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Simmons' legacy - coach established UL's modern era March 27, 2013

Bruce Brown, Special to The Advertiser, March 27, 2013

The 1972 Men's Tennis Team - Simmons first team. www.athleticnetwork.net  > Photo Gallery > Tennis > 1972
(To view other photos of his teams, click the years 1973-83).

Sometimes it takes a keen eye to see potential in a situation.

Sometimes self confidence can make it happen.

And a little help is always appreciated along the way.

Jerry Simmons needed all those elements to establish the modern era of Ragin' Cajun tennis, and his 10-year dual match record of 202-81 from 1973-82 set the lofty standard for all who have followed.

"It was not a very good time," Simmons said of his arrival at then-USL. "College tennis was just getting started. There were different schools with token programs, and the coach was the one who drove the van.

"The year before I got there, USL had gone 0-12 against the directional schools in the state. That's hard to do. I think we had two scholarships. We couldn't get on the courts to practice until after the P.E. classes were done. There were no assistant coaches, and we barely had managers. Our players strung their own racquets. We painted the bleachers ourselves.

"I told the players that they needed to take ownership of the program, to give back to the community."

What Simmons saw was a community with potential for growth, assuming he could get its leaders on board.

"Lafayette had the oil patch," Simmons said. "We knew football couldn't carry us. We raised all our own money. There were people who took me under their wing — people like Herbert Heymann, Jim Crocker, Paul Toce, the Segura family."

With community backing, Simmons was able to be creative, featuring an electronic scoreboard at Cajun Courts and ESPN's first telecast of a college match among other things. Then when he began the ROLEX fall tennis tournament, a showcase for the best in the college game, it validated the direction he was seeking for his program.

"The ROLEX helped a lot," Simmons said. "It was the first corporate-sponsored college tennis event, with a field of All-Americans. It became a community deal, like a family. There were so many forward-thinking people there at the time. We had no idea we'd be able to do some of the things we did.

"We had a lot of firsts. It was a networking thing. Those were great times. (Athletic Director) Toby Warren supported me. And, with tennis and golf, you take care of those people."

The ROLEX proved valuable in scheduling other matches once the Cajuns improved their program.

"Once you get dangerous, people don't want to play you — especially with our (home) crowds," Simmons said. "By using the ROLEX, they had to come back and play me.

"Teams would come down and play us before they would play LSU, expecting a warm-up match. But we were able to surprise them. We had to play the best. It does you no good to play lower."

Simmons was able to change the climate with innovation and energy that attracted community leaders, but also by recruiting talented players quickly.

Greg Marcantel, an outstanding overall athlete from Jennings, was an early addition, joined by Harry Barton and Billy Holliday. Adding Texas junior college stars Skipper Hunt and Umberto Izquierdo kicked the talent pool into high gear.

"Skipper could have gone to a lot of (larger) NCAA schools," Simmons said. "He and Umberto were the keys. They were attracted by Lafayette. The community is so nice, and the community makes the university.

"Then Skipper got me Carter Lomax. They were from the same junior college. We broke through in recruiting with Skipper, Umberto, Carter and Harry."

The Cajuns won 18, 18, 17 and 16 dual matches in Simmons' first four years.

They won the Southland Conference tournament title in 1977, 78 and 79 featuring new talent like Paul Griffith, Bill Bryan, Steve Hernandez, James Boustany and Gustavo Orellana.

Starting with 1978's 23-7 dual match record, UL never again dipped below 20 wins under Simmons.

By then, talented players saw USL as a place to enjoy victories and the south Louisiana lifestyle.

Van Berry, Vaughn Bryan, Englishman Patrick Hughesman, Japan's Toru Yonezawa and Egyptian phenom Tarek El Sakka all enriched the school's blossoming tennis reputation.

"Tarek was the best player I ever had," Simmons said. "He was the youngest member ever (at age 14) of the Egyptian Davis Cup team. He had a huge forehand."

El Sakka won 21, 23, 23 and 23 dual singles matches as a Cajun. He also won the ROLEX, a feat unimagined when Simmons first created the event and locals feared that their heroes would be cannon fodder for the game's stars.

Clearly, the Cajuns had come a long way.

"From 1977-82 we had no (dual) losses in the Southland Conference," Simmons said. "My final year, every loss was to a team ranked in the Top 10. Becoming a good coach is a progression.

"What got us over the hump was lifting weights and training, the ROLEX, our schedule and switching to Prince racquets."

Simmons went on to further success as LSU's tennis coach, and at age 52 was a first-ballot inductee into the College Tennis Hall of Fame in 1998.

With the Ragin' Cajuns, he saw potential in the university and its community, then made it a reality.

Tennis Reunion
The 2013 UL tennis reunion of former players, coaches, managers, athletic trainers, and former/current patrons is planned for April 17-21 - in conjunction with the Sun Belt Conference Tennis Tournament hosted by the Cajuns.
To view the reunion information, please click on www.athleticnetwork.net > Ragin' Cajun Reunions and Special Events banner > the Tennis Reunion or email athleticnetwork@louisiana.edu
The reunion also has its own Facebook page designed by Milou Israel (WTennis 2008-12).


camellia