“Toss the ball up, racket facing contact point – you’re off and racing. Got it in the left-hand court, easy now, it’s backhand sport! Doubles, singles, nylon, gut, metal, wood – I am learning, but all the rules, my mind is hazy – to chase a tennis ball, I am crazy!”
“Ode to Tennis,” by Shirley Meckler, former UTPA student.
Tennis has developed much over the years, as it began at monastery courtyards in southern France, to the stadium court of the U.S Open. The sport has endured good times and some bad, just like the university program.
Crowds were drawn to the courts back in the day when professionals like Pancho Gonzales and Jack Kramer took the court, just like the crowds were drawn to Pan Am tennisin its “boom years,” said Robert Hubbard, former Pan American player from 1974 to 1978 and coach from 2005 to 2008.
“When I played, all of our home matches were filled to capacity with spectators. The fact that we were also one of the top teams in the nation at the time too didn’t hurt us,” Hubbard said. “Without a doubt collegiate tennis was more popular when I played at Pan Am than when I returned to coach.”
In recent years, the program has not seen season records like it had in the late ‘50s and ‘60s.
The PAC (Pan American College) men’s tennis program began in 1953 under the coaching of Mary Lee Rabke, who led the team to three winning seasons until Harry Meng took over. Meng would have his name splashed throughout every media guide the program produced back then, as well as in newspapers upstate.
The Monitor, San Antonio Express, St. Petersburg Times, The Times newspaper in Maryland, The Daily Review in Edinburg and the World Tennis magazine all boasted about the flourishing Bronc tennis program. Meng made a huge mark in tennis as he led the team to three NAIA Championships, the school’s first titles in the sport.
He wrote a book, “Advantage Tennis Anyone?” in 1976; in it he explains everything one needs to know about tennis from the beginning of a tennis career to the end. His knowledge about the sport was a mile wide and a mile deep. He knew the ins and outs and ups and downs of the sport and his expertise helped his team to thrive, as Meng contributed to the success and development of a number of state and nationally ranked players.
He had trained at the University of Miami under famous tennis coach Mercer Beasley. Meng then went on to compete in The U.S pro tennis circuit in 1946, 1947 and 1949.
“Meng was considered by many to be the top tennis coach in South Texas as his tennis team has emerged with the NAIA Championships the past three seasons in 1961, 1962 and 1963,” said James A. Brooks, former director of athletics at Pan American, in a media guide from the 1970s.
BACK IN THE DAY
Meng headed the program from 1957 to 1963, piloting his players to seven winning records in a row. The program dominated not only Texas tennis, but also programs throughout the United States with records such as 11-1, 12-4 and 10-3.
Heading into the 1959 spring season Meng said in a Monitor article, “this year’s crop of tennis hopefuls is one of the best in a long time…we will be a powerhouse this season.”
In 1959 and 1960 the team would finish second at the NAIA tournament and by the end of Meng’s coaching career in 1963, the team had won three national singles titles, by John Sharpe (1961), Don Russell (1962) and Ken Lang (1963). The team also dominated the national doubles play by winning five championships under his coaching.
But what kick-started the program and brought it alive to local audiences was the 1959 Orange Bowl tournament. Edinburg tennis fans anxiously watched the championship match of the biggest national tournament, held in Miami. PAC netters Sharpe and Russell were the number-one seeded doubles pair from Down Under and ended up on top after they dominated their match 6-2, 6-4 (Sharpe also won the singles title at the Orange Bowl that year).
“I think it is a really big accomplishment…This boy Sharpe beat yesterday (Harry Hoffman of Presbyterian College) is, I think Harry (Meng) told me, ranked 18th in the nation. I’m really proud of them and I think there is more to come,” Brooks said in the papers.
THE DUO FROM DOWN UNDER
Through the years, the university has had over 20 Australian players, some leaving their mark on a positive note and others not so much. Sharpe (1959-1962) and Russell (1959-1962) made a name for themselves throughout the United States after they arrived from Melbourne in 1959.
The Australian tandem recorded national doubles wins in 1959, 1960 and 1961 at the NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics) tournament. Sharpe captured the NAIA singles championship in 1961 to advance his ranking to 36th in the nation. The Australian star, ranked 19th in singles by the United States Lawn Tennis Association, had a win over Whitney Reed, then the number-one player in the United States.
