Photo by Kate Nuelle
Russell McMindes has spent 21 seasons with Men’s Tennis at Trinity — first as an athlete, then as an assistant coach and now as the head coach of the program. Each of his 10 seasons as head coach have led to a Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference (SCAC) Championship, with 14 athletes having earned All-American accolades. With the spring season underway, McMindes discussed what it’s like to lead such a prestigious program, how his team ended up in Hawaii and what professional tennis player he would like to face.
What does it mean to you to be a part of such a prestigious program — one that has more SCAC Championships at 24 than any team in the conference across all sports?
It’s a little surreal. Just the history that precedes us on the tennis court, and the history of the program from back in the Division I days, and some of the legends of the game that kind of paved the way for us, it’s just been neat. You had Clarence Mabry as the coach and he kind of created all of this, and you had somebody like coach Butch Newman that played for him and just embraced and embodied everything that Clarence was about. Then Butch becomes the coach and is able to then pass that legacy on. Then I played for Butch and completely bought into the way he embodied the culture of the program, and now it’s my turn. I get to take a turn at passing it on. All those things, they don’t get lost on me.
Having won the SCAC in each of your 10 years as head coach, how do you keep your team motivated to not get complacent?
Nobody wants to be the team that breaks the streak. You want to make sure you continue on and you’re responsible for extending what we’ve started here, and so that’s not hard to get them to buy into. They like being, kind of, “the team to chase,” in that regard. The fact that the other teams in our conference have really stepped up in the past few years helps push us, as well. That keeps us alert, keeps us ready. We understand that it’s not a foregone conclusion. We have to play well, we have to be ready, and that provides the necessary motivation, that proper level of respect.
How did you make this year’s trip to Hawaii happen?
We couldn’t take that trip just as basically a vacation; we had to make sure it had value, and it did. We got to play three in-region Division III opponents, which we need those for our schedule anyway … The other element of it that really helped us spearhead the thought was, we have a Hawaiian on our team: Jace [Akagi-Okuma] is a junior. We just felt like before he graduated, it was important that we gave him a chance to play in front of his family and friends and coaches that have allowed him the opportunity to come to us … We got over there, and [his family] basically adopted us as family. They’re already incredibly generous as it is, but the hospitality was amazing, and it was cool for him to actually have the largest number of fans at a given match. Over here, it’s just whatever friends he’s made at Trinity, but everybody else has parents or siblings that get to come into town and watch, but they gotta do it from afar, so that’s kind of what got the wheels turning a little bit as we wanted to make it happen while he was still playing for us.
How do you feel you’ve used your engineering degree as a tennis coach?
I think the biggest thing I take away is just problem-solving; the ability to push through difficult challenges. Obviously engineering was a very rigorous, intensive degree path, so being able to kind of put your mind to the idea that that is going to be my goal, and I’m going to get through it, whatever I have to do, whatever adaptations I have to make to succeed, I’m gonna see it through … It’s been good for me to be able to pass that message on to my guys as they’re trying to grow, understanding how life works. There are going to be tough times, not everything’s going to be fun, not everything’s going to be easy. That’s okay, it’s not supposed to be.
If you could face any current professional tennis player, who would you want to face?
It’s hard not to just pick the top three guys. I would love to see what it feels like to deal with [Rafael] Nadal’s spin off his left. I’ve always appreciated and embraced how you can feel the effort he puts into tennis… I think that resonates with me because I was never the guy that was so gifted that I could just flow and make it easy … I would love to go up against what he does, but at the same time, I would just love to go against the brilliance of how easily [Novak] Djokovic [and Roger] Federer move, and just how precise they’re able to be. I’m a doubles guy, so I’d love to play doubles against the Brian brothers. One of the guys that I competed against in college, Eric Butorac, he went on the tour, so I’d [also] love to see what it’s like to hit against him when he was on the tour.
If you were stranded on an island with one person, who would you choose to be with and why?
Well, I have to say my wife. We just have always enjoyed being together. That’s a special relationship, and I love our moments together. My daughter, I’m gonna drag her into this even though you said one because even though I love what I do, my time with my family and the experiences we’ve had, they’re the truly special moments that I would never want to miss.
What three people, past or present, would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Being a Christian, I’d love to meet Jesus, and just truly know what that is all about, not have to have any more of these interpretations, but truly be able to to meet and know exactly what it’s all about. My grandma passed away kind of unexpectedly, and I would love to have her back to be able to have dinner … So she definitely would be in there and … [Gregg] Popovich. That’s a random one, but I’ve always as a coach — and he’s a very different personality type that I feel like I come across — but anybody you talked in his inner circle believe he’s a very genuine, compassionate guy. He cares more about the person than the player, and so I would love to just be able to sit down with him and just get to understand how he thinks.
What would you eat at this dinner?
Honestly, since grandma’s back, we’d have to do something off of grandma’s menu because she was an amazing cook, and she loved fattening us up, feeding us as much as she could. Maybe her cinnamon rolls, her egg salad, something like that because she was the best at those.