One in a series on the 2013 Class of the Richmond Tennis Hall of Fame
John Packett, RTA Contributing Writer…
When he was preparing to graduate from the University of Richmond in June of 1966, Bobby Bayliss had no idea that he would one day become one of the best and most respected coaches in the history of college tennis.
At the time, his main concern, like that of other young men just finishing college, was getting ready to serve his country during the Vietnam War. But he flunked his Army physical right before graduation, and soon thereafter, his coaching career got started.
“Leonard McNeal, who was our coach, was working on his Ph.D, and was able to arrange some sort of sabbatical where he could finish up all his work in Charlottesville [University of Virginia],” Bayliss recalled recently. “So he was going to be gone a lot.
“He worked with the athletic department and created a position, where I got a scholarship to graduate school and coach the team that year [1967 ]. But my title was graduate assistant. It was just a bunch of my buddies, so it wasn’t really like coaching.
“I had never really considered coaching as a career. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. In those days, you had the [Army] draft sitting in front of you. I just wanted to get that over with. I didn’t anticipate flunking the physical.
“Then a day and a half later, [McNeal] came up to me and said, ‘I’ve got next year figured out for you.’ It was a pretty easy decision.”
After one year of directing UR’s team, Bayliss became the head coach at Thomas Jefferson High School, his alma mater.
“The following summer , the principal at TJ, Mr. Brock, called me and asked if I would be interested [in the job],” said Bayliss.
“He knew I was working on my masters and he said they would arrange my class schedule so I could teach from 8 to 12, eat lunch in the school cafeteria, then jump in the car and go out to Richmond and take one course each afternoon.”
While he was working on his master’s degree in English, Bayliss guided TJ to what was then known as the Group I-A (Virginia’s largest schools) state boys tennis championship, one of a record 15 won by the school. TJ defeated E.C. Glass of Lynchburg 7-2 in the final.
“What it [coaching the TJ team] was was a whole lot of fun,” said Bayliss. “I liked teaching English and I loved coaching. That group of kids, Richard McKee, Charlie Shiflett, Rob Leitch, John Leitch, Irv Cantor, we had a real good team.”
From there, Bayliss went on to spend 15 years at the Naval Academy, three seasons at MIT in Cambridge, Mass., and the past 26 years at Notre Dame, where he just stepped down after the Irish lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament on May 10.
In 44 years of college coaching, Bayliss assembled a record of 765-339-1 and is fifth on the all-time career wins list among Division I men’s coaches in NCAA history. His tenure at Notre Dame (474-237) included 22 NCAA appearances in the past 23 seasons.
That included a runner-up finish in 1992, when Bayliss was named the ITA’s national coach of the year. The ITA also presented Bayliss with its Meritorious Service Award in 1995 for extraordinary contributions to collegiate tennis.
Bayliss’ highest honor will come on May 22 when he will be inducted into the ITA College Tennis Hall of Fame in Champaign, Ill., site of the NCAA championships. The 68-year-old will accept the award in the same humble manner he has shown throughout his career.
“I don’t think there’s another men’s tennis coach in the country who is more respected by his peers than Bobby is,” said Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick. “Not just for his accomplishments on the court but for how he has represented the game.
“He has had a fabulous run. He has taken the Notre Dame program to another level and made his team into a consistent NCAA contender.”
Bayliss will add another jewel to his achievements when he will be inducted along with the rest of the 2013 class into the Richmond Tennis Hall of Fame on Oct. 19. Five other players and volunteers, as well as the tennis program at Thomas Jefferson, will be enshrined that evening.
In addition to playing tennis at UR, Bayliss was a member of the freshman basketball team, with designs on going further in that sport.
“Quite honestly, when I was at TJ, I wasn’t very good,” he said. “I hadn’t played a lot of tournaments. I was trying to play basketball, with the hopes that I could do that in college. I played for Louie Mills’ first freshman team and found it difficult to score from where I was sitting.”
That was mostly on the bench, so he gave up that sport and began to concentrate on what would become his life’s work.
Once he began coaching tennis, however, he never viewed it as punching a clock.
“It was fantastic,” said Bayliss. “I have never felt, for a single day, that I was ‘going to work.’ And that includes TJ, Navy, Notre Dame, the whole deal. It was important for me to step down while I still enjoy what I am doing.”
As for a coaching philosophy, Bayliss said he didn’t really have one per se.
“I would describe it best as recruiting players who are good people, who want to be in a team environment and are passionate about tennis,” he said. “Then working with each of them to make them the best that they can become.
“I have learned over the years that it is simply not worth it to bring in talented players who do not fit in with the overall philosophy or school mission. There is not always a correlation between talent and great results.”
Bayliss is planning to stay at Notre Dame for at least two more years, serving as manager of tennis facilities. He will be responsible for the oversight of all tennis facilities, including maintenance, scheduling and facility upgrades and renovations.
“This will keep me out of trouble,” laughed Bayliss. “My wife [Pat] was worried about me hanging around the house too much. I think it’s a good way for me to scale back, so I wouldn’t be without tennis in my life at all.”
Bayliss said the two biggest reasons he decided this was the right time to walk away were “recruiting and team travel. The other thing is I have a fantastic assistant and he’s been with me for seven years now. He’s one of the best college coaches in the country”.
Ryan Sachire, a former Notre Dame All-American, will take the reins as Bayliss’ successor.
“Pat and I plan to do a little traveling,” said Bayliss. “We have four children, all graduated from Notre Dame. Two of them live in Chicago and we’ve got four grandchildren there. We’ve got two other grandchildren in Lawrence, Kansas. The other [child] is in Portland, Oregon.
“[His wife] wanted to be really near the grandchildren, so we needed to stay here [South Bend].”
Bayliss will be sorely missed by his players and in the coaching ranks, but his legacy of doing it the right way in such a humble manner – while winning all those matches – won’t soon be forgotten by all who have known him for nearly half a century.