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Winningest College Tennis Coach of All Time Reveals His Secrets

An Interview With Dick Gould

By Marsh Riggs

Marsh Riggs is the owner and operator of Coast to Coast Tennis, LLC, a tennis management company. An USPTA Elite Professional, and SoCal native, Marsh was two time high school league champion, a JC All American and earned a tennis scholarship to UC Santa Barbara. A 30 year career in tennis has earned him multiple industry awards and he continues to inspire kids to excel at this great game.  

A few college coaches exist in the rarefied air of triumph and glory. Their achievements are almost of mythical proportions. The names John Wooden and Nick Saban come to mind, but a tennis coach hired in Palo Alto, California, in 1966 won more NCAA championships than those two storied coaches combined.

 

This superb leader is Stanford University Men’s Tennis Coach Emeritus, Dick Gould. He was a coach with transformational powers, who could turn players into champions, teams into dynasties, and institutions into empires. Through the force of will, belief, and the power of positivity, this leader recruited players on a quest that would bring honor and glory to an organization. He set standards that can never be equaled and records that can never be broken, leaving a legacy without comparison.

 

No coach was better fit for a position. Dick grew up on a farm in Ventura, California, then toiled on ‘The Farm’ at Stanford University for 38 years as the men’s tennis coach. He had leadership positions in high school, one as student body president. He eventually led a group of young men who were unquestionably loyal. He began a winning tradition at a junior college nearby, and continued those winning ways at Stanford, bringing home an unprecedented 17 national championships.

Dick coached 50 All-Americans. Ten singles players and seven doubles teams won individual NCAA championships under him. Nine players went onto be ranked in the top 15 in world rankings. Fourteen players reached the top 10 in doubles world rankings and, amazingly, seven of his players were ranked No. 1 in the world in doubles. The names of his players read like a who’s who of tennis, McEnroe’s, Bryan’s, Tanner, Mayotte, Mayer’s, Whitlinger, Mitchell, Goldie, Palmer, O’Brien, Goldstein and so many others.

Not only is Dick Gould the winningest college tennis coach in the history of the NCAA, only three coaches in any NCAA sport won more championships—but two of those coached men’s and women’s teams or multiple sports. His winning percentage of .840 means he’s standing alone atop Mt. Olympus. Looking up at him are the likes of Adolph Rupp, Dean Smith, and Knute Rockne.  

Dick made Stanford tennis synonymous with winning. He made back-to-back championships look easy—he did it eight times. Then the three-peat. He invented the quad-peat. If not for a second-place finish in 1994, he would have won the penta-peat. How did he do it? What made him so special? I got a chance to talk with Coach Gould recently on a Zoom call and was able to ask him about his amazing journey. Here are excerpts from that interview:

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Marsh Riggs—How did you get started playing tennis? Did your parents play?

Dick Gould—My parents weren’t tennis players in any sense of the word. But they said, “Hey it’d be nice if you took a tennis lesson.” I said, “I don’t want to take a tennis lesson. I wear boots. I don’t want to wear a little white shirt and those little white shorts downtown in a farming community, it’s not for me.” Mom said, “Well, I think you’re going to take that tennis lesson or you can’t ride your horse this summer.” So, I took a lesson, and the teacher there was a really dynamic guy, but he knew I didn’t want to be there. But everything he did right away he equated with another sport. So, he said, “You step into the ball like Rocky Marciano steps into a punch. You watch the ball like Ralph Kiner watched the ball out of the pitcher’s hand.” He made everything really exciting. I was hooked from then on, and I never put down my racquet.

Marsh Riggs—You were student body president at Ventura High School. Is that where you developed leadership skills?

Dick Gould—My dad was student body president and my grandfather was on the board of trustees when they built the high school, so my folks were active in local government and farming government. I enjoyed people. I like people, I like to be around people. There are a lot of lessons a leader can give by example. There are a lot of lessons a kid can learn if the right person is there to teach them. And you don’t say, ‘be this or do this,’ you do it all by example. If there’s a paper on a court, a piece of trash, if I don’t pick it up, they’re not going to pick it up. If I had to tell them all the time, they still wouldn’t pick it up. But if I do it, they’ll do it.