Russell, on the other hand, had the strongest net attack on the PAC squad and a very powerful first serve. The latter he used strategically to get himself to the net where his stop volley would usually finish the point. Russell later took over the tennis program at PAC as head coach from 1965 to 1967 to continue the team’s winning streak and outstanding home court reputation. Russell was just as successful a coach as he was being a player, as his team had back to back 11-7 marks in 1965 and 1966 and a 10-9 record in 1967.
Something must be said when a team strings together 33 conference wins in a row on their home turf. Between 1959 and 1960 that was what the PAC tennis program accomplished, and one of those conference wins will forever be etched in the history of the team.
“Lamar Tech will attempt to set a major milestone against the Broncs Tuesday when the Cardinal netters try to post their 50th consecutive match victory against the Rio Grande Valley college,” stated a Monitor article in 1960.
After eight years of playing Lamar Tech in 50 dual matches, losing every match, Pan American finally put the guys from Beaumont 4-3 to shame at Orville I. Cox Stadium in Edinburg. That win was the greatest accomplishment the team has witnessed to this very day and since then, the Broncs’ biggest rival remains Lamar.
Not until April 2009 would the men’s program again feel what it was like to beat Lamar, as the current tennis team handed the Cardinals a 4-3 loss on Pan Am’s home courts of the Orville I. Cox Stadium. This stadium has been the site for many generations of Bronc tennis players and holds several grand memories.
ORVILLE I. COX STADIUM
Orville I. Cox of McAllen is known as the “father of tennis at Pan American College.” The $75, 000 Cox Tennis Stadium located on campus was named in honor of Cox, an attorney and former president of the college’s Board of Regents. It was built in 1958 to seat 1,000 fans to view tennis at its best being played across the six-court stadium.
This stadium was the center of the activities for the 11th annual National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics tournament in February 1964. The Broncs had won the tournament the prior three seasons and took the title again at home for 1964.
“Having these special courts at our constant disposal will certainly enhance the enjoyment of outdoor play for both our players and spectators,” said Bronc Coach Dennis Conner (1969-1975) at the time. “At least one annual professional tournament will become a part of our overall tennis program at Pan Am.”
Having Cox Stadium did enhance the enjoyment for both players and spectators, but what really got the audience and school behind the team were the umpires.
“There will be a new look for Bronc tennis opponents – as well as fans – in Edinburg during 1973. Alert and attractive female umpires will be in charge of calling out the score for each individual match,” wrote Jim McKone, PAU sports information director, in the 1973 team media guide.
The duty of this group of 11 Pan-Am co-eds was to offer their enthusiastic and attractive services as umpires to support the nationally ranked team. In addition, , the girls would also be official hostesses during the 20th Annual PAU Intercollegiate Invitational Tennis Tournament.
By 1975 the group of exquisite and charming umpires and hostesses decided to have a name for themselves and the group became “Love Set,” adding class and glamour to the PAU tennis program.
“We loved our duties on court,” said Jane Cross, current lecturer at the university and former “Love Set” member. “We loved being around the men’s tennis team as they were the hunks on campus…I guess the girls and I were sort of groupies. I actually asked your coach Robert Hubbard out once, but he turned me down and said he was seeing someone else.”
The girls also helped advertise the NCAA National Championship tournament that PAU hosted at the H.E.B. Tennis Center in Corpus Christi in June 1975.
To this day the peak of the universities tennis program was from the late 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, but there is no one reason why the program cannot reach that level of success again.
“The tennis team received a ton of press and media coverage when I played. We had a lot of ‘bragging rights’ back then,” said Hubbard, who believes that changes have to be made. “I don’t believe the university has a strong commitment or understanding of what a commitment to athletics would entail. As a result, they have a weak athletic administration which continues this domino effect of lack of commitment to the teams.”
He left the university at the end of the fall 2008 season and accepted a head coaching position at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.
Until earlier this month, when new coach Chris Taylor was hired, the program remained without a coach and has not had stability in the position since Hubbard left. Members of the team wonder why it has taken so long to hire a new coach.
“As a player, when you feel like no one is supporting you, it is very hard to fight on court for an institution that lacks interest in the program,” said Brett Bernstein, a current Bronc tennis player. “A team needs to be rewarded and recognized when they have an enormous win, and in the past three years, the team has had several big victories against Lamar University and Texas A&M University Corpus Christi…But there was little to no recognition and this can take the wind out of a program’s sails.”