May 10, 2013
by: Pete LaFleur ('90) -
When the Notre Dame men's tennis team opens 2013 NCAA Tournament action today at Ohio State versus Washington, the Irish will take the court looking to extend a coaching career that has spanned nearly half a century. Bob Bayliss - nearing the end of his 26th season at Notre Dame and 44th overall as a Division I head coach, plus a couple early years assisting on various levels - is set to retire at season's end. He will be handing off the reigns of the program to his well-prepared and highly competent associate head coach Ryan Sachire, a 2000 Notre Dame graduate and one of the most accomplished players in the history of a program that dates back almost 90 years.
Coaching changes, by nature, usually raise an assortment of concerns, and assistant coaches following directly in the footsteps of their mentors generally have been rare among most Notre Dame varsity programs.
But the Bayliss-to-Sachire baton handoff by all appearances will be a "seemingly seamless" transition, one that essentially has been in the works for five years or so.
When Sachire was returning to Notre Dame in 2006, Bayliss already had discussed succession plans with his incoming assistant. "Ryan clearly was the right person to ultimately take over the program," says Bayliss, who will remain a regular campus presence while overseeing the tennis facilities. "Now that we are nearing the transition, it's obvious Ryan is not going to miss a beat.
"Ryan is a no-brainer to take over because of his leadership, character and true love of Notre Dame. For him and his wife Cindy, this is their place. They graduated from Notre Dame. It's the All-American love story: he married the cheerleader with the 3.99 GPA. I jokingly tell people I hope their kids get her brains and looks."
Sachire actually began transitioning into the head coaching realm throughout the current season, handling the bulk of recruiting and scheduling. "Ryan knows the past two classes very well," says Bayliss. "I made very few recruiting calls, I wanted him to have his guys on board. Ryan has done all of next year's schedule. He's pretty much ready to go right now."
One humorous similarity between Bayliss and Sachire is that each respects the other for his relative calm after tough losses.
Sachire notes that Bayliss "has been gracious to open up the entire program to me over the past five years, so there's nothing I'm not too familiar with," although the future head coach did highlight one area where he anticipates the biggest challenge. After the team's excruciating semifinal loss to Boise State in this year's prestigious Blue-Gray Classic, Bayliss quickly gathered the team to deliver an important message.
"Bobby told the team we were walking out with our heads held high and would use that defeat as motivation," says Sachire. "I was so upset, I could hardly speak after the match. So that's something I need to work on, handling emotions with the highs and lows.
"An assistant does talk to the team but usually after the head coach, whose comments set the tone following each practice and match. That's something I have practiced through observing Bobby: process what happened, get rid of it and deliver a focused message. I learn something important from Bobby all the time."
If it's any consolation, Bayliss already sees a similar ability in the Irish associate head coach, but on more of a one-to-one level.
"When somebody loses, Ryan does a great job by getting to him right away to put things in perspective before there's a meltdown, whereas I'm usually ready to melt down along with the player," laughs Bayliss. "That personal touch - leadership with empathy but also reality, while delivering a clear message - is going to be a plus for the program."
Back in 2008 when Sachire was promoted to associate coach, Bayliss already was proclaiming that his talented assistant was one of the nation's best coaches, even when including head coaches. "Ryan still is a great player and his value and impact mean everything to our guys," says Bayliss. "He knows a great deal about tennis, but it's enthusiasm and work ethic that separate him."
Bayliss knew he had something special during Sachire's playing days: "He came in here with the enthusiasm of a young buck and just transformed our program. He left a legacy."
Sachire's legacy stretches well beyond his long list of playing accolades and awards. His signature moment also was his final moment competing for Notre Dame, a day late in the 2000 season that saw the 34th-ranked Irish nearly post the biggest upset in the history of the NCAA Tennis Tournament (at No. 2 UCLA). The Bruins led 3-2 but Sachire was battling deep into the third set at #1 singles while #5 singles stood 4-4 in the third.
"Ryan lost 6-4, ending our season. He was utterly distraught that he let the team down at such a potentially big moment for the program," recalls Bayliss. "They had to extend the cooling off period because Ryan literally was sobbing, due to the guilt he felt for the team.
"The impression that moment left on the team going into the next few seasons was very significant. It transformed them and helped us return to being a top-10 team. That experience also will be valuable for Ryan as a head coach."
When sitting down for a combination interview with Bayliss and Sachire, several similarities are readily apparent, including the fact that both are great "talkers." Each is a gifted storyteller while also possessing the ability to convey keen observations and philosophies.