Marsh Riggs—You played at Stanford before you coached there. What was college tennis like at that time? How was college tennis different?

Dick Gould—First of all, there were no indoor courts, so tennis excelled in the sunshine states. Miami was always a good team. There were good teams in Texas and SoCal, especially UCLA and USC. Stanford was never out of the top ten. But no one was close to the top two, UCLA and USC; although, occasionally, Texas Trinity was.

 

Second, there were very few scholarships back then, and no full scholarships. Even our college starting quarterback at Stanford might have had tuition paid, but he had to bus tables for his room and board. I didn’t have an assistant coach for 20 years. Freshman were not allowed on the varsity team. My coach was a part-time coach. I think he made $5,000 a year. He was only there from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.

 

Marsh Riggs—What was the highlight of your college tennis days?

Gould—I was No. 4 and No. 5 during my freshman season, moved up to varsity my sophomore year, and was No. 7 on the team, just outside of starting. In my junior year, I changed my major to physical education because I had decided to go into coaching. So, I was going to get both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in five years so maybe I could redshirt, which was almost unheard of in those days. An undergraduate Dean helped me make it work.

 

By my senior year, I was No. 6 on the team and a starter, which was a great thing for me. Then I worked my way up to No. 3, a solid three, in my 5th year. After three or four years of playing every day, which back home on the farm I never did, I was able to make a breakthrough and was one of the better college players in the country at that time. One of my highlights was beating a Davis Cup player from Great Britain who was playing at a school in Oregon.

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Marsh Riggs—Your class at Stanford was 1959, then you got your master’s degree in 1960. Then went onto teach and coach at a high school? What can you share for high school coaches now who want to improve?

Dick Gould—[At Mountain View High School in Mountain View, California,] I coached freshman and sophomore football, coached the tennis team, taught PE classes, drivers ed and driver training, and a social living class. My high school was in a very diverse area and most of my players had no experience, so I was really starting from scratch. Because I coached football, I recruited my football players to join the tennis team. I had guys who were good athletes but were playing tennis for the first time in their lives. We had a lot of kids try out for the team, like about a hundred kids. We had some volleyball courts, and I lowered the nets to use those courts, and that gave us four hitting areas. And there was a big gym with 30-foot-high walls, and I had kids hitting against the wall.

One thing we did that’s easy was practicing serves, so I’d actually start practice with serves—a bucket or two of balls. I’d put a ball can in one corner of the court and have them aim for it. The next day, we’d do the other corner or out wide. So, we always started with serving, and then of course we could always practice returns. Then, instead of practicing first serves or aces, I always had them practice second serves, because that was the serve that was going to let them down; it determines, in the long run as a pro, if they were going to be any good or not.

Every practice was written out on little note cards that I’d take to practice: Exactly what I wanted every player to do, what time, and so on, and who they were going to practice with.

 

I remember we took two full school busses of students to support our team for our biggest match of the year. I made a scoreboard for each court, had the players’ names that they would slide into the scoreboard. We had sliced oranges on every court, ice water, towels on every court. These things weren’t done in those days, so we made it pretty special. I got a lot of good feedback.

Marsh Riggs—You became a tennis teaching pro at a local club. Did you enjoy that?

Dick Gould—My college coach was instrumental. He told me the high school was great, that you get your pension plan and benefits, but you want to be a club pro on the side. There were about 22 clubs within seven miles of the area, so I applied to a few. I was offered three different club teaching positions. I got a position at a club in the same hometown I was living in. It only had 2 courts, but I worked there all summer from 7:30 in the morning until 7:30 at night, sometimes with no lunch break, and all weekends, seven days a week. Once we got it going, I had about 20 or 30 ranked players.

Marsh Riggs—You then made the move over to Foothill Junior College in Los Altos, California. Why the move?

