Northam Adds to Tennis Coaching Legacy

Northam Adds to Tennis Coaching Legacy

By: Dave Holden, Whitman College

The history of Whitman College athletics glitters with memories of four coaching legends. 

R.V. Borleske, the first of the coaching giants, won a total of 17 Northwest Conference titles in football, baseball and basketball in the decades prior to World War II.

Beginning in 1937, track & field coach Bill Martin won the first of seven straight NWC championships, and he added three more in the 1950s.

Tennis coach Bob Burgess captured six consecutive crowns in the 1960s and tacked on a seventh in 1975. Golf coach Bob Thomsen, starting in 1966, ruled the NWC roost for five straight seasons and then brought home a final championship trophy in 1978.

Against the backdrop of those lofty accomplishments, current men's tennis coach Jeff Northam has spent the past decade quietly laying the foundation for an impressive legacy all his own.

Last weekend, with his team winning its second consecutive NWC title, Northam pocketed "Coach of the Year" honors for the second time in as many years. That gives Northam four titles -- and four coaching awards -- since the spring of 2000.

It's not what his competitors want to hear, but from all indications, Northam and his program are just now hitting full stride. His teams have thoroughly dominated NWC opponents over the past four years, winning 68 of 71 dual match decisions. Most of his 2008-09 roster returns next fall, and recruiting continues to go well.

Northam, a 1988 Whitman graduate who shared in three NWC titles as a player, served as part-time coach at his alma mater in the early 1990s and then returned to campus on a full-time basis in 1997. Late this season, his career victory total jumped past the 200-win plateau.

In recent years, with his roster size dwarfing the NWC average, Northam has kept his players happy and their tennis skills sharp by scheduling two matches on the same day, many times in different cities. His talent pool, even divided by two, has kept on winning. In March, his two "teams" won seven NWC road matches in seven days, outscoring the opposition by a combined score of 61-2.

There was no stopping Whitman this spring, in fact, as it pursued the second of its back-to-back titles. Despite losing its top two players from a year ago, and having its third-best player miss half this season because of injury, Whitman rolled to a 24-4 record, the best win-loss mark in Northam's 15 seasons.

In addition to their spring exploits, Northam's players have dominated the Intercollegiate Tennis Association's recent Pacific Northwest fall tournaments. Whitman players have won the singles and doubles titles in each of the past three years, advancing to the national small-college championships and earning ITA All-American honors.

In one of the ITA regional tournaments, Whitman ran the table in the first two rounds of singles, winning all 24 of its matches, before advancing 12 players into the round of 16 and filling seven of eight quarterfinal and all four semifinal slots.

There is nothing accidental or coincidental about such widespread success. It sprouts from soil that Northam has cultivated with great care.

"Whitman is extremely fortunate to have Jeff at the helm of our men's tennis program," Whitman athletic director Dean Snider says. "I have never encountered a better team builder. Combine that with his tremendous tennis skills and his ability to recruit outstanding students and tennis players and you have someone who could be Coach of the Year every season."

Snider, who racked up 200-plus victories as a volleyball coach before moving into his administrative role, also lauds Northam is a "wonderful person with a generous heart and tremendous depth of character. He is an excellent role model for our students. I am proud to call him a colleague and friend."

Justin Hayashi, a senior captain on this year's team, also speaks in glowing terms about Northam.

"Jeff never hesitates to go the extra mile for his players, regardless of how high or low they might be on the team ladder," Hayashi says. "He offers everyone free private lessons on any day of the week, strings our rackets for free if the team maintains a combined grade point average of 3.2 or higher, and he actively changes our practice routine to keep things interestings. I have never seen an individual devote as much time and effort as Jeff into the success off an athletic team and its players."

Hayashi, who was recently nominated for ESPN The Magazine's Academic All-District Team, says Northam is a great "life coach," as well as a great tennis coach. "As a Whitman alum, Jeff understands that Whitman students are scholars with diverse interests. While tennis requires a lot of commitment and time for both the players and coach, Jeff has never discouraged any of us from pursuing our interests or investing extra time in our academics. Due to Jeff's understanding, I've been able to stay active throughout my collegiate years and achieve a successful academic track record."

"Jeff's primary duty is to coach tennis, but he understands that experiences and learning in other areas and disciplines are just as important," Hayashi adds. "He also understands that life has its trials and tribulations and he actively ensures that all of his players get through those tough times. He checks on his players by taking individuals out to dinner or calling them just to see how things are going."

Whitman's success on the courts is due in part to the Northam's ongoing efforts to create a "team in the truest sense of the word," Hayashi says. "He organizes team nights for board games or movies, just to keep the team bonded and morale high." 

Finally, Hayashi says, "I wouldn't be same person I am today without Jeff's guidance and leadership. Through Jeff, I learned to be both a team player and a leader, and I learned the true value of what it means to be a student athlete. Jeff is a phenomenal influence."

Northam, four-time NWC Coach of the Year, leads his team next week into the NCAA Div. III national championship tournament for a third straight season.

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