A few years ago, as Virginia’s men’s tennis program rose to national dominance under Coach Brian Boland, Jon Oliver says a plan struck him.
The women’s tennis program had achieved several benchmarks under Coach Mark Guilbeau but hadn’t been able to advance past the quarterfinals of the NCAA team tournament.
Oliver’s plan: to promote Boland to a newly created director of tennis position in which he would continue to coach his team but also focus on things that would benefit both the men’s and women’s teams, such as a new $12 million facility at the Boar’s Head Inn.
“We felt there could be a synergy by combining the programs and enhancing the support for both programs from a fundraising standpoint and from an ongoing support for matches or whatever it might be,” recalls Oliver, Virginia’s executive associate athletics director. “The support for tennis was just incredible for the men’s program, and we talked about the opportunity to help the women as well, because if you have that type of synergy, we believe it can help in recruiting and everything else you’re trying to do.”
Guilbeau, though, was not on board with the idea, according to Oliver. Guilbeau did not return a call requesting comment.
But when Boland departed this year after four NCAA championships to be the head of men’s tennis for USTA Player Development and Guilbeau resigned following an 11-13 campaign, Oliver had a chance to see his vision through.
In May, Oliver, who is second in command to Virginia Athletic Director Craig Littlepage, spearheaded the hiring of Andres Pedroso as UVA’s director of tennis. In the position, Pedroso, a Virginia assistant coach for four years, will coach the men’s team and oversee new women’s coach Sara O’Leary, whom he hired in June.
The tiered setup is used by a handful of schools across the country, including Baylor University, Cornell University, Ohio State University, Oklahoma State University, Stanford University and University of Tulsa. With its men’s team ranked No. 2 and its women’s team ranked No. 4, Ohio State was the most successful of the bunch last season.
Oliver hopes that Pedroso, a Boland protégé who had been most recently working as a private coach in Florida, can maintain the extraordinary success the men’s program achieved under Boland while raising the level of the women’s program, which didn’t qualify for the NCAA tournament last season.
“I want both programs collaborating as much as possible,” Pedroso says. “I want the student-athletes to feel like they have a base of coaches who they can go to for tennis conversations, life conversations, academic conversations.
“I would like the whole program working as a team to build the UVA tennis brand. Instead of it being UVA men’s and women’s tennis, I’d like for people to know us as UVA tennis.”
Both coaches bring a record of success. Pedroso was a two-time all-American who helped lead Duke to four ACC titles prior to embarking on a pro career in which he climbed to No. 271 in the world. Over eight seasons, as a player at Duke and a coach at Virginia, he has not lost a team match against a conference opponent.
O’Leary had been the women’s coach at Davidson College. In 2016, she was named Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year after leading the Wildcats to an 18-5 record, though the program didn’t make the NCAA tournament in any of her three years. As a player at the University of North Carolina, O’Leary won an NCAA doubles championship, which earned her a wildcard berth into the 2007 U.S. Open.
O’Leary says the idea of the UVA programs working in unison was an allure. “We want the players to share meals together and do community service events together and totally support each other,” she says. “And I think if we do that both programs will be much stronger because of it.”
In the final 2017 rankings, the UVA men were No. 1, while the women were No. 41—a disparity Oliver hopes will narrow with the new model.
At Cornell, Director of Tennis Silviu Tanasoiu says he gives women’s coach Mike Stevens autonomy in scheduling and recruiting, preferring to focus more on big-picture tasks, such as sponsorships, facility improvements and fundraising. “I think trust is an absolute crucial element that has to be there,” he says of the uncommon structure.
Oklahoma State’s Chris Young, believed to be the only women’s coach in the country serving as the school’s director of tennis, says sharing marketing strategies and promotions eliminates jealousy.
“The great thing about this model is that it keeps both programs connected,” he says. “The community sees it as OSU tennis. I think that’s a really important thing. People don’t feel like they have to choose one program over the other to support.” That’s especially germane in fundraising, he says. “We can just use the money wherever it’s needed.”
During the final years of his tenure, Boland campaigned for the facility at the Boar’s Head Inn that would be capable of hosting NCAA championships. The projectcalls for 12 outdoor hardcourts and a building with locker and team rooms. Pedroso says he will continue that effort. At press time, the project—which has been approved by the Athletics Department, the Board of Visitors and the UVA Foundation, the University’s real estate arm—was waiting on a lead gift, Oliver says.
On the court, Pedroso is well aware that Boland—whose four NCAA titles came in the past five years—set the bar very high.
“I love the way that Brian did it,” Pedroso says. “I’m obviously going to put my trademark on it and do things my way, but I’m not going to try to reinvent the wheel. He did a great job.”