Dick Gould—The attraction there was I would only be doing tennis, which was my passion.  I taught PE tennis college classes, coached the team, and the club was just a mile or two away. It was a nice package. To raise money for the Los Altos Tennis Patrons, and to promote interest in tennis, we had tennis exhibitions. We had  college guys, Chuck McKinley, Raphael Osuna, Dennis Ralston, and Tom Edlefsen, who was No. 11 in the country. The year before that, we had Laver, Gonzales and Segura play. Gonzales cost us $300. Pancho Segura was $200. It actually cost more to get the college guys up. That was big since those exhibitions with Laver, Gonzales and Segura would sell out with 3,000 people. That would be the money we’d use to run a novice tournament. We’d have 350 players in our novice tournament, and the players only paid a one-dollar entry fee. For that dollar, they got a free ticket to the movie theatre; a steak barbeque; a dance (with a live band); a high school homecoming queen would stop by, a different one each day; and a pro athlete would visit each day (we had John Brodie, quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers); we had ping-pong tournaments; big draw boards; and individual score boards with the players’ names on each court; tournament programs and sliced oranges on each court, all for a dollar.

We did a lot of things to promote tennis. We started an interclub league among adults and kids.  The money helped our junior teams. One summer, we bought jackets for them and flew the top boy’s and girls to So. Cal to play at Vic Braden’s club, the Kramer club and to visit Disneyland. The next year, they came up to play us. It was really fun, that was the point.  

Marsh Riggs—You had success at Foothill JC?

Dick Gould—I was lucky. A fellow pro had a player visiting him from Germany, Horst Ritter, and he elected to come to Foothill. He was really good. He won the state championship that year and we had a good base of players behind him. Then we got another good player, Rodney Kop from Hawaii; he also won the state championship. The next year, a fellow from Mexico came, Raul Contreras, the brother of a Mexican Davis Cup player. We won two state championships in the four years I was at Foothills JC.

Marsh Riggs—You recruited your close friend, Tom Chivington, to come and coach at Foothill after you left for Stanford?

Dick Gould—I called my buddy, Tom, who was teaching at a high school in Costa Mesa, California, and loved it there; but I asked him to just come up and take a look. The superintendent hired him on the spot. So, he came up and coached for the summer with me at the club to get used to the area before school began. 

 

Marsh Riggs—What was significant about that?

Dick Gould—I’d have people call me asking if I had any players who could help teach in their recreation programs in the summer. So, I said to Tom, I’m getting these calls all the time. Why don’t we form a teaching company? We incorporated a subchapter S, Recreation Tennis Inc., and we went out and became one of the first contract programs in the public arena in California at the time. We’d engage to do rec programs as outside contractors. And rather than them hiring the tennis person directly, we would interview and hire the coaches. (Most came from our teams). We’d train them, and then we spent our time going out to the programs, actually working with them when they were teaching. At the peak, we had 25 cities we were working with throughout the Bay Area, and 55 instructors. We had five facilities up in the Lake Tahoe area. I really enjoyed teaching teachers to teach. We went into the rec departments and sold them on the idea of charging maybe $10, and the classes would be no more than six people. Classes used to be 20 people or more. So, with three tossers and three hitters, you’d get a lot of teaching done. Lots of our coaches stayed in tennis—David Sivertson, Paul Torricelli, Steve Stefanki, John Hubble, and others. We ran this company for 20 years.

Marsh Riggs—You seem to have a talent for making people feel special and valued. Where did you get that from? Did you realize it was a skill worth cultivating?

Dick Gould—The first tennis lesson I took, the guy made it exciting for me. When you think back, your best teacher probably made that course exciting for you. There’s something about him (or her). The passion for what he’s doing was contagious, the way he presented it. I was pretty vocal when I was teaching. I was quick to clap and raise my voice a lot and never stopped talking. That was me. Kids liked that. The greatest motivator I ever had was my first coach.

