By Branson Hardcastle | Broadcast Reporter
The Baylor men’s tennis program is a dominant team that has reached the NCAA Tournament for 20 consecutive seasons. At the helm of this prestigious program is head coach Matt Knoll.
This season is Knoll’s 22nd at Baylor. He has seen the program from its lowest point to its highest peak, winning the 2004 NCAA Team Championship. Knoll has been recognized by others in tennis as one of the best collegiate coaches. He has been voted a National Coach of the Year three times, as well as the Big 12 Conference Coach of the Year six times.
All the success Knoll has seen at Baylor started during the 1996-97 season when he took over as the head coach for the Bears. At the time, Baylor tennis did not have its own tennis facility. The team practiced on McLean Tennis courts on campus.
“We shared courts with the intramural and P.E. department … we didn’t have a bathroom. We didn’t have a locker room. I didn’t have an office,” Knoll said. “Baylor was really transitioning to the Power 5 level at that time. It took a lot of work and a lot of perseverance from guys, but we understood that at the end of the day, it’s not how nice your facilities or your uniform is, it’s more about the heart within each individual.”
Knoll used this message to recruit talented players and turn Baylor’s tennis program around. In 1998, Knoll’s second season, Baylor made its first NCAA Tournament bid. In 2000, Knoll led the Bears to their first Big 12 regular season title with an upset over defending champion Stanford in the NCAA Tournament.
Those successful seasons helped get the tennis program’s its own facility, Hurd Tennis Center, in 2001. Hurd is considered by many to be one of the best tennis facilities in the nation, with its 12 courts, a large scoreboard and state of the art locker rooms.
Knoll was able use these new facilities to improve on what he had already built in the program. In 2004, Knoll led the Bears to Baylor’s first ever national championship in any team sport with a 4-0 win over University of California, Los Angeles.
“It was more of a mindset of championship or bust. We weren’t going to be satisfied with anything less than winning it all,” Knoll said. “We had great leadership within the team, a lot of guys that were very good at tennis and they were really good at showing up every day and getting the most out of themselves. It was a combination of all those things that gave us an opportunity to win.”
Baylor has continued its dominance in the Big 12 and all of college tennis since then. In Big 12 play, Knoll has led the Bears to 14 Big 12 titles in the last 17 years within a conference that has consistently gotten stronger.
This season, Knoll and the Bears are off to 15-4 start. Knoll started this season just three wins shy of 500 career victories. On January 27th, Knoll reached the 500-win milestone after defeating University of Nevada, Las Vegas 4-0.
“When you hit career milestones like that when you are still active, I feel like I’m still coming into my prime and I have a lot of great years in front of me,” Knoll said. “It certainly gives you a chance to reflect on all the people that have been a part of that: the players, the administration and the supporters. That’s really special … it’s neat to be recognized.”
Assistant Coach Michael Woodson is in his second season at Baylor, and he said Knoll knows how to prepare players for success.
“I think that by making them mature, toughening them up, preparing them for the business world that we live in today, I think he is really setting these guys up for success on the court and off the court,” Woodson said. “He makes sure that these guys are prepared for whatever comes after college.”
Woodson said one thing that has made an impact on him is Knoll’s ability to keep the team accountable and in line.
“I think I nurture the guys a little bit more than he does, sometimes to a fault. I’ve learned that you have to let guys fail occasionally,” Woodson said. “He is really good at about making sure that guys are accountable for their actions and learn from their mistakes. [Knoll] has taught me that you can’t hold their hand more than one time and to let them make mistakes and learn from them.”
Knoll and the Bears look to continue the winning tradition this season and make it to 21 straight NCAA Tournament appearances.