Morris: Charmed life for USC's DeMars
04/18/2010 12:00 AM
06/17/2011 3:03 PM
When Kent DeMars sits late at night at his desk in the same cramped office at the Roundhouse where he has worked for 26 years, the South Carolina tennis coach must believe the stars outside always are perfectly aligned.
How else to explain the charmed life DeMars has lived in tennis. DeMars grew up in East St. Louis next door to Jimmy Connors' family. How can you possibly have another interest when there is a tennis court in the field behind your homes?
Fast forward a few years and DeMars is headed for a high school coaching job when he receives a call from Jimbo Connors - Jimmy's father - telling him instead to take the head coaching job at Southern Illinois-Edwardsville. When Jimbo Connors recommends you for the job, you take it, even if that college has no program.
Seven Division II championships later, DeMars happens to need change for a dollar bill to purchase a newspaper outside a coffee shop in Athens, Ga., when he bumps into an associate athletics director from USC. A few days later, DeMars is offered the school's tennis coaching job, accepts it and is off to Columbia, where he will retire at the end of this season as USC's all-time leader in wins.
Call it good karma, or good kismet, DeMars says he has had a way of being in the right place at the right time. Time and time again.
To fully appreciate how DeMars overcame a small budget and the poorest facilities in the SEC to build a nationally prominent program, you need to know how he got to USC.
At SIU-Edwardsville, DeMars started a program from scratch and after 11 seasons made a name for himself nationally with seven consecutive NCAA titles. You can build a national power, DeMars says, by "going across the river" from Edwardsville to St. Louis to mine the nation's top players.
Still, DeMars was not recognized by Bobby Foster, USC's associate athletic director, when DeMars crossed the Ramada Inn parking lot in Athens, Ga., in search of change to feed the newspaper stand.
This was April 1984, when Foster was USC's golf coach. Foster's team was playing in the Southern Intercollegiate tournament at the Athens Country Club. He dropped his players off at the course that morning and headed to the NCAA tennis championships, where DeMars was coaching two of his players.
Foster was in search of USC's next tennis coach.
"Are you Bobby Foster?" Foster recalls DeMars asking. "Well, I'm interested in your opening."
The two leaned against Foster's car in the Ramada Inn parking lot and talked for about an hour. They took their conversation into the hotel lobby, and Foster examined DeMars' resume.
Foster then went to his room and telephoned Bob McKinley, then the coach at Trinity (Texas) College. McKinley was well respected in the college coaching community, and Foster figured the Trinity coach would know something of this DeMars fella.
"Don't hire him unless you're prepared to have the best coach in America at your school," Foster recalls McKinley saying. Little did Foster know McKinley and DeMars had developed a friendship - and mutual admiration - when DeMars was a player at St. Mary's University in Texas and worked McKinley's camps in the summer.
McKinley was well aware of DeMars' background as a tennis junkie growing up in East St. Louis. This was a time when East St. Louis was developing a reputation as one of the most crime-ravaged cities in the country and producer of outstanding tennis talent.
Kent was the oldest of four boys and two girls to Walter and Dorothy DeMars. Walter was the owner of an office equipment business, selling typewriters to school and office furniture to businesses in the St. Louis area. Dorothy, like most Irish-Catholic women, prayed for her oldest son to join the priesthood.
Instead, DeMars took up tennis and flourished under the tutelage of Gloria Connors, his next door neighbor. Her son, Jimmy, had not been born yet, so Gloria took DeMars and several others on her wing in teaching the nuances of the game she loved.
If you walked about 50 feet out the back door of the DeMars' home in the lower- to middle-class neighborhood, you found what once was a corn field before a housing development sprouted in the early 1950s. The vacant lot was the perfect locale for a clay tennis court, and the Connors' and DeMars' families pooled resources to construct what became a community-used facility.
Upon graduation from St. Mary's, DeMars returned to coach at his high school alma mater, Assumption High School, where young Jimmy Connors was establishing himself as the No. 1 junior player in the country.