 

Later on, I worked for my college coach during the summer teaching at private home courts when he couldn’t do it. One of my magic moments in coaching was when I was teaching this little girl. She had this racquet that was really heavy and big, and she was young, maybe six or seven.  She had the most beautiful forehand swing you’ve ever seen, but she couldn’t hit a ball. So, I was trying to find something good to say to praise her. “I love that bow in your hair! That bow is beautiful! Look at those shoes! How did you get that color? I love those shoe strings!” I could say, “What a great swing!” but I could never say, “Great shot!” because she would never hit the ball. Finally, at her last lesson at the end of the summer, she put all of this beautiful swing together and hit the ball right in the center of the strings! And she had a beautiful finish, and balanced, and  everything. I clapped and said, “Yes! That’s it! Exactly what I wanted! Yay!” And she started jumping up and down, and she jumped up and froze, in mid-air, and she was so excited. Then she looked down and there’s a little puddle of water forming under her. She was so excited, she couldn’t contain herself. She looked down, she looked up at me, looked down again, looked back at me again—and ran out the door and ran off.  I never saw her again. I can’t even remember her name.

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Marsh Riggs—You made the move over to Stanford.  What were those first few years like?

Dick Gould—We’d never been out of the top 10 in my coach’s 16 years at Stanford. At the start of my first season at Stanford , I sat down with my guys and said, “We live in the greatest area in the world, we are at the greatest school, we’ve got nice facilities. I don’t see why we can’t contend for a national championship, why we can’t win it here.” And the players rolled their eyes and I’m sure they were thinking, “Coach, it can never happen here.” A few years earlier, we were 0-10 in football and all of the coaches were using excuses: You can’t be smart and be an athlete, it takes too much time to be a student, etc. We didn’t win in any sport. It was a negative attitude, no one, including the public, believed winning was possible. My guys literally laughed at me. But, at about the same time I came in, we had a new football coach, John Ralston, and he had a tremendous positive attitude, and we began to turn things around.

 

Marsh Riggs—What did it take to win that first NCAA championship, and what was it like?

Dick Gould—We had recruited Roscoe Tanner and reached the NCAA finals. The next year, we got Sandy Mayer and won it all. We didn’t play as many matches at the end of the year, we were fresher than the other teams. We didn’t schedule any really, really tough matches at the end of the season that could bring down our confidence level. Everything was on the rise, so we went in there [to the NCAA finals] with a positive feeling. We ended up winning 15 out of the 17 times we were in the finals of the team tournament. 

 

Marsh Riggs—You definitely didn’t rest on your laurels after that first NCAA victory. Did the floodgates open for players? Did it make it harder to repeat?

Dick Gould—I don’t think you look at it that way. I think I made a mistake my first six years—until we won that first championship in my seventh year. I had made a big point of winning: We gotta win this match to put ourselves in position, we gotta win this, we gotta do this, it was all about winning, and when we finally won it, the monkey was off my back and I became a much better coach because I never talked about winning the tournament again. It was, let’s get better, let’s improve.

 

Marsh Riggs—Was there a college coach that would keep you awake at night before a big match? Did you have a nemesis as an opposing squad?

Dick Gould—I really enjoyed coaching, not just the kids, but as a profession. The vast majority of coaches are really fun to be around and to compete against. I had an especially great rivalry with Glenn Bassett [at UCLA]. We were hired within a month of each other, and he was really well respected. In those early days, they would beat us 9-0 every time we played. But when Glen retired, we had won something like 47 matches and they had won 45. It was a great rivalry.  His guys were always ready, always competed hard. I think we showed our guys that there’s a way to compete that’s regal, that’s above the dirt, it’s fair, it’s hard. Every time the match can go either way, just a flip of a coin. But there’s something about competing with integrity and pride and joy, and not ‘in your face stuff’, and not ‘hating’ your opponent. Glenn and I taught the right way to compete and we exemplified that with our players.

 

Marsh Riggs—Was there a time where you noticed a big change in the game? Equipment changes, player strength or athletic ability, or game tactics, like being more baseline oriented?

