“A Program in the Shadows” was the first feature story that Center Field published in February 2018. In honor of our five-year anniversary, we are re-uploading the piece, which focuses on the Marist men’s tennis program under former head coach Tim Smith.
In his time at Marist, Smith led the Red Foxes to 12 MAAC Championships and compiled a 142-11 record in conference play. Smith resigned from his position in May 2018.
Portions of the story have been lightly edited.
By Kerry Flynn • February 12, 2018
The only sounds coming from the tennis pavilion are the endless batting of balls back-and-forth and the rap music booming from the portable speaker between the four courts. “This music is not my favorite,” Coach Tim Smith says, which isn’t a terribly surprising revelation for the Vietnam veteran. Just another indicator of what his players refer to as his “old-fashioned style.”
On the sidewalk that lies just beyond the pavilion, students pass by on their way to and from their Wednesday morning classes, glancing more at their smartphones than at the athletes at work next to them. The atmosphere on the courts is laid-back. Players laugh and bounce snide remarks off of one another after particularly poorly played balls.
You wouldn’t think that something special is going on here; that something special has been going on here for two decades, in fact. It seems more like an anonymous rec team than the most recent chapter in an NCAA Division I dynasty.
Not many people outside of the Northeast have heard of Marist College, and even fewer could tell you anything about its men’s tennis team, including its own student body. And yet, this little-known program has been able to piece together one of the most impressive in-conference records in the NCAA, losing only nine total dual conference matches over the past 20 years.
At a school with over half of its population coming from the Tri-state area, and 45 percent of undergraduate students hailing from New York State alone, one might think that the achievements of this program can be traced back to local tennis standouts and regional success-stories. This, however, is not the case, and is far from where the Marist tennis team is truly rooted.
With so few competitive tennis players coming out of the region, Marist has had to look far beyond its home in the Hudson Valley to find success on the court. “In order to win, you can’t make chicken soup without chickens,” says Smith, who is preparing for his 21st year as head coach.
It is this mindset that has driven Smith to go beyond New York, the Tri-state area, the Northeast, and even the United States in pursuit of the right players for this dynamic program. Of the current team, six of the eleven players have hometowns outside of the United States, ranging from London, England all the way to Sao Jose, Brazil.
Recruiting such diverse players isn’t some recent formula that Smith has cooked up, but is rather a blueprint he has followed throughout his extended tenure at Marist.
“I knew I had to start the program with junior college players, and at that time the best junior college in the country was College of the Desert in Palm Springs, California,” says Smith. “I got their sixth and seventh players to come here, and that got us started. One player was from Austria and the other was from Sweden.”
From there, more international athletes followed suit. Without the budget room to travel, Marist had to rely primarily on word of mouth to spark player interest.
“I trusted other coaches to send me the players they thought were good,” says Smith. “Once we got a couple international players, they got some of their friends.”
This cycle still plays a crucial role today, where players like Austria native Rudolf Kurz find themselves in key roles on the current team. For Rudi, as his teammates call him, Marist was not part of the original plan. Starting his collegiate career at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, the then freshman quickly realized that it was not the right fit for him.
“I had big problems there with the coach, which had mainly to do with the fact that he didn’t really care about academics at all.” Kurz had to act fast to find a new program, which landed him right in the lap of Smith, who convinced him that Marist was his best option. “He’s a good salesperson, a good recruiter,” Kurz says of Smith. “He really knows how to make the school look attractive, even though I don’t think he’s lying…Marist is a good school, and he really knows how to bring the best out of it.”
Bringing the best out of Marist is not the biggest challenge Smith faces, as his players will tell you.
“I was kind of sold on Marist after I saw the river and everything,” said London native Max Darrington.
The junior finance major also explained that Marist’s location less than a two-hour train ride from Manhattan is a convincing factor for many international athletes, a majority of whom tend to choose majors in business and finance.
Perhaps the college’s most appealing aspect for these athletes is its academics. Both Darrington and Kurz agree that both their academic experience and their coach’s attitude toward their academics, have been hugely beneficial.
“A lot of the coaches put the success of the team over the academic achievements of the players,” says Kurz. “But he truly cares about how we do in school.” Smith is sometimes so lenient with his players that he allows them to miss lifts, practices, and even tournaments if he believes it will benefit them long-term—an anomaly in modern Division I athletics
For Darrington, Smith’s academic policy has played a huge role in helping him to obtain an internship with Barclays Investment Bank. This isn’t just any internship, but one that pays over $20,000 for the summer-long commitment. The money is well-earned, as applicants number over 10,000 for only four possible positions, the other three of which were filled by Ivy League students.
While Darrington has to miss team lift twice a week to work, he doesn’t get off scot-free.
“[Smith] kind of puts it on me to make sure I make up the lifts, that I do them by myself,” Darrington says. “If you’ve got legitimate reasons, he’ll definitely accommodate you to ensure that you can do all your work and get the internships, so he’s pretty cool about that.”
Smith defines his coaching style as intense and aggressive, which he calls old school. It’s a term that every one of his athletes seems to use to describe him as well. Kurz says it’s no secret.
