Bernie McGuire will never tell you he’s a member of the Tennis Hall of Fame. Ask him about his innocuous beginnings with the game—or anything else, for that matter—and you understand that the glint in his eye and the passionate, yet genteel tone generally come from the internal rather than the external, though the latter has its place.
The first question elicited a chuckle of a memory that will never grow old. “I was acting up with my brother, so our mother handed us two tennis racquets and said, ‘Go on down to the playground.’ This was back when you could walk down to the public courts; there were two of them. I was 12 or 13 and my brother was ten,” he says.
While his brother never latched onto the game with the same fervor that fateful afternoon more than 30 years ago, McGuire’s life path took a decided turn that day that currently has him as Hammond’s head tennis coach. “My mom knew the rules and kept us going for a while. I went to the library—there wasn’t any Internet then so I couldn’t ‘Google’ it—and I checked out tennis books. I started to play competitively in high school in my sophomore year at Cathedral High School (Springfield, MA). I switched from swimming.”
McGuire didn’t play right away against other schools, though, as the team featured John Mayotte as its #1 singles player (and #5-ranked junior nationally), brother Chris Mayotte (a later #1 at South Carolina), and John Hughes as its #2 (#10 nationally). Another Mayotte, Tim, played at Stanford and was a professional on the ATP Tour. McGuire adds, “We were an excellent team. The top two guys had their own practices and their own coaches; we had no drills and no organization. It was usually ‘You two guys go over there and hit.’ As a sophomore I saw, watched, and put into practice. John and John were juniors at the time but there were other guys, too, and I really didn’t play. I was living in Chicopee and would hitchhike to a public facility in Springfield that had 20 red clay courts. Often the men there needed a fourth for doubles, occasionally needed a single… but I not only got to play; I got to know more about the rules, techniques, and tactics. The better I got the more they wanted me to hit or play with them. One time I played against Paul Fein, a writer for the Boston Globe, a lefty, and I tried a cross-court approach shot. He blew it by me and said, ‘Never do a cross-court approach shot; you open the court for the opponent.’ That’s how I learned. I learned by getting beaten.”
In McGuire’s junior year he moved up to #3 singles and the team won the state championship and the six-state New England regional championship. As a senior he was the #1 singles player, and though the team advanced to the playoffs, they did not gain the title.
McGuire was captain of the tennis team for three years at Lowell Technical Institute (now UMass Lowell) and earned a degree in electrical engineering. Having been in the ROTC, he joined the Air Force as a second lieutenant and was first stationed in Biloxi, Mississippi. He played with NCO’s, officers, and civilians before being transferred to the “heaven” of tennis, Orlando, Florida. For 15 months he played there; if Orlando was “tennis heaven,” though, he was banished from paradise: transferred to Rapid City, South Dakota. Still, he played, as an old hangar had been converted into a tennis court, minus the balmy weather. McGuire recalls, “The B-52’s and other aircraft would U-turn in order to take off, and they did it right at the hangar. It got a little loud sometimes… not to mention cold. It wasn’t heated in there. One time I played it was 6 degrees and I was wearing two warm-up suits and gloves. “
“My first pro event was in Sheridan, Wyoming. My best friend, Randy Stolpe, and I set up a two-man tent. The tournament director ‘knocked’ on our tent and asked if we were in the tournament. Next thing I knew we were Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I beat Randy in the singles final and we won the doubles.”
“I left the Air Force. I was only 25, I could’ve put in my 20 years and been retired at 40, 41. My dad couldn’t believe it. I was a captain and had benefits, salary, and retirement. He told me I was crazy and that I could retire at 41. I said, ‘That’s OLD, Dad!’ Now I think that’s young.”
Indeed he’d left the Air Force, returning to Orlando to be a teaching pro—alternating between making enough money to be in satellite tournaments and returning to teach when the money ran out. Three years later, in 1978, two bits of kismet touched Bernie McGuire and both times he decided to “go for it.”
An interview with the Richland County Recreation Department overlapped with a tournament. McGuire played against Jeff Kefalos, currently the City Recreation Department’s Director of Tennis, in the semifinals, then moved on to play Arlo Elkins—then the director of tennis at Spring Valley Country Club and currently the Lady Gamecocks’ coach—in the finals. The executive director watched McGuire play and offered him the job on the spot.
But the job was not the best offer of the year. While teaching an intermediate class, he met Diane. This time he made the offer. They married in 1980 and are still going strong. “It was my best win on a tennis court: game, set, and match!”
McGuire retired after 31 years with the county, but a mere two days after supposedly heading off into the sunset, Andy Edgren, athletic director at Hammond, gave him a call. Edgren says, “When we were interviewing new tennis coaches I didn’t know who Bernie McGuire was, but everyone in Columbia seemed to. That got my attention. Then I get this phone call from a parent who said, ‘It would be like hiring Michael Jordan.’ I thought, oh, come on, but he really pressed me, saying, ‘This guy would be Michael Jordan.’ (Grinning) I had to call him.”
Call him he did, and suddenly McGuire’s “retirement” had lasted only a matter of days. So what was it like to take on coaching a school team instead of private lessons? McGuire chuckles, laces his hands behind his head, leans back, and says, “I had three weeks to research coaching. I downloaded a 250-page manual, ‘High School Tennis Coaching,’ and dove right in.”
So what was it like to coach the 2009 boys’ team at Hammond? He recalls, “We had 13 varsity and 11 junior varsity players. The chemistry, work ethic, and manners were all exceptional. I wanted us to improve and to win in a classy way, and that’s something that came through when I talked with Andy.”
“We were very young, only one senior. Our #1 was a 9th –grader, Ben Horst, and he went undefeated, 14-0, including playoffs. Our #2 was a 10th-grader, Ira Usry. Our #3, Bill Horst, was a 7th-grader. Can you imagine? Our #4, Ted Lydon, and #5, Will Besley, were 10th-graders. Our #6, William Greenberg, 10th-grader, a real ‘grinder,’ came up with some big wins as a number six. We went 13-0 for the season and won the region. Had never before beaten Pinewood Prep, but we beat ’em two times. We lost in the (state) semifinals to Hilton Head Prep.”
This year? “We have pretty much the same team, minus Will Besly (track). Another 7th-grader has moved in, Ayan Dasgupta. Miles and Ellis Reese, who were #8 and #9 last year, were seasonal players whose mom said that they now wanted to play seven days a week. Now Miles is #5 while Ellis is #7 or #8.”
What’s different? “Now, this year, they’ve already bought into the system, I don’t have to go over footwork so much, and we don’t have to start from ground zero.”
Expectations? Hopes? What have you seen? “I want us to have a great season and compete for state. We had a scrimmage last night (Feb. 17) at Lexington, who are really deep and strong. They’d beat Irmo, who were 4A runner-up last year; in fact, they’d beat ’em twice before losing to them in the playoffs. Anyway, it was just one set for each match. We were competitive and everyone played singles and doubles. We won two and lost five in tiebreakers (out of 15 total). With a slight nod he adds, “We’re going to be fine.”
The interview ended, but really hadn’t quite done so. We shook hands and as I got up he asked me, “So, how’d you get to Hammond.” I told him; then he added the true finishing touch: “I was offered the job at Richland Northeast. I didn’t know Hammond, though I’d given some lessons. The AD (at Richland Northeast) was a friend, but I said, ‘No.’ There was just such a sense of… family here, plus I could run a complete program what with PE, after school lessons, and that it’s Pre-K through 12. The coaches are CEO’s, though we work with and report to Andy. (Pause) I’m a part of something here, not just a piece.”
He left me with good wishes and an easy smile. Naturally.