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50 years ago, Wingate dominated junior-college tennis
by Chuck Gordon

Hall of Famer Ron Smarr got his career off to an innovative start at Wingate

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Please contact Ron Smarr, Wingate Junior College.

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The ad, tucked away in the back of World Tennis magazine, got Bill Lagattuta ’70 thinking. A high-school senior in New Jersey in the late 1960s, Lagattuta was trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. He liked art but hadn’t gotten in the art school he applied to in Philadelphia. A professor he played tennis with recommended Fairleigh Dickinson University, but staying in the New York metro area was a nonstarter.

“I wanted to get out of there,” Lagattuta says. “All my friends were getting in trouble with the cops. I figure I’m going to wind up getting in trouble pretty soon.”

Then he saw the ad in World Tennis, placed for $25 by Smarr, Wingate’s 25-year-old coach.

Lagattuta was an accomplished high-school tennis player in an era just before the big tennis boom of the ’70s. On a whim he called the number, flew to Wingate for a tryout and was offered a partial scholarship. Next thing he knew, he was back in Wingate in August of 1968, a laid-back Catholic boy from Jersey going to chapel once a week and studying business in a tiny rural town in the South.

“Coming from New Jersey, it was like landing on the moon,” Lagattuta says.

Ron Smarr

Ron Smarr won two national titles at Wingate Junior College. He went on to become collegiate tennis' all-time leader in wins.

 

Down in Jamaica, Audley Bell ’71 learned to play tennis while working as a ball boy at the Montego Bay Tennis Club. Bell aspired to become a professional player, and he’d eventually go on to a brief pro career and make a Davis Cup appearance for his home country. But he was serious about school and knew he wanted a college degree.

Wingate, and Smarr, offered him a path. When Smarr called to place his ad, he asked to speak to Gladys Heldman, publisher of World Tennis. “Do you know of any good players?” he asked her. She happened to know Bell.

In Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Deepal Wannakuwatte ’70 saw the ad and inquired. Smarr also got in touch with three Czech players – the Pospisil brothers, Tony ’70 and Peter ’71, and Eddy Pribyl ’71 – and found a few other Americans, including C.J. Travers ’70 from Maryland, to round out the team.

They formed one of the most dominant sports teams ever to wear the Bulldog blue and gold, perhaps topped only by their 1971 successor. Over four seasons – 1967 through 1971 – Smarr built a powerhouse team at Wingate. He brought in players from around the world before overseas recruiting was much of a thing, and they made Wingate into one of the most fearsome tennis teams at any collegiate level.

Before leaving Wingate for larger schools and eventually racking up more collegiate wins than any tennis coach in history, Smarr went 100-14 in four seasons at Wingate. (Oh, and he also guided the men’s soccer team to an undefeated regular season.)

And 50 years ago, in only his third season, Smarr led the Bulldogs to the National Junior College Athletic Association championship. The next season the Bulldogs won it again, in a performance so dominant that four Wingate players faced off in the semifinals of the singles draw – and one of them wasn’t even a top-four player on the team.

Along the way, they barely broke a sweat against local junior-college teams and even dispatched teams from large four-year schools handily.

They were a juggernaut.

“If we were in the NCAA, we could compete, and probably even be ranked,” Bell says.

He may be right. After all, Bell never played No. 1 at Wingate, but he did at Wake Forest.

Talent hunter

In 1969, Wingate finished third in the NJCAA men’s tennis tournament, an impressive feat considering that C.J. Travers, slated to be the team’s No. 2 player, broke his leg before the season ever began.

But as notable as it was to place third nationally in his second season as a coach, Smarr wanted more than a bronze medal. He was green but ambitious. “I think he was on a mission to be one of the best coaches in the country,” Travers says.

A standout tennis player at Appalachian State University, Smarr brought with him to Wingate something of an innovator’s spirit. From creating a makeshift court in the gym to scheduling matches with local tennis clubs, Smarr went to any length he could to improve his team.

1970 team photo

The 1970 Wingate tennis team featured players from around the world, at a time when international recruiting was still in its infancy.

 

The first step in creating a dynasty was getting the right players. “You find out early, A-level players beat B-level,” Smarr says. “You just get talent.”

Smarr might have been at his most entrepreneurial when it came to recruitment. The best collegiate tennis teams these days, at all levels, recruit heavily overseas. There seems to be no end to the number of high-level players looking for a U.S. education. But in the 1960s, few teams had foreign players. Smarr worked every angle he could think of to attract tennis talent to Wingate. The ad in World Tennis brought a lot of interest. Smarr also cultivated relationships with private coaches, such as Bill Riordan, who coached Travers up in Salisbury, Maryland, and would eventually manage Jimmy Connors and Ilie Nastase and promote tennis internationally. And Smarr wrote letter after letter to national tennis associations looking for players interested in proving themselves in the States.

The result was a multicultural group that, over the 1970 and 1971 seasons, represented four continents.

“It was amazing,” says Bell, now a University trustee. “It was like the United Nations there.”

And they had top-shelf talent. At least the top seven players in the 1970 lineup went on to play at NCAA Division I schools: National singles champion Tony Pospisil played at the University of Florida; his brother Peter, along with Bell and Pribyl, wound up playing at Wake Forest, leading the Deacons to a two-season record of 31-8 and their best-ever finish in the ACC; Travers and Wannukawatte played in the top three at Georgia Southern; and Lagattuta played briefly at Appalachian State.

You find out early, A-level players beat B-level. You just get talent.

They formed a fearsome unit that breezed through the field at the nationals.