One aspect of college tennis likely lost on the casual observer is the concept of the sport being a team endeavor rather than a collection of individual talents. That dynamic was in full display back in 1992, when Notre Dame made its historic run to the NCAA final following wins over three teams (Mississippi State, host Georgia, and top-ranked/defending champ USC) that, on paper, had the clear advantage. But the intangible factor of Notre Dame's team unity ended up ruling the day in those three upsets.
"The key to success in college tennis is taking a group of individuals who may not have played on a team in high school and turning them into a team," explains Bayliss. "Some great players often are not great teammates, they pout after losses instead of focusing on the team competition. My approach always has been to deal with a tennis team like you would for more traditional team sports."
Adds Sachire: "The team environment is what Notre Dame as a whole is all about. When you look at the landscape of college tennis, the top teams most often have elite players who also are charismatic leaders that buy into the team concept and spur on teammates. There's no doubt that momentum from one court affects the others. To be the best program we can, we fundamentally have to foster great team concepts."
The Notre Dame tennis program's past meshed with its present and future during the fall of 2012 reunion weekend for the 1992 NCAA runner-up team. "The reunion was a special weekend, a lot of memories came flooding back," says Bayliss. "When coaching, it's hard to reflect back on the past and appreciate it. The guys recalled some things I didn't remember I had done."
Sachire already had plenty of respect for the 1992 team, but the reunion enhanced his appreciation. "Those 1992 guys are legends," says the current associate head coach. "My career was not that far removed and I got to know them pretty well over the years. You could see them immediately get back into their college form during the reunion. They are great representatives for Notre Dame."
The challenge of recruiting and relating to the modern collegiate athlete is of ever-growing importance. Bayliss knows this challenge all too well and admits he was not equipped for that rapid evolution. Even Sachire, whose collegiate playing career extended into the 2000s, claims he already is from a different generation than the players he is recruiting. But he also provides a refreshing take, essentially a "tradition mixed with technology" approach.
"There is a fine line between history, legacy and all those fun words we associate with Notre Dame being out of date. But the key is blending how to communicate with this generation while selling the message that the history and tradition stuff still is pretty cool," observes the Irish head-coach-in-waiting.
"To be a scholarship athlete at a place full of tradition and values, that's something that can be massively important and really attractive if put in the right light. In my generation, during road trips we were talking to each other, but now kids get off in their own little world the minute they step on the bus.
"The key is structuring times to communicate verbally, getting to know one another and that's not necessarily natural for this generation. They need to appreciate engaging in conversations, and getting to know one another is a crucial part of being on a team. Teammates may have idiosyncrasies but that does not make them bad people, it just makes them different, and awareness of that fact is important to the team dynamic."
Sachire - a two-time Ohio state high school champion who lost only five times in his career at Youngstown-area Canfield High School - saw his own recruiting process zero in on three schools that combined excellent academics with a national-caliber tennis program: Notre Dame, Duke and Northwestern. The kicker? Young Ryan was raised as not only a huge Ohio State football fan, but also a big-time, anti-ND instigator.
"I can remember watching the 1993 ND-Boston College game," says Sachire, somewhat sheepishly. "when BC kicked that field goal at the end, I was jumping up and down cheering. My dad and I always would root for Ohio State and whoever Notre Dame was playing."
Fear not, Irish fans. There is a complete, lifelong conversion phase to this story.
"A couple years after that ND-BC game, when I made my visit to Notre Dame it clearly was the place for me," adds Sachire, providing the key follow-up details. "Something clicked on that visit and the rest is history. This is a phenomenal place with phenomenal people. I couldn't be happier.
Ryan Sachire, set to become head coach of Notre Dame's men's tennis at the end of the 2013 season, remains on the short list of top players in the program's nearly 90-year history, starring for the Irish from 1997-2000.
"I'm a pretty rah-rah guy and the day I signed my closet was full with ND gear, and my parents quickly made the transition from haters to lovers. My wife and I were married in Sacred Heart Basilica and our daughters baptized in the Log Chapel. Notre Dame is what I am about and what my family is about. I love this place and what it stands for. This is absolutely home."
(OK, now that we've basically confirmed Sachire's blood flows blue and gold instead of scarlet and gray... )
That same upbringing as a diehard Ohio State fan also coincided with embarking on a path that inevitably led to coaching. Raised in a state known for football and basketball, but which also produced some great high school tennis products in the mid-1990s, Sachire was surrounded by a culture that merged athletics with education. His parents Frank and Patty were longtime teachers and his dad also had developed into a respected tennis coach, despite never playing the sport competitively. "My dad only started playing when he was dating my mom, because she liked tennis," jokes Sachire.
