Aug 13, 2013
By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Insider
Matt Knoll can laugh now, but he still remembers begging Baylor's HHPR department to go halfsies on resurfacing the antiquated Streich Tennis Courts.
"And I had to raise the athletic department half to get them resurfaced . . . because we didn't have any resources to really manage our own facility," he said.
Taking over a moribund Baylor men's tennis program in 1996 that had gone winless in conference seven times in the previous eight seasons, Knoll moved the Bears from the city-owned Charlie McCleary Tennis Center courts back on campus at Streich.
"The reason we weren't playing on campus was we didn't really have a facility on campus," he said. "I would say you couldn't have had a worse facility than we had. There were eight courts, they were really close together, had a surface that was about 10 years old; bad net posts; no seats; no restrooms. And they were slanted, they weren't even level. We were making the most of a challenging situation."
From those humble, laughable beginnings 17 years ago, Knoll can now gaze over the Hurd Family Tennis Center and Jim and Nell Hawkins Indoor Tennis Center with the confidence that Baylor has arguably the best collegiate tennis facilities in the nation.
"I can't think of another university that has a better overall package than we do," said Joey Scrivano, who took over the women's program 11 years ago.
Mark Hurd, president of Oracle Corporation and the philanthropist that provided the funds for the most recent renovations and improvements to the outdoor tennis center, has made a point of visiting the nation's top collegiate tennis venues and proudly puts Baylor at the top of the list.
"Obviously, I am prejudiced," said Hurd, a scholarship tennis player who graduated from Baylor with a bachelor's degree in business administration in 1979. "But I make a job out of going out and looking at facilities . . . Mind you, I've been to Illinois, Ohio State, Tulsa, Texas, A&M, Stanford, UCLA and USC. And my view is that the Baylor facility is the nicest facility in the country, bar none."
The transformation and metamorphosis has been nothing short of a miracle, with the Bears first moving from the Streich courts to the new six-court Baylor Tennis Center in 2001. They hosted the Big 12 Championships that year and again in 2006 and 2011.
"I don't know about anything else, but we definitely got `most improved,''' Knoll said jokingly. "I think we went from arguably the worst outdoor facility in the country to I think the best outdoor facility in the country. It probably wasn't the best at the time, because we didn't have the shaded structure (over the stands) or the scoreboard and locker rooms and all that stuff. But it was a dramatic improvement."
The original tennis center also added locker rooms and coaches' offices, a huge upgrade from the glorified storage closet underneath the Floyd Casey Stadium stands where Knoll was first located.
Before the move to the Baylor Tennis Center, though, the program was already on the rise. The men made their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 1998 and reached the quarterfinals the next year, when they upset four-time defending national champion Stanford before losing to eventual champion Georgia, 4-3, in a memorable quarterfinal.
"I think the first thing it took, and it's why I came here, was the will to really try to be competitive in tennis," said Knoll, who was an assistant coach at Kansas before taking the Baylor job. "When Baylor got into the Big 12, they really created a vision that we were going to try to be competitive in sports like tennis; whereas before, we just hadn't allocated the resources to even have a chance to compete in our league."
There were also the drawings on the book for an indoor facility - which Knoll was shown during his job interview - that wouldn't come to fruition until his 17th season at the school.
"We laugh, but at least they had spent the money to do an architectural rendering," he said. "It didn't end up being anything close to what we got, but at least there was some idea that that we're going to try to build a facility. . . . They delivered. It just took a lot longer than I thought it would."
Three years after the tennis center opened, the Baylor men won the school's first national championship in any sport. Led by All-Americans Benjamin Becker and Benedikt Dorsch, the Bears rolled over UCLA, 4-0, in the 2004 final.
"(Winning the national championship) was huge. I think it can't be overstated," Knoll said. "There's just something that resonates about a national championship that nothing else compares to. You can win the Big 12 100 times in a row, and it just doesn't even come close."
Until the summer of 2007, Streich was still available as backup or practice courts. But when construction began on the Simpson Athletics and Academic Center, the Streich Tennis Courts, the soccer practice field, the Baylor Marina Swimming Pool and the adjoining building were all displaced.
That was when the six back courts were added to the Baylor Tennis Center, giving the Bears the facilities to host two matches simultaneously or hold workouts for both the men's and women's tennis teams at the same time.
"You have to be able to not only talk the talk, but walk the walk," Scrivano said. "And we were able to do that. We don't have to sit here showing recruits blueprints of facilities that we may have in the future. We have them. It's exciting that we have an athletic department and supporters like Mark Hurd and the Hawkins that want to stay ahead of the curve."
Mark and his wife, Paula Hurd, provided a significant gift in 2009 that provided new locker rooms and renovations in the offices, meeting rooms and lobby in what was renamed the Hurd Tennis Building. And this was far beyond putting in some new carpet or replacing a couple chairs.
"I love it when recruits come into my office and say this is the nicest coaches' office I've ever seen," Scrivano said. "And it's the same thing when they walk into the locker room. They think it's an NBA locker room. And the players realize that there are people out there like the Hurds and the Hawkins that have a real appreciation for what it takes to be a tennis player at Baylor and want to support that."
