If energy and enthusiasm alone won national championships, Greg Patton would have retired the NCAA men’s tennis trophy years ago.
Instead, the Boise State coach left his native Southern California and one of the nation’s top college programs in 1992 to turn a tennis backwater into a city of converts.
“I’m kind of a missionary, and this is a great community for me to spread the gospel,” Patton said. “There’s so much that can be done here. There’s so much I can do to turn the community on to this sport.”
And he’s doing it. In his fifth season since coming up from the University of California-Irvine, Patton has the Broncos ranked 24th in the nation. They have beaten No. 2 UCLA, No. 6 Pepperdine, Washington and Northwestern in the past month - all on the road.
Now he has 13 players led by seniors Ernesto Diaz, Albin Polonyi and Ben Davidson ready to challenge for the title that eluded his best teams at Irvine. Even the 1988 Anteaters fell short after beating UCLA and entering that year’s NCAA tournament undefeated.
“A lot of people said, ‘That was your shot, Greg; that was your chance. God opened up the gates for you and now they’re shut,”’ Patton said. “But I know St. Peter believes in me because he’s opening the gates up again.”
His evangelical zeal has helped build a team that not only wins on the court but scores high in the classroom and gets involved in the community. Patton insists promoting tennis means building heroes.
Polonyi, who with Diaz finished last season ranked seventh in the nation in doubles, transferred from the University of Georgia after tennis stopped being fun. He was considering California schools, but then he talked to Patton and wound up sold on laid-back Boise and good-time Greg.
“It’s him; he’s the big draw. The city’s just a bonus,” Polonyi said. “The focus here is on the process and not so much on the product. But I don’t think it’s too much to ask for a big ring on our finger at the end of the season.”
Patton, 44, is so excited about the prospect that his words come in bunches and are peppered with quick bursts of laughter. He mixes metaphors until they are barely recognizable and stretches them until they snap. But his attitude is infectious, and it’s the reason Boise is home to a World TeamTennis franchise - the Idaho Sneakers - that brings in such professionals as Amy Frazier and Rick Leach to play for Patton every summer.
“He has unbelievable energy and knowledge. And he has this knack of bringing a team together and making it fun to work hard and to improve,” said Frazier, who has been playing for Patton since she was 17. “Some of the best experiences of my life have been playing for the Sneakers and for Coach.”
For Patton - the oldest of seven children - it’s all about family. He keeps in touch with his former players, and 13 of them called to congratulate him after the UCLA victory last month.
“Tennis is a great sport, but it’s a very selfish sport. It’s individuals out there playing for themselves,” he said. “My goal is to get them playing for the cause. The first priority with my team is for each other.”
Patton also was head coach for three seasons of U.S. Junior Davis Cup teams that included Pete Sampras, Michael Chang, Jim Courier, David Wheaton and Malavai Washington. He now runs the U.S. Tennis Association’s junior development program for Idaho, but his focus is bringing tennis to the masses. And nothing inspires interest like success.
“The sense of pride in this community is overwhelming,” Patton said. “People I don’t even know are coming up to me every day and talking about my tennis program.”
He even turned down a job at Wake Forest last summer to keep pursuing his dream, and so he and his wife Christa can keep raising their young daughter and son in a place they love.
Now Patton is talking about building an outdoor tennis stadium at Boise State to complement the domed indoor courts built a year before he arrived. He even has visions of packing the school’s football stadium with 34,000 tennis fans, although top crowds last year were about 600.
“I believe in unlimited possibilities, and my players are wise enough - or maybe dumb enough - to believe me,” he said. “I’ve got them hook, line and sinker. My guys will follow me anywhere.”
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