Frank Sachire, who had been an offensive tackle for D-III football power Mt. Union, learned the game of tennis from books and videos. "My dad taught me how to hit the ball, the various strokes, and how to compete with both precision and compassion," says Sachire. "Coach Bayliss then did a phenomenal job teaching me tactics and more technique. That's when my game just blew up and blossomed."
Sachire emerged as Notre Dame's No. 1 player midway though his freshman season and Bayliss often compared his ace to Todd Martin, noting that Sachire's 6-6, 200-pound frame and 110-mph serve helped him "dictate the pace, cut down opponent angles and kept them on their heels. Ryan was a very poised, mature player who was aggressive but sound fundamentally. He was highly competitive with great passion for the game, but that always was done with class."
As his career progressed, Sachire rose as high as No. 2 in the collegiate rankings while showing marked improvement at the net and in doubles play, complementing his trademark compact groundstrokes that are a rarity for players his size.
"Ryan was able to make those adjustments because his parents are teachers and coaches," notes Bayliss. "He was used to respecting authority. When you'd tell him to do something, he would do it. Others would want to know why. He made adjustments more quickly than anybody I've ever coached."
Three times during his career, Sachire was one of six players selected to the USTA Summer Collegiate Team. That first unique experience, in the summer of 1998, allowed him to learn valuable lessons while rubbing elbows alongside the likes of Harvard's James Blake, who later rose to 4th in the world; Georgia's John Roddick, the current Oklahoma men's tennis coach and older brother of former world No. 1 Andy Roddick; and three from perennial power Stanford: Paul Goldstein along with twins Bob and Mike Bryan, generally considered the greatest men's doubles team in tennis history.
"That was pretty lofty company. Four of those guys were about to turn pro and James Blake was a great pro in the making," recalls Sachire. "That experience showed me how to learn to live the pro life: value your craft and take care of your body and your mind. It helped me become a lot more goal-oriented and I learned how to take care of the little things that separate great players from the elite."
Fast forward a decade or so and Sachire again has been involved with that same elite USTA Collegiate Team - as one of three coaches that were mentoring those future professionals in the summers of 2011 and '12.
Following five years on the professional circuits, Sachire delved into coaching as the assistant to Matt Knoll at Baylor in 2005-06. Despite losing several elite players from the previous season, the Bears proved be one of the nation's top teams and reached the NCAA semifinals.
"That first year in coaching may be my most important, because it gave me a completely different perspective and outlook," says Sachire, who earlier gained valuable mentoring from Todd Tucker while training professionally in Columbus, Ohio.
"Todd Tucker also was a great influence due to his blue-collar, hardworking attitude and great persistence," adds Sachire. "I'm forever indebted for having worked with three hall-of-famers in coaches Bayliss, Tucker and Knoll."
A couple decades earlier than Sachire, Bayliss first caught the "Notre Dame bug" during the spring of 1978, during his 1970-84 stint as head coach at Navy. The Midshipmen were playing Notre Dame on the same day that the Irish men's basketball team was set to face Duke in the Final Four. Longtime Notre Dame tennis coach Tom Fallon was inquiring about options in Annapolis for watching the game, when Bayliss came up with the perfect solution.
"I called home quickly and asked my amazing wife Pat if she could drop everything and throw together a meal for 20-plus people," laughs Bayliss. "The Notre Dame team watched the game in our living room and I got to know those players, some I know to this day, and I was impressed with their high caliber of character. I remember thinking that Notre Dame was a place I would truly enjoy coaching."
Eight years later, in the summer of 1986 at the annual National Junior Championships in nearby Kalamazoo, Mich., Bayliss again crossed paths with Fallon, who was set to retire after the 1987 spring season. MIT had granted Notre Dame permission to speak with Bayliss about their soon-to-be-open coaching position, and Fallon extended an invitation for a quick sidetrip to campus.
"Tom showed me around and introduced me to various people," recalls Bayliss. "Those eight hours on campus cemented it. I knew Notre Dame was where I wanted to be."
The following year, Bayliss officially began what would be a quarter-century of coaching excellence at Notre Dame. Inheriting a solid core of veterans "with good work habits and values," Bayliss set out to build the Irish into one of the Midwest's perennial powers and ultimately a national top-10 program.
