A Winning Team
Fighting Illini Coach Dancer brings experience and enthusiasm to his position.
By Marcia Frost
It was a surprise to the tennis world when, after 12 years, Craig Tiley left his position at the University of Illinois to become the director of Tennis Australia. But it was no surprise when the Fighting Illini appointed Brad Dancer to take Tiley’s place.
The 34-year-old Dancer has a strong Division I college coaching background and a wealth of experience that includes working with such great players as Martina Navratilova, Patrick McEnroe and Patty Schnyder. But in the summer of 2004, he faced a huge decision when he was offered the job as associate head coach of the men’s team at the University of Illinois. He already had the top job at Fresno State, where he arrived after a two-year stint leading the women’s team at the University of Arizona.
The Michigan native had also coached World TeamTennis for four years, earning Coach of the Year honors along the way. He was certainly overqualified for an associate coach’s position, but the opportunity that someday he might lead the Fighting Illini was too big to let go by. That day came sooner than anyone expected.
Dancer’s coaching career actually began at age 16 when he worked with local kids in the park to earn extra money. He played for Michigan State, earning All-Big Ten academic honors for all four years, while he got a degree in Business Administration. This background has come in handy in his head coach job, where he feels he spends at least as much time working off the court as on.
“There’s a three-hour practice a day, then I’m on the court with individual practice three to four hours a day,” he says. “Then it’s probably at least that off the court.”
The day for Dancer includes planning for practice, getting scouting reports for opponents, and coaching meetings, as well as dealing with equipment, eligibility issues, and recruiting. He also acknowledges the importance of “social functions with our support groups because our people invest a lot of time and energy in the program.”
And then, of course, he makes himself available to his players. “I always had a rule I called the ‘7 to 10 rule,’” he says. “The guys could call me anytime it’s an emergency, but if they just want to talk about tennis or something they can call between 7 in the morning and 10 at night. Here (at Illinois) it’s a little different for me. At midnight the guys are calling me to talk about stuff, so I adapted a little bit. That’s the life of a college student.”
Dancer is “one of the most enthusiastic people I’ve ever met,” says Ryler DeHeart, currently one of the top college players in the nation. “Last year it was such a good experience working with Brad. I think he’s just a great guy overall and a great coach. Brad will bring some new things and extra enthusiasm.”
It’s the enthusiasm that sets Dancer apart. He credits most of that to one of the world’s greatest players. “As much as I’ve learned from other coaches, I’m fairly confident I’ve learned more from the players that I’ve been around,” he says. “I’ve learned more from Martina Navratilova than any guy I’ve been around. One of the things you learn is just how dedicated and disciplined she is. She seeks perfection. She’ll come in and do it in a humorous, fun, enlightened manner.”
In fact, Dancer has spent a lot of his coaching career working with women and finds discipline to be a factor in the difference between coaching the two sexes. “From a general standpoint, I would say that women tend to be more disciplined and dedicated to practice and men tend to get more excited about the competition,” he says.
There’s quite a road ahead of Brad Dancer as he leads a team that swept the NCAAs in 2003 and has broken many records along the way. But if his track record — and enthusiasm for his players and the game — is any guide, he’s up to the challenge.
See all articles by Marcia Frost
About the Author
Marcia Frost is the editor of CollegeAndJuniorTennis.com, published by the non-profit Port Washington Tennis Academy. In her role as a college tennis advocate, she is the editor/manager of CollegeTennisConnect.com, owned by PWTA and Sports Marketplace, where she writes the Monthly Guide To College Planning. She is also a member of the USTA Eastern Section College Tennis Committee.