Junior All-American Ema Burgic said she hasn't "seen anything like this" in her first two years at Baylor.
"It's amazing. This is probably the nicest locker room that any women's tennis team has," Burgic said. "We have our own lockers and all these TVs whenever we need to watch videos. Sometimes, I just like to come in here and study."
Hurd, who has been "very motivated by the vision that coach Knoll has had for the program," said it was important to give the coaches "first-class facilities where they can do their work" and a place where players want to be even during their down time.
"It's a big deal to have teams want to be - whether it's at the stadium or the practice field or practice courts - where the kids can not only come and play, but take breaks and relax," Hurd said. "We wanted to make it a place that our kids and our coaches want to be and a place where recruits want to come to."
Last year, the final pieces came together with the completion of the $7 million Hawkins Indoor Tennis Center, along with an LED scoreboard for the stadium courts, shaded spectator seating over the Hulse Grandstand and video streaming for the front six outdoor courts.
"It's an idea that we studied and studied and looked at and studied some more," Jim Hawkins said at the Jan. 25, 2013 dedication ceremony. "I think it will bring a new dimension to tennis. Tennis has kind of been second-fiddle for a long time. And now it looks like it might get a chance to be on a level playing field."
Until the six-court indoor facility was built, Baylor's bad-weather option for matches was to travel an hour up the road to play on four covered courts at the Colonial Racquet and Fitness Club in Ennis.
"The worst part of my job here before the indoor was when we had a team come in from outside of this region and it would rain," Knoll said. "One year (2005), we're playing Virginia in Ennis. We're No. 1 in the country and they're No. 2 and we're playing on four covered courts; it's 35 degrees; and nobody was there. You work so hard to get these top teams in here, and they come and you can't play. It's terrible."
Now, through rain, snow, sleet or even intense heat, they can go indoors for matches or workouts.
"Before, if we had a 7 a.m. practice, we had to go inside to the Marrs McLean Gym and just find a way to hit," Burgic said. "We'd set up a net on the volleyball court or serve over the basketball goal, or just hit some volleys or something. . . . When it was raining, you're like, `OK, we're done practicing. Let's do something else.'''
The indoor courts were also the final requirement in bidding for the NCAA Championships. Without them, Baylor basically had no chance to host the final site.
"With the Jim and Nell Hawkins Indoor Tennis Center, we've gone from having really good facilities that were certainly well-respected to arguably the finest set of tennis facilities in the nation and certainly worthy of hosting the National Championship on a regular basis," McCaw said.
Hosting the NCAA Championships "is a logical and important step for our program," Knoll said, but without the addition of the indoor courts, "we had no chance."
"It's just too competitive," he said. "There are too many schools that want to host for the NCAA to grant a host site to a school that doesn't have indoor backup. You just can't do it. They did it once before, but they're not going to do it again."
Among the other schools that have hosted, Georgia, Stanford, Tulsa and Illinois have all the necessary elements of enough outdoor courts and the required backup indoor courts. But no one can match Baylor's setup that has two banks of six outdoor courts together with elevated seating and another six indoor courts.
Baylor has put in a bid to host the 2015, 2016, 2017 or 2018 NCAA Championships, with the selections expected to come in December.
While Hurd said "disappointment isn't the word I would use" if Baylor isn't picked as a host site, Knoll said he "would be devastated."
"When somebody puts out a check list of the things you need, and we went out and got all the things we needed as well as they can be done . . . I was taught that when you do what you're supposed to do you're going to get what you're supposed to get," Knoll said. "Unfortunately, the world doesn't always work like that. And if we don't get it, we're going to bounce back and bid for whenever the next chance is."
McCaw said the feedback he's received from the tennis community is "your facilities are off the charts and you really deserve the opportunity to host. Hopefully, that will manifest itself into an opportunity here in 2015. . . . I think Waco, now, has the infrastructure to be able to host an event like that."
Regardless of whether Baylor is rewarded with the host bid, though, Hurd said, "We're not done."
Typically, everybody associates the arms race in athletic facilities with football or maybe basketball," Hurd said. "But that same thing is occurring in tennis. We've got a great program, but we can't be static. We've got to continue to push. I think we have a vision to win more championships and host the biggest events at our facility and win them."
To that end, Knoll has a "wish list" that includes a weight room and training facility, improvements in the visitor's locker room setup, video streaming and a scoreboard for the back six courts and premium seating on the building side of the stadium courts.
Knoll said the "loge-box" type seating would give the Bears fans on both ends of the court, "and I think that would really add a lot."
"There's still work to do," Hurd said. "But we've done the work to build the nicest facilities in the country. And I think this would be a perfect venue for the NCAA. As a group, Baylor has put a lot of energy behind this."
If Baylor is rewarded the NCAA Championship host bid, Knoll said "they'll have a first-class experience and everybody will want to come back."
"My expectation is we would (host) it every four years," he said. "All we've got to do is get in there and do a great job. Baylor always does a great job with events. And then I think people are going to see what we've talked about. Not everybody knows."