In the early years of the program, Bayliss introduced some novel concepts that heightened interest during the football-dominated fall. He began bringing in national powers from warm-weather schools, often playing the Friday before the respective football teams would meet in Notre Dame Stadium. Stanford's visit marked the first time the Cardinal had ever played in the Midwest, but it was USC's trip that initially got the ball rolling.
The convenient proximity of the summer tournament in Kalamazoo proved helpful once again, as Bayliss was chatting there with the USC tennis coaches. He proposed the idea of USC coming out to face the Irish before the football game that fall. USC signed on for the landmark match and a large turnout helped nearly offset the Trojans travel expenses. The seeds were being planted for a Notre Dame program that was set to burst onto the national scene.
Even the most casual Notre Dame tennis fan knows the name David DiLucia and understands the impact the future ATP professional made on the Irish tennis program. As a member of the 1990 team that was the first in program history to receive an ITA national ranking, DiLucia became Notre Dame's first tennis All-American in 22 years. Then, in '91, Notre Dame earned a spot in the NCAA Championship field for the first time since the team format was adopted in the mid-1970s.
DiLucia's arrival in the fall of 1988 - a classic example of a player accepting his coach's challenge to "become the cornerstone of an eventual national-level program" - sparked a domino effect for the next year's recruiting class. "David coming to Notre Dame made everyone stop and take notice, and once you could get a top player to come and visit our foot was in the door," says Bayliss, who encouraged campus visits from players competing in (you guessed it) Kalamazoo at the annual summer event.
Six newcomers - Andy Zurcher, Chuck Coleman, transfer Wil Forsyth, Mark Schmidt, Ron Rojas and Chris wojtalik - joined the Irish in the fall of '89. That "Dirty Half-Dozen" became the backbone of the emerging program, first combining with DiLucia to form the bulk of the talented 1992 squad and then spearheading the '93 team that reached the NCAA quarterfinals.
As the calendar flipped to a new century, Notre Dame continued to produce top-10 teams - most notably in 2002 and '07. The '02 team featured former teammates of Sachire, led by All-Americans Javier Taborga and Casey Smith.
"Ryan helped start the transition of turning the younger players from boys into men, but he didn't get to see the benefits, as the full learning process accelerated after he graduated," says Bayliss.
With Sachire back in the fold in 2007, Notre Dame again boasted one of the nation's top teams - led by upstart senior Steven Bass, who earned the No. 5 seed in the NCAAs. The 2007 team ended up sixth in final ITA rankings, the program's highest finish since '92.
Bayliss - the only active Div. I tennis coach with more than 700 career wins (765) - ranks fifth on the career wins list. Bayliss-era highlights at Notre Dame have included 22 NCAA Championship appearances over the past 23 seasons and 10 finishes in the top-20. He has seen several of his players receive top ITA national awards, including some honoring all-around excellence or sportsmanship, while six of his players have been honored with the Byron V. Kanaley Award, presented to Notre Dame student-athletes who have been exemplary as students and leaders. The Kanaley Award is regarded as Notre Dame's highest honor for student-athletes.
Several previous Bayliss assistants have moved on to lead their own Div. I programs: Brian Kalbas as the women's coach at William & Mary and North Carolina; Mike Morgan at Claremont-Mudd-Scripps, Colby and Middlebury; Billy Pate at Alabama and Princeton; and Todd Doebler at Penn State and Colorado College.
Kalbas has praised Bayliss for unmatched motivational skills that elevated second- and third-tier players into key contributors. "Everything I've learned as far as motivating, developing and strategy has come from Bobby Bayliss," said the current UNC coach. "I owe him everything."
One long overdue benefit from retirement will be Bayliss being able to spend more time with his wife Pat and their four grown children Jackie, Rob, Brendan, and Patrick, all Notre Dame graduates.
"I am so indebted to Pat and could not have done it without all that she sacrificed," says the soon-to-be-retiree. "Pat never let me get my feet too far off the ground. Notre Dame has been wonderful to me and my family, it changed our lives for the better in countless ways."
An accomplished writer who earned his masters in English Literature from the University of Richmond before later teaching English at the Naval Academy, Bayliss also may stay active in the sport through the written word. He leaves behind a program firmly rooted in academic focus and sportsmanship, a program in which the players always were part of his extended family.
"Bobby always had wanted a player's development as a person to supersede anything on the court," says Sachire, who has helped sign six top-15 classes since returning to Notre Dame.
"He wants the best for each individual, and with him what you see is what you get. Down the road, Bobby hopes to see his players develop into great family men who are making positive impacts on society.
"Bobby's standards are great ones to live by, ones that certainly have served me well now for nearly 20 years."