Since Connors' mother served as her son's coach, DeMars was more of Jimmy Connors' manager, carting the budding star from tournament to tournament and feeding him a steady diet of practice shots to work on his forehand and backhand.
Later on, DeMars annually attended the U.S. Open and thrilled at the prospect of meeting up with Connors, then the world's best player. It was DeMars' daughters, Colleen and Kristen, who carry memories of having access to the players' quarters at the U.S. Open where they dog sat for the likes of Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova.
After earning his master's degree from Miami (Ohio), DeMars believed he had landed his dream job as teacher and tennis coach at West High School in Belleville, outside East St. Louis.
Then Jimbo Connors intervened and sent DeMars to SIU-Edwardsville, where the school needed to add men's and women's tennis at the Division II level. The additional tennis programs gave SIU-Edwardsville the necessary eight sports for the men's soccer program to compete at the Division I level.
DeMars became a fund-raiser to get the SIU-Edwardsville program off the ground, used connections in the coaching profession to recruit players and made do with two tennis courts at Roxana High School, some 20 minutes from campus.
He also tinkered with a coaching strategy that resulted in his single biggest contribution to tennis over the years. When returning a volley in doubles competition, coaches always have preached "shooting the middle," or attempting to split the two opposing players with a passing shot.
"If they're going to shoot the middle, isn't that where you should be?" DeMars often asked his players. So DeMars moved one of his players to the middle of the court, thus forcing the opposition to either lob the return or attempt to pass it down the line. The formation became the trademark of SIU-Edwardsville players Ken Flach and Robert Seguso, who later won two Wimbledons and a U.S. Open title.
If nothing else, DeMars learned at SIU-Edwardsville how to make the most out of the least. He carried that thinking to USC, knowing well that he was recruiting against some of the nation's top programs with facilities far below standard. Still, DeMars had enough connections to garner top-level talent.
He also had the foresight to start national youth-level tournaments in Columbia that served his recruiting well. Beyond that, DeMars established a fatherly manner that told parents of all recruits their sons would be treated as if they were his own.
Despite his travels and demanding schedule, DeMars always put his family first. His two grown daughters, Colleen and Kristen, recall often missing their father's Aug. 9 birthday because it usually landed during an out-of-town tennis tournament. But the two also remember their father never missing their Aug. 10 and 16 birthdays, even though those dates also fell during tournaments across the country.
It is the same manner in which DeMars always was there for his players. Seth Rose can attest to that. He was the product of a single-parent family in Boca Raton, Fla. By his senior season in 2003, Rose was an All-American and one of the top players in USC history. He also established a friendship with his coach that extended beyond tennis.
Rose recalls a night in 2003 when he awoke in the middle of the night not feeling well at his South Quad dormitory. In the morning, he called DeMars, who immediately drove to the dorm and transported his No. 1-singles player to Williams-Brice Stadium to see an awaiting doctor.
"I didn't have any family here," Rose says. "Coach was my family. When he was recruiting me, he promised my mother that he would take care of me. Looking back on it, he did take care of me. He walked the walk."
Rose says DeMars had a calming affect on his players and teams over the years. No matter the stakes, DeMars seldom showed emotion, and his demeanor usually was reflected in his team.
There was one sure sign, though, that DeMars believed a crucial moment in a match was at hand. That's when he would reach into his pocket and remove his trademark ChapStick.
There was one other trademark of DeMars over the years: the presence of his wife, Susan, at matches. At every home match, she held her own court at the gazebo located outside the old courts near Sarge Frye Field. Rose says there was no bigger supporter of the program than Susan DeMars.
She died of breast cancer in 2006 and the gazebo later was dedicated in her honor. It sits in limbo for now, until a new tennis facility and courts are constructed where Sarge Frye Field used to stand. The gazebo will be part of those facilities.
While it is a shame DeMars will not be the coach when those courts are opened in a couple of years, it only seems fitting that his name forever be associated with the program by naming the courts in his honor as the father of USC tennis.
About Ron Morris
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