Sept. 11, 2012
NOTRE DAME, Ind. –
From Dwight Howard’s free agency soap opera to the charting of Tim Tebow’s every move by major media outlets, the summer of 2012 proved that, at times, it’s difficult for American sports culture to embrace the concept of a team. Individual superstars are idolized above all else, and player-coach feuds often hog the spotlight of today’s saturated, 24-hour news cycle.
With these contemporary issues in mind, it was with great pleasure that the Monogram Club staff had the chance to spend some time with members of the 1992 Notre Dame men’s tennis team during the Purdue football weekend. Arguably one of the most selfless, group-oriented squads in the history of Fighting Irish athletics, the ’92 team shocked the country and kept its Cinderella shoes dancing all the way to the NCAA title match. In a sport dominated by select, warm weather schools at the time, the season served as a program-defining achievement.
As Notre Dame sports information legend Pete “Sluggo” LaFleur noted in his excellent piece that appeared in Saturday’s football game program, the ’92 team utilized a series of competitive advantages to make its way to the pinnacle of the collegiate tennis world.
It started at the top, where five-time All-American and top-ranked ace David DiLucia (’92) posted a 29-6 singles record and dispatched of many of the top players in the country.
“We had Dave who, frankly, was playing No. 1 singles and always won,” three-time All-American Chuck Coleman (’93) said. “So there was a confidence that filtered down from him which we all built on.”
Coleman was part of a six-member junior class that composed an integral part of the team and its chemistry. The group’s versatility allowed head coach Bobby Bayliss to shift players from singles to doubles, from No. 3 singles to No. 6, or any other way to gain an advantage during a particular event. In other words, the Irish caused matchup nightmares for opposing squads.
“From a sports perspective and a tennis perspective, it’s a very unique story,” Coleman said. “None of us other than Dave was highly ranked nationally. So we all came in and got better throughout the season. I don’t think that’s something that happens everyday.”
To keep this series of interchangeable parts operating efficiently, it was critical that egos were checked at the door and all players were striving to achieve team goals, and not individual objectives. For the ’92 squad, entitlement issues never surfaced.
“Tennis is an individual sport, but we were different in the fact that as individuals, we weren’t as good as we were as a group,” Coleman said. “There are a lot of reasons for that. We were friends off the court, but we also were very competitive on the court. When we went out there as a team, there was a belief that each guy was willing to do whatever it took to win his match.”
In addition, the individual student-athletes fed off the energy of one another and played better as a result.
“We celebrated each other’s successes,” DiLucia said. “We really enjoyed watching one another play and supporting each other. It wasn’t about any one person. It was about what was best for the team. Coach Bayliss really fostered that. He created an environment like nowhere else I’d seen.”
Indeed, countless Monogram winners sung the praises of Bayliss during the reunion. The coach, who enters his 26th season as the Irish skipper in 2012-13, built a culture with the ’92 squad in which hard work was rewarded and team dynamics were celebrated.
Bayliss kept the team on its toes, especially if he sensed that practices were growing stale. In particular, Andy Zurcher (’93) recalled a practice in March where, after playing for three months inside the Eck Tennis Pavilion, Bayliss sent the team outside to hit in the near-freezing temperatures. And if the squad was heading to a road match that featured fast courts, Bayliss would send the student-athletes into Joyce Center to practice on the lightning-quick surface of the basketball hardwood.
While Bayliss pushed the players on the court, he ensured they understood their importance off it. Chris Wojtalik (’93) recalled that throughout the 1991-92 campaign, Bayliss wrote frequent letters to each of his student-athletes, informing them that while they were putting in countless hours of practice, it meant they would always be more prepared than their opponents. He also stressed how much he cared about each student-athlete and what they meant to the program.
The powerful combination of talent, chemistry and coaching certainly paid dividends, as the Fighting Irish tore through the NCAA Championship field. After knocking off seventh-seeded Mississippi State (5-3) in the opening round, the Irish played before 5,000 raucous Bulldog fans in a do-or-die matchup at Georgia. With the contest knotted at 4-4, it came down to No. 2 doubles, where Zucker and southpaw Will Forsyth (’93) came through in the clutch and sent the Irish to the national semifinal.
Notre Dame certainly pleased Irish nation with its next match, a 6-1 drubbing of top-seeded USC that many still call the greatest upset in the tournament’s history.
The Irish ultimately fell to Stanford in the title match, but the ’92 team continues to serve as a benchmark for proudly representing the “team” aspect of team sports.
The tight-knit nature of the group was certainly on display Saturday, as 100 percent of the student-athletes from the squad returned for its 20th anniversary reunion.
“The camaraderie of our group was, and still is, just unbelievable,” Ron Rosas (’93) said. “I think this weekend is a testament to that. You may not have seen these guys for a long time, but you can always count on them. This tennis team truly represents what it means to be part of the Notre Dame family. The fact that everybody got along so well and respected each other – there’s no doubt that it was critical to our success.”
— ND —