May 20, 2019

Texas Tennis Fights Through Scandal to Win First National Title

Reporting Texas

UT tennis players Leonardo Telles and Colin Markes play against South Florida i on May 4, 2019 at Texas Tennis Center in Austin, Texas. UT lost the match 6-4. Maria Toro/Reporting Texas

While walking to class on a Tuesday morning, University of Texas at Austin tennis player Harrison Scott received a text message from a teammate. It was March 12, Scott’s birthday, and the junior was excited about a match against Rice University that evening.

Instead of seeing a text wishing him a happy birthday or good luck in the match, however, Scott got a shock — his coach, Michael Center, had been arrested.

“I was like, I’m definitely going to remember this birthday for a while,” Scott recalled. “In a bad way.”

Center was arrested as part of a sweeping college admissions scandal that exposed bribery cases at universities across the United States, including Georgetown, Yale, Stanford and the University of Southern California. Federal prosecutors indicted 50 people. They charged Center with accepting $100,000 in 2015 from a venture capitalist in California in order to help the man’s son skirt admissions procedures and gain admission to UT-Austin.

In exchange for accepting the money, Center is alleged to have designated the student as a Longhorn recruit, allowing an easier path to admission. In reality, the young man had no plans to play college tennis. Center was charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud, and UT-Austin fired him shortly after.

Colin Markes begins a serve on May 4, 2019 at Texas Tennis Center in Austin, Texas. Maria Toro/Reporting Texas

Suddenly the Longhorns, who were 14-1 and ranked fourth at the time, would be without the head coach who had guided them to that point.

“We were all shocked,” junior player Yuya Ito said. “We don’t really know what happened – what’s true, what’s not. I know he’s a good person. He’s a great guy who cared about us so much.”

Assistant coach Bruce Berque and Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte called a team meeting that afternoon to explain the situation. Berque would become the interim head coach, and the team would still face Rice that night.

According to Scott, Berque told his team: “It’s easier if you guys all do it. We have a lot of seniors and you guys try and lead, and I’ll help where I can. But … stick together and keep going forward.”

Instead of unraveling against the unranked Owls, the Longhorns dispatched them with ease, winning five of seven matches. The victory was significant, but it was only one night, and not against an overwhelming opponent. UT-Austin fired Center the following day, and many players still had more questions than answers.

At a subsequent team meeting, the Longhorns vowed to not let distraction derail their season. According to several team members, it was easy to discuss what lay ahead. Because of the amount of time they’d spent together, members of the senior-rich group had come to know each other well.

“The bond between us is incredible,” Ito said. “This is the closest team I’ve ever been on. I think that helps on and off the court, trusting each other. That defines Texas tennis right now.”

In the weeks following the Center firing, Berque, a 20-year coaching veteran, focused solely on supporting his players. “The … best teams, and most successful teams, are the ones driven primarily by the players,” he said. “That’s exactly what this team is fortunate enough to have … It’s a group that has handled this as well as anyone could’ve possibly expected them to do.”

Christian Sigsgaard and Harrison Scott play against South Florida on May 4, 2019 at Texas Tennis Center in Austin, Texas. Maria Toro/Reporting Texas

The Longhorns made good on their vows. After defeating No. 1 Ohio State, Texas earned its first-ever No. 1 ranking in program history. The team also maintained a perfect record in Big 12 play and earned another Big 12 regular season title. And in the Super Regionals of the NCAA Tournament on May 11 Texas cruised to the quarterfinals after defeating California. Then, on May 19, Texas defeated Wake Forest to win its first ever national championship in men’s tennis.

Although Berque refuses to take credit for the success the team has created for itself, outside observers note that his ability to keep his program focused on the ultimate prize deserves praise.

“Bruce Berque has done a fine job keeping everyone focused on each match because the season could have easily unraveled after what happened to Center,” college tennis writer Bobby Knight said.

“That speaks very highly [of] the coaching staff … being able to keep those guys focused and shut out the extraneous noise that I’m sure is going on,” Lisa Stone, a junior tennis consultant, added.

Scandals aren’t new to college tennis. In 2017, the University of Georgia police department investigated the Georgia tennis program for a drug scandal that saw both players and coaches charged with crimes. The NCAA levied heavy sanctions on the Southern Mississippi program in 2013 for paying athletes and other misconduct.

But the way Texas handled the aftermath of its situation and went on to have success is something of an outlier.

In the national championship match, the Longhorns decisively beat defending champion Wake Forest on the concrete tennis courts in Orlando, Florida. Ito clinched the winning point in his singles match.

After he won, Ito fell to the ground and raised his hands in triumph. Scott and the rest of the Longhorn players piled on top of Ito in celebration at the baseline.

“We could have had things go the wrong way in the middle of the year,” Scott said. “We wanted it so bad, and I think we kept working every day. The five seniors, we knew this was our last shot, and we wanted to have no regrets, and I think we can now say we have no regrets.”