first time, in wide-eyed fashion. Now, 34 years and more than 700 victories later, those eyes are deeply experienced and have seen more Trailblazer court action than anyone. Soon, those eyes will peer into sand, sea and sun rather than court lines, windscreens and sun.
Ron Albers has announced his retirement from coaching and teaching at VU. The Trailblazer Tennis Team will make yet another trip to the NJCAA National Championship Tournament next week in Plano, TX, and Albers will become a part-time resident of Florida and a part-time resident of Vincennes. The seasons will dictate where he hangs his golf bag and where he works out.
“I’ve seen my last cold winter… I can tell you that,” Albers recently said with a grin but a determined tone when asked about his post-retirement plans. “I’m ready for the next challenge in my life. I admit that it’s a big step after 34 years in the same place and having the same routine day after day.
“It could be a weird feeling at first, but there’s a challenge out there for me to start taking on now that I’ve taken on this challenge (coaching NJCAA tennis at a powerhouse program) for so many years,” he added. “It’s going to be more about time now. I’ll do things when I want to.”
Albers will spend more time near his parents, who are full-time Floridians, and hinted that he may travel to visit his former players throughout the country, unless they come to visit him on the Florida Gulf Coast. In addition to adding to his total of 17 marathons or mini-marathons and honing his golf game with more time on the course, the coach said he will likely also “dabble in some tennis” in a pro or instructor-type role in the Sunshine State.
“If I play three days of golf, work out two days and go to the beach one day, that’s a full week,” Albers added with another grin. “I don’t want to pack it in too tightly.”
After all, working long weeks and cramming achievements and high production into each day have been the norm for the coach and his teams over three-plus decades. Last spring, the Trailblazers finished eighth in their 30th consecutive trip to the NJCAA finals at Collin College in Plano, TX. VU won the NJCAA Div. I National Tennis Championship in 2011. The Trailblazers got past perennial powers that had edged VU for the national title in the past. That national championship team had a record of 21-1 and its only dual match loss was at Indiana University, which was ranked 30th among NCAA Div. I schools, as well as being the runner-up in the Big 10 Conference that season.
The 2011 squad was one of Albers' top teams, but during the regular season, the coach wasn’t convinced the group could contend and win a national championship. But the title team clicked and peaked at the national tournament and Albers said it was at its best at the most opportune time.
"It was a team that, at times, struggled with finding its identity but during that week in Texas, there was a transformation; I would seriously consider what those guys did that week to be the pinnacle of team achievement,” he said, adding that this year’s Trailblazers, along with “eight or 10 other years,” are among his all-time favorite teams. “It was probably the best week of play any junior college team could have. Guys played better than they ever had and some showed a level of dedication and a new attitude that we had never seen from them until they got to the tournament."
In addition to guiding the Trailblazers to that 2011 NJCAA title, Albers has earned the three highest awards a junior college coach can receive. He won the Wilson Sporting Goods Intercollegiate Tennis Association Coach of the Year Award three times (1999, 2008 and 2011). In 1998, he received the NJCAA Tennis Coaches Association Hershel Stephens Coaching Award for Outstanding Service. In 2012, he was named the USPTA Midwest Division College Coach of the Year Award winner for the second time. Albers was also honored in 2012 as the USPTA National College Coach of the Year.
The youngest coach to be enshrined in the NJCAA Tennis Hall of Fame (1997), Albers was cited twice as the K-Swiss National Professional of the Year.
Albers has had more than 60 players earn more than 90 NJCAA All-American awards. Trailblazer players have won or shared 17 national championships. Those noteworthy names include Wynn Criswell (VU ’90-’92) who reached the NCAA Div. I singles finals in 1993 and 1994 and played on the men's ATP tour. He was the first former Trailblazer to play in the NCAA tournament.
Just as important, the Trailblazer Tennis program has achieved a 90-percent graduation rate during Albers’ tenure.
Retirement is full of possibilities for Albers, but his successful coaching career is the culmination of seizing possibilities when he was arriving at VU for his first job after earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Eastern Kentucky.
