He may be one of the University of Illinois coaching staff’s most unappreciated success stories, and today he celebrates his 49th birthday.
Taking over for Hall of Fame coach Craig Tiley in June of 2005, current Illini men’s tennis coach Brad Dancer’s 14 seasons in Champaign-Urbana have been admirable. Most memorable were his 2015 squad that captured the Big Ten title and his 2007 team that lost to host Georgia in the NCAA Championship finals.
Dancer’s Illini teams have finished no lower than fourth place (twice) in Big Ten competition. Besides UI’s 2015 conference championship, his Illini squads have finished second on eight different occasions and third three times. Dancer’s .818 winning percentage against Big Ten teams is slightly better than Tiley’s .809 success, though Tiley’s Illini teams won nine league titles.
A four-time letterwinner and captain at Michigan State, Dancer’s previous jobs included serving as his alma mater’s assistant coach, as head coach for Arizona’s women’s team and then as men’s head coach at Fresno State. His family includes his wife, Haylie, and their four sons, Jackson, Hudson, Camden and Griffin.
Here are Dancer’s choices, in his own words, as the greatest Illini and professional players:
Illini: Kevin Anderson — Tough to top a 6-foot-8 bomber that relentlessly practices his craft. He’s proven it at the college and the pro level. He can hit pinpoint accuracy at 130 mph.
Professional: Pete Sampras — May not be the “fastest” server in terms of mph, but his had the most energy on it.
BEST SECOND SERVE
Illini: Kevin Anderson — Sorry, I’m boring, but Kevin can stay ahead with his second serve better than anyone I’ve coached. He can jump it over your head or run it right into your gut.
Professional: Pete Sampras — This is the shot that made him special. He rarely played defense on any service point. First and second serves were always on his terms.
RETURN OF SERVE
Illini: G.D. Jones — The calmest, strongest returner I’ve coached. He broke John Isner’s serve six times in one match. Honorable mention to Dennis Nevolo and Tim Kopinski.
Professional: Andre Agassi and Novak Djokovic — They both strike fear into server’s minds. An uncanny ability to read and retaliate.
BEST VOLLEY AT THE NET
Illini: Ruben Gonzales — He can do it all at the net with power, placement and a super soft touch.
Professional: Pat Rafter — The intensity, combined with the movement and the understanding of ball placement and positioning.
Illini (tie): Big Roy Kalamanovich & Aleks Vukic — I can’t pick here. Roy could do a lot with his forehand and had this massive power. Vukic can literally do anything with his forehand and disguises it so well.
Professional: Juan Martin del Potro — I remember watching him on the practice courts before the 2009 U.S. Open and thinking, ‘He’s controlling the ball with incredible energy.’ Two weeks later, he won.
Illini: G.D. Jones — He could hit any spot with power and absorb big shots as well. He also has mastered taking the ball on the rise.
Professional: Mats Wilander — His backhand is one of my favorite shots all-time to watch.
Illini: Ross Guignon — There might not be anyone I’ve coached that has gotten more out of his game. He won a $50,000 pro title while in school and came up big in rival clashes. Geezy always felt like he had a shot against anyone.
Professional: Roger Federer — He possesses a unique ability to never panic. He doesn’t let losses bother him.
BEST SINGLES PLAYER
Illini: Kevin Anderson — You can’t argue with the results. He’s always had that drive and that vision of who he was and where he was going. His greatest asset? His toughness.
Professional: Roger Federer — He’s the complete package: big weapons, tremendous defense, sense and feel for the game and agile like a cat.
BEST DOUBLES TEAM
Illini: Kevin Anderson/