On the eve of his team’s biggest match of the year, USC Head Tennis Coach Peter Smith received an important phone call. It was from his boss, Athletic Director Pat Haden.
“Pat called to wish me luck. We talked for a few minutes, and then he mentioned that the Trojan marching band was in the Bay Area, and would I like them at the match,” Smith recalled.
The coach thought it over for all of two seconds. This was, after all, the NCAA Championships. Their semifinal opponent was, come to think of it, the Georgia Bulldogs, the bitterest of rivals. Any advantage, no matter how small, might just make the difference.
“I told him absolutely. But we didn’t mention it to the team. The next day, our guys walked onto the court and heard the full SC fight song. It became like a home match. It was unbelievable, and the guys were juiced.”
The Trojans subsequently rolled over Georgia (4-0), then used that momentum to finish off undefeated Virginia in a nail-biting final (4-3). With a little help from the brass and percussion sections, the Trojans had won their third straight NCAA Championship.
The win puts Smith, his ninth year at USC now complete, in rarified air. Along with the three consecutive championships and all the accompanying accolades, he has accumulated an astonishing 122-18 record over the last five years.
Few would argue that Smith is in the midst of building a collegiate tennis juggernaut. How could they? Smith’s players revere him, his fellow coaches respect him, and the nation’s top juniors are anxious to play for him. Even football legend and Trojan royalty Haden, who happens to know a thing or two about winning national titles, appreciates the scope of Smith’s accomplishments. “Winning three straight NCAA championships is no easy feat, and Peter now has the Trojans standing tall with the most national titles ever won in men’s tennis. We’re fortunate to have him here at USC,” Haden said.
The mild-mannered Smith, who turned forty-seven this summer, dismisses all of this. To hear the Southern California native talk, he considers himself more of a steward than a coach.
“First and foremost, it is about the players,” Smith says. “I’ve learned over the last 20 years that sometimes you just have to stay out of the way and not screw it up. If I do my job correctly and get the right guys on the team, then it is just about making minor adjustments and letting the machine run.”
True, having an All-American on your team like Steve Johnson (2011 NCAA Singles Champion, ITA Player of the Year, 48-3 for the season) helps with the wins and losses. But building and maintaining a program as successful as USC’s requires a unique set of skills.
Smith played collegiately at Long Beach State, then took a stab at the satellite circuit, playing in obscure tournaments around the globe. It was a tough slog (he reached a high of No. 421 in the ATP rankings), and after fifteen months of struggle, he opted to return to Southern California and finish his degree. Almost through happenstance, Smith was soon offered the head coaching duties at Long Beach State. At age 23, he suddenly found himself the youngest Division I men’s tennis coach in the country.
After four successful seasons (and a degree), Smith jumped to Fresno State, where he molded the Bulldogs’ tennis program from a national afterthought to a consistent top-20 team.
|Johnson, last year's NCAA singles champion, returns to the Trojans for his senior season. (Dan Avila/USC Sports Information)|
Both of these jobs, Smith believes, helped shape him into the coach he is today.
“Early on, I learned that this is a business, and that colleges expect results. I learned what style of coaching works for different players, when to be hands on and when to be hands off, what is the right way to insert yourself into a match. But I also learned how to find the right players and develop good leaders, guys that can do a great job of controlling and motivating a team.”
After six years in Fresno, Smith moved on to Pepperdine, and it was there that he made his mark. His five-year tour of duty in Malibu culminated in 2002 with an NCAA quarterfinal appearance and a year-end team ranking of No. 5. The Waves made enough of a national splash, in fact, that they drew the attention of the USC athletic department. With legendary men’s coach Dick Leach retiring, the Trojans needed a strong talent to take the helm. Smith was hired for the 2002-2003 season.
Since then, he’s taken a successful program and molded it into his own image, beginning with his laid back personality and his own personal style of play.
“There is a certain type of player that I’m looking for, without a doubt. I like big guys with an all-around game, but who doesn’t? Guys who can play all over the court. Guys who have dominant groundstrokes, but that can also get to the net and volley. I like players who can take the ball early and rush their opponent.”
Smith refers to his own tennis skills as “mediocre,” but then proudly boasts about taking backcourt games from some of his players.
“I like to play and like to compete, to be on the court, hands on. Yeah, I’ve taken a few baseline games from Stevie(Johnson) this year. The guys like that I can hang with them and hit balls with them, that I like to jump into the drills.”
One of the more interesting wrinkles to the Trojan team this year was the addition of Jeff Tarango as a volunteer assistant coach.
“Jeff is more sure of himself than any man I’ve ever met,” Smith said of the former Top 50 player. “He’s opinionated, which I love, and he obviously has a ton of professional experience, which gives him credibility with the team. Jeff was at every match this year and he played an important role. I have every intention of having him back and I hope he wants to come back.”
The team looks to be even stronger next year, with Johnson returning for his senior season, and the addition of two five-star recruits.
“Our team next year will be the best I’ve ever had at USC,” Smith says bluntly.
Does Smith view USC as his final destination? “I’ve been approached about coaching on the pro tour,” Smith said, “but it’s not really something I’m interested in. The way I see it, out there you’re working for a player. Here at USC, in a way, the players are working for me. Plus, college tennis has enough travel. Coaching on the pro tour would mean a lot more time away from home.”
“At this point, I’m more interested in my legacy. Not wins and losses, but the overall mark I’ll leave. As a husband and a father and a coach. I want to leave the sport of tennis better than where I found it.”
Smith pauses for a moment, perhaps considering his current perch atop the tennis mountain.
“With that in mind, it’s tough to imagine ever leaving USC.”
Good news for the Trojans. Not so much for the rest of college tennis.