Dick Gould—I had guys start hitting with open stance, taking bigger wind-ups, a lot more topspin, grips were changing to semi-western. I still had my guys serving and volleying, but I started to get resistance from my players about that. The game was changing, so I had to change some with it. When I started coaching, there was still a military draft, and if you didn’t stay in college, you were drafted. In addition, Open Tennis began in 1968, but took a couple of years to really get going, so no one left college, no one turned pro. Everyone was a four-year player before Open tennis started. Every agent wanted the next big American hope. Agents promised them all kinds of things and it was harder to stay amateur. Finally, there was enough money out there that even if you weren’t No. 1 you could still make some money

Marsh Riggs—You and your wife coached together at Stanford?

Dick Gould—My wife was the women’s coach the first year they started Title IX. She coached four years and never finished worse than No. 2 in the nation. We won the championship together in 1978. But she didn’t like the ups and downs of coaching, and retired after four very successful years. I just enjoyed the battle and constant challenges; it was fun for me.

Marsh Riggs—In your USPTA Hall of Fame induction video, you spoke about being most proud of your players competing with honor and sportsmanship. Did you recruit character guys first and foremost?

Dick Gould—I always told them “Remember who you are and what you represent.” Class and integrity, that was Stanford tennis.

 

Marsh Riggs—You are known as the winningest coach in NCAA history, but how would you personally liked to be remembered?   

Dick Gould—First off, I think the important thing is that the players make the coach. I’m not going to win a championship with anything other than thoroughbreds. If I have donkeys, I’m not going to win a championship; I might be a great coach, but I’m not going to win a championship. But I also had good people! I like to think I led by example in terms of how to compete, and fairness, and being ethically and morally right, and I think my guys feel that way and feel very proud of themselves. I hope I’ve impacted their lives in some positive way. I’ve had a blast, and it’s a great age, 18 to 22 years old to coach. They know everything, but they really know nothing. They’re away from home for the first time ever, most of them on their own completely, with no one telling them what time to go to bed or anything like that. That’s a really exciting time in their lives. I went through it with them. They’re old enough I can have fun with them. I’m just really thankful. I couldn’t have had a better life in any way.

 

The bottom line is you have to be yourself. I really had fun doing what I was doing, really enjoyed the guys, and it goes up and down, but they’re kids, just like your own kids, and you can get frustrated by them, and then, suddenly, they do the nicest and sweetest thing in the world, and it’s, it’s … well, I had a lot of kids. Let’s put it that way. I was just the luckiest guy in the world.

We must remember, we’re playing a game, and it’s got to be fun. One thing we did, we went way above and beyond. We’d take a trip during Thanksgiving to Hawaii or the Caribbean when the rules allowed it. We had other fun together, trips to Europe and stuff that was paid for by other than our athletic budget. When I retired our program was completely endowed - the director of tennis position, the head coach position, assistant coach, all of our scholarships, our operating budget, we even have a maintenance endowment. The men’s tennis program can never be taken away from us. We built our own stadium that cost $22 million, and we didn’t get a dime from the university and not a penny from our athletic department. We built it ourselves with our alumni and boosters and we raised all the money ourselves.

For a kid who wanted nothing to do with the sport when his mom signed him up for a tennis lesson, Dick Gould had an extraordinary career. He was a brilliant recruiter and a master-mind strategist. His teams dominated college tennis for a quarter of a century, winning or placing second in the NCAA championships 21 out of 27 years. Perfection may not have been his goal, but it became his legacy, with three undefeated seasons. His 1998 team went 28-0 and lost only two singles matches and one doubles point the entire year.

He was, indeed, legendary, and his players were formidable. I know. I played against his team during my college days and know many of his players. Now, after interviewing him decades later, I think I know his secret: Dick Gould has the uncanny ability to make everyone feel important, valued, and special. If he was a politician, I’d vote for him. If he was a general, I’d go into battle with him. If he was a doctor, I’d trust him with my life.

Thank goodness, Dick Gould is none of those things. Instead, he picked up a tennis racquet when he didn’t really want to and became the winningest tennis coach in NCAA history. Congratulations, Dick, on a brilliant career.

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