“It was definitely exciting, being the first Wingate tennis team to play in the championships,” Bell says. “We didn’t know if we were going to win it, but it was very exciting.”

Turns out, they didn’t need to worry about the competition. It took a couple of days to accumulate enough points to win in 1970, but in 1971 the Bulldogs had it locked up after Day 1. “It was over before it started,” Smarr says.

Killer schedule

The rest of campus was essentially oblivious to the team’s greatness. College tennis is hardly a big draw even now, and by the time Wingate had won its first national title, the rest of the College was on summer break.

“When we returned to campus, hardly anyone was there,” Bell says. “Come fall, it was ancient history.”

Ron Smarr and Tony Pospisil

Tony Pospisil, an aggressive serve-and-volleyer, was the star of the 1970 team, in an Allen Iverson sort of way. “He would think of all kinds of excuses not to practice,” says Lagattuta, who played No. 1 doubles with Tony. “He had such natural ability. I remember looking at him playing tennis and thinking, ‘I will never be that good. No matter how much I practice, I will never be as good as Tony.’”

“It didn’t matter if he practiced or not,” Travers says. “He was crazy good.”

Tony Pospisil moved on to Florida in the fall of 1970, to be replaced by, amazingly, an even better player: Juan Diaz, from Cuba. Diaz won the national singles title that year and then played No. 1 at the University of Florida, where he was an All-American. He was joined on the 1971 Wingate team by Bell, Pribyl, Peter Pospisil, Brian Desatnik (who went on to play at the University of South Carolina), Kevin Miller and Tony Hege ’71. Desatnik played No. 5 for Wingate but made it to the semifinals of the national tournament.

Those lineups had no trouble with teams in the Western North Carolina Junior College Athletic Association. It was when major universities came calling that the Bulldogs were occasionally tested.

That brings up another way Smarr pushed the envelope during his four years at Wingate: He put together an aggressive schedule. In 1970, Wingate played against the University of North Carolina, N.C. State, the University of South Carolina, three Division I teams from Ohio (Ohio University, Kent State and the University of Cincinnati), and Clemson, the No. 5 team in the country. Wingate lost 6-3 to Clemson and wound up going 28-3 overall.

In 1971, the schedule included Purdue University, Indiana University, the University of Virginia, the University of Georgia, and Florida State University. Indiana was co-champion of the Big Ten that year, and Wingate played the Hoosiers to a draw; the coaches stopped the match with the score knotted at 4-all and the final doubles match deadlocked at 14-apiece.

“We were competitive with everybody,” Smarr says. “Nobody blew us out. We just had too much talent.”

‘No-nonsense and fair’

Smarr has an amiable personality but is no pushover and is nobody’s fool. Once, driving Wingate’s “Blue Goose” van to an away match, one of his players shouted out the window at a passerby. “I stopped the van and said, ‘You go out there and say it to his face,’” Smarr says. “That cured that.”

An NAIA district singles champion at Appalachian State, Smarr had some wisdom to impart on the court, but he also knew that the best way to improve his team was to load up the schedule and arrange challenge matches during practices.

He did whatever he could to keep the team sharp. Late at night in the winter, after basketball practice was over, Smarr would tape off a makeshift tennis court on the hardwood floor of Sanders-Sikes Gymnasium, and his team would practice.

“It was a fast court! Like lightning,” Travers says. “It was good, though. Kept us working.”

“It was superfast,” Bell says, “but it kept us in shape and sharp.”

Audley Bell and Ron SMarr

Wingate players remember Smarr as demanding but even-keeled and understanding. He’d bend a little but rarely break. “You could tell when he was getting mad,” Lagattuta says. “‘Oh no. We’ve pushed him a little too far.’”

“I knew the kind of coach I liked: Somebody that you know cares about you,” Smarr says. “You can’t fool them. You think you can, but you can’t.”

Bell describes Smarr as “no-nonsense and fair.”

“He had to be that way,” Bell says. “He was a fierce competitor. I remember practicing with him a few times in singles. He was tough. I’ll keep who won confidential, but he was a fierce competitor on the court.”

He’s also a quick study. Smarr inherited the soccer team, despite having never played the sport. He quickly surmised that, unlike in tennis, a lineup of superstars might bring diminishing returns in soccer. “I had enough sense to know that there’s only one ball,” Smarr says. “You can’t have too many pitchers in baseball, but in soccer you can have too many real good players and only one ball.”

Leaning on his assistant coach, Dr. Lester Knight, he drilled them in the fundamentals, brought in some football players to man the back line and wound up going 34-2 (regular season) during one stretch, including a 15-0 regular season in 1968.

After the 1971 tennis title, Smarr left Wingate for the NCAAs, helming first the University of South Carolina, then the University of Colorado and finally Rice University. He retired from Rice in 2012 with 873 wins, the most ever for a collegiate tennis coach. In 42 seasons, Smarr experienced only two seasons with a losing record, and only two of his players failed to graduate.

Smarr is in multiple halls of fame, including the ITA Men’s College Tennis Hall of Fame, the North Carolina Tennis Hall of Fame and, of course, the Wingate University Sports Hall of Fame. But don’t bother asking him about them.

“Nobody cares about your bad back and your grandbabies,” Smarr says. “And nobody, other than your kids and your wife, cares about what hall of fame you’re in.”

Winning, on the other hand, now that’s something to talk about. Over his career, Smarr did little else but win, at every stop he made.

And it all started 50 years ago, with a trip to Florida in the Blue Goose, and the first national championship in Wingate history.