“I was fresh out of college and I came here to interview for the teaching position,” he said. “They asked if I was interested in the tennis coaching position and I never hesitated in saying yes. It was tough because it was difficult to get matches as a fledgling program. I was fortunate to find eight guys on campus with some kind of tennis experience and then no one wanted to play us, really.”
But Albers and those eight “players” (all of whom he can still name, along with the order in which they played that initial season) persevered, playing a schedule of what Albers calls “small schools” and he added proudly that the 1980-81 Trailblazers had “some success.”
As rudimentary as the program was while emerging from dormancy, Albers was a true believer in himself and his team.
“I never had any doubts; when I stepped into that role, I said to myself, ‘I’m going to do this’ and it was totally on me,” he said. “I love a challenge and I was actually very happy to take it on and try to succeed.
“Before we got to the first stage of having success and getting through the sub-region and region tournaments, it still wasn’t always pretty; it wasn’t even close,” Albers continued. “We were pretty much just fodder for Michigan and Ohio schools.”
Season by season, the Trailblazers got closer and closer to winning a NJCAA region tournament. In the 1984 season, VU finished second in the region tournament and qualified for the NJCAA National Championship Tournament, then in Ocala, FL. The Trailblazers scored only three points in that first national tournament appearance but, more importantly, Albers’ group got a taste of national winning and exposure.
At that point, VU Tennis developed a new program-wide goal, Albers said. Following that trip to Ocala, the Trailblazers set their sights on dominating the region tournament and being competitive annually at the national tournament. The mission was accomplished quickly. The Trailblazers have been close to national title territory on other occasions besides 2011 and a shot made here or there or a point going the other way would have been paramount in putting VU in perfect position to hoist other NJCAA championship trophies.
Despite having some hurdles such as “recruiting in a way that was like trying to eat steak on a burger budget,” the Trailblazers made a habit throughout the next three decades of finding players who “fit in and buy in,” Albers said. “We are a small town in southwestern Indiana and the marquee players (coaches are attempting to recruit) want to go where it’s warm all year.”
However, VU landed a good number of “marquee players” and the Albers-led program even made a name for itself beyond the nation’s borders by luring highly-talented international players to Vincennes. Albers established a “Swedish connection” with the help of American transplant David Bandelin who relocated to Sweden and became Albers’ eyes and ears on the Swedish courts. As with players from domestic soil, the coach was looking for talent, but also moral fiber in the players that came across his international radar screen.
The first acclaimed international name to commit to Albers was Daniel Winzenried of Sweden, who arrived in 1984-85 and touched off a long series of international greats who started their collegiate tennis careers at VU. Winzenried not only had talent, but a wealth of character, Albers said.
“Daniel was one of the most gracious, thankful young men I’ve ever met,” the coach said. “Between Winzenried and (current Trailblazer) Warren Kuhn, we’ve had no two finer young men to bookend and represent my International recruitmentthan those two as student-athletes and people. We’ve been very fortunate to get those young men here, especially when they’re paying their own way and experiencing a change in culture.”
Like most successful mentors, Albers – who played tennis and golf and wrestled in high school, then wrestled in college – drew upon his own competitive experiences from high school and college to form his approach and philosophy on the job.
“All that taught me a lot about coaching, even though I maybe didn’t fully realize it at the time,” he said. “It’s about you and your teammates getting better and having accountability. Individual sports like tennis, golf or wrestling are great in that regard because, once the match starts, there’s nowhere to hide…you can’t substitute so you have to stay there and figure it out. One way or another, you walk off the mat, court or course and you have to take responsibility for what happened – good or bad.”
Aside from being one of the top junior college tennis programs in the nation and a program that took on all comers – even if it meant a resounding defeat at the hands of a NCAA Div. I team to prepare for the NJCAA tournament each year – the chance to help young people build their lives kept Albers at VU.
“VU has been a situation where I could help make a difference in some young people’s lives – and some certainly came here with some things to overcome,” he said. “I couldn’t have spent as much time on those issues at a (NCAA) Division One school. At that level, they’re more worried about wins.”
…and, yet, Albers and the Trailblazers won, anyway…
Congratulations and best wishes from Vincennes University to teacher, mentor and Coach Ron Albers.