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  • Writer's pictureNeal Hagberg

300, 200, 100, Tommy!

Tommy in 1996, TLC Camper of the Day

He was a snot nosed little kid when I first met him.  Ok, maybe not snot nosed, but he was not tall.  As a 15 year old, probably 5’4”.  And curious and bright eyed about everything.  A sponge.  Someone who you noticed.  Bright.  Articulate.  Social skills beyond his years.

He came to TLC, and as he described, it became his home.  He had gone through some difficult times, family break-ups, navigating what was next.  And always, he kept that smile on his face.  And that smiley face on his racket.

TLC caught him when he might have fallen.  Steve Wilkinson saw in him someone special.  Steve was right.

He embraced the philosophy Steve espoused of Positive Attitude, Full Effort, and Good Sportsmanship being the three things within our control.

Tommy’s GAC Men’s Tennis Headshot

Then he grew and grew.  To 6’2”.  And as he grew, so did his commitment to the philosophy.

He came to Gustavus to play for Steve.  His senior year, a leader of a team that came a hair’s breadth away from winning the national championship, he likened the Three Crowns that is Gustavus Adolphus College’s college emblem to the three things Steve taught.  Attitude.  Effort.  Sportsmanship.

When Steve retired, there was one person Steve believed could follow in his footsteps as coach and, yet, create his own legacy.  Steve, again, was right.

But he was not right for the reasons you may think.

Three weeks ago, Gustavus Adolphus men’s tennis team, with Tommy Valentini as coach (or TV, as he is affectionately known by so many) won its 300th consecutive conference match.  The streak started in 1986, under Steve.  Tommy became coach and continued it in 2009.

Tommy coaching former TLC instructor and Gustie Tyler Johnson

Two weeks ago, Tommy reached 200 victories as a coach in fewer than nine years.  Over 20 wins per season.

That’s not why Steve was right.

Last year, Gustavus reached the Elite Eight in the NCAA DIII Championships.

That’s not why Steve was right.

This year, Gustavus is ranked #6 in the country.

And, you got it, that’s not why Steve was right.

Steve was right, because Tommy never once, to my knowledge – and I have had hundreds of conversations with him over the years as a camper, a TLC instructor, and now TLC’s director of tennis – talked about winning with his team.  He has only talked about the Three Crowns.  To a point that it might be maddening to some interviewers.

Tommy and Steve at TLC

When Gustavus pulled off probably the biggest upset in DIII tennis history last year to make it to the Elite Eight, Tommy talked only about his players attitude, effort, and sportsmanship.  He said he would have been just as proud if they lost.  I believe him.  Does he want to win?  C’mon.  You know he does.  He likes winning as much as any of us.

But he refuses, absolutely refuses, to measure his team’s success by this.  How do I know?  Because in the one or two lean years he had when he first started, when the cupboard was relatively bare, and plenty of people doubted him, he never varied from the message.  The players that he had gave their all.  They just didn’t win as much.  And he always focused on how successful they were because they played with the Three Crowns in mind.

Is he a Pollyanna?  No.  He is a teacher.  He knows his players will fail at all of the crowns at times.  He doesn’t berate them when they do.  He speaks with them privately.  He builds a culture of leadership where players support each other and hold each other accountable.  And they grow and change into people who believe that taking the focus off winning actually works.  In tennis and in life.  Just like Steve did.

So where does the 100 come from?  His 100 percent commitment to continuing to show that this way is more humane, more communal, more encouraging, more world changing, than focusing on the opponent as being an adversary.  That it works.  And that winning can be a wonderful byproduct, but never the focus.

People said Tommy had big shoes to fill.  I never, ever doubted how the program would do with Tommy at the helm.  Because Tommy has very big feet.

2018 MIAC Champions


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