Hey, I’ve got a Western forehand now,” Mike Mullan tells me, excitedly. “I can finally stay at the baseline.”
Mullan sounds pleased, and a little surprised, by his own words. The 68-year-old Pennsylvania native learned the sport in the heyday of the Continental grip, and he spent much of his 40-year career as the men’s tennis coach at Swarthmore College coaxing and cajoling his players to leave the backcourt behind and charge the net.
I know he coaxed—pleaded with, really—me to “move up, move up, move up!” when I played for his team in the early 1990s. And I knew, whenever I shanked a volley and turned around to see Mullan hanging his head in despair behind the back fence, how much he regretted it. “Mike,” as we called him—“Coach” was too formal for this happily informal man, and too limiting for what he meant to us—never mastered the art of hiding his emotions when he was watching his team.
This spring, Mullan, who is retiring, will watch his Swarthmore squad for the last time. He’s not leaving because the sport has passed him by. Six years ago, the Cal-Berkeley grad took a sabbatical at his alma mater to pick up some pointers from the Bears’ coaches on the modern game. It wasn’t the first, or even the second, time Mullan has gone back to school. This student-for-life has earned two Ph.Ds, in sociology and history.
No, Mullan is calling it a career because the core of his team—six players that he recruited four years ago—will graduate in 2018.
“We have a great group,” Mullan says, with the eagerness of a first-year tennis coach. “They’ve kept me going longer than I planned.”
Mullan didn’t set out to make tennis the job of his lifetime. He started, in his 20s, by using it as a way to expand his horizons. Fresh from Berkeley, with hair appropriately unkempt, he bought an around-the-world airline ticket and ran tennis clinics for the State Department in Nepal, Burma, Afghanistan and other far-flung locales. When the trip was over, he needed a place to land.
“I was lucky to find a liberal arts school like Swarthmore, where intellectual pursuits are encouraged, even in athletics,” says Mullan, who also teaches a sports sociology class.
One of his pursuits, of course, is winning. Mullan has led Swarthmore, which has a student body of 1,500, to three NCAA Division III team titles. But it’s his relationships with his players that have meant the most.
While a coach doesn’t have the status of a professor, Mullan says it’s the more complex job, one that involves everything from recruiting to fundraising to planning cross-country trips to trying not to get lost while driving the team van. Only the latter seemed to give him much trouble.
“There’s less deference to a coach than a teacher, so the kids reveal more of themselves,” he says. “You see them in competition, when they’re vulnerable. The team becomes a family, where you’re solving problems together.”
What has changed in his 40 years on the sidelines? There’s a “creeping careerism” among students, Mullan says, but he still believes in the value of college sports, especially at the Division III level, where no athletic scholarships are awarded.
“At big schools, an elite corps plays sports. Here a big percentage of the student body is involved,” he says of Swarthmore, which eliminated its football program 17 years ago. “It’s as close to an ideal as we’re going to get in amateur athletics.”
For Mullan, the game has never stopped being about learning—“more than anything, it teaches you to keep plugging away at whatever you try,” he says. The days when he could play his old serve-and-volley game ended 10 years ago, but when I talked to him over the summer, he was planning to bring his newfound Western forehand to the 65-and-over nationals.
“Maybe I’ll even get some topspin on the ball,” he laughed.