“What I like about him,” Kurz says, “is that he still always tries to improve himself and better himself.”
Returning to practice, Smith calls Kurz over and asks his senior captain for a new drill suggestion. He’s old school, but open to new ideas. It’s an approach to coaching that has given him 20 seasons of success and 337 total wins.
Academic success has not come easily, especially for international athletes. Kurz, a straight-A student in Austria, admits he’s faced big challenges.
“Even though I knew English fairly well,” Kurz says, “learning it in your country and then actually coming here and having to talk it everyday and having to study all of your subjects in English is a big difference, and it took me a while.”
Kurz is only one of many to face the obstacle of a language barrier. Paulo Siracusa of Brazil, was especially challenged when he first came to Marist. “He couldn’t speak English, so that was quite bad,” Darrington laughs as he watches Siracusa effortlessly paddle ball after ball.
“I didn’t have a lot of experience with English before I came here,” Siracusa explains, “So yes, it was pretty difficult to adjust in the beginning, but I put in a lot of work.”
Now a top six player for Marist, Siracusa has always been an asset for the program on the court, but Coach Smith made the decision to put tennis second to academics for Siracusa.
“When he first came here I didn’t even take him to a couple tournaments, and that certainly didn’t help me or the team,” says Smith, “But it helped him and put him in the right spot to get what he currently has.” And what he currently has is not only consistent spot in the lineup, but a competitive internship with JP Morgan’s Latin American branch.
With the challenges these athletes face having to adjust to a new language, culture, and way of life, their ability to find success in the classroom is in itself quite an accomplishment. But when paired with the success they have brought to the tennis program, it’s almost inconceivable.
With countless athletes on the Dean’s List, consistent team GPAs over 3.5, and big-time internships, one can almost forget that this is a team that has over 300 wins, 11 conference titles, and 12 NCAA appearances.
In the McCann Center, the football and baseball lineups take up the whiteboards on the surrounding walls. The only sign of tennis memorabilia hangs in Smith’s office, in which every inch of wall space is taken up by championship and NCAA appearance plaques, photos of old teams, and family pictures.
Smith points to one photo in particular, a shot of him and his team taken after their fifth-straight conference championship in 2002. He proudly boasts of how the athletes pictured, coming from places ranging from Austria to Australia and Iowa to the Bahamas, went on to find success as personal trainers, doctors, investment bankers, and Columbia Law graduates.
“This is sort of typical of what our kids have done,” Smith beams.
Consistently recruiting such all-around gifted student-athletes has not been made easy for Smith. As an ill-funded program, the tennis team receives only two scholarships, a budget typically under $30,000 per year, and is led by a part-time coach who took the position as a post-retirement gig.
How does this stack up against top programs like the University North Carolina, the University of Southern California, and the University of Texas? “You’re talking about programs that have three full time coaches, four and a half scholarships, and anywhere between $750,000 and $1 million budgets, said Smith.
Smith continues to explain how he believes this sets tennis apart from other Division 1 sports; “The women’s basketball team gets 14 full scholarships, and so does Gonzaga, and so does Purdue, and they get 5 full time coaches. So they have an opportunity to recruit 14 full scholarship players, and that’s why you get upsets in sports like basketball.”
This difference doesn’t seem to discourage players like Darrington. “We can’t compete with the scholarships, but I think we try to make it up on the court.” And they have, beating well funded programs like St. John’s University, Coastal Carolina, Yale, and Brown. “We come here, and we play for each other,” says Darrington.
This is a vital aspect of the program, not just in terms of winning, but in terms of the very foundation of the team. “We’re such a diverse bunch, it’d be easy for a culture clash situation to occur,” says Darrington, “but I think we’ve come together very nicely.”
“You can really see the synergies between those cultural differences,” Kurz agrees, “which I think helps the team as well.”
Despite their different backgrounds and the many obstacles the program has faced over the course of its history, the Marist tennis program has been a success story on and off the court for two decades. Yet it’s a story unheard by many, at a college of just over 5,000 undergraduates.
Darrington smiles as the trickle of students continues to pass by, seemingly paying no attention to his team, “I kind of get it,” he smirks.
This is a point every Marist tennis player seems to agree upon. “Tennis isn’t a big American sport like basketball or football,” Siracusa adds.
“I don’t think that the student population cares less about us as people, they just haven’t been exposed as much to tennis as they have been to baseball, football, basketball, and even soccer,” says Kurz, “Therefore, I totally understand.”
But maybe, Kurz thinks, the problem isn’t that students aren’t interested in the story, but that it hasn’t been told.
“We’re really successful, and I think the school can do a better job in marketing that and showing the student body that we have a really successful team on campus,” says Kurz, “Even though it might not be America’s favorite sport.”
Maybe one day, the Marist tennis program will get their long-awaited and well-earned, moment in the spotlight. But for now, they continue with their practice, batting ball after ball back-and-forth, back-and-forth.
A student briefly glances over at the courts. She probably doesn’t know anything about the tennis team, and yet there is a sliver of interest, the possibility of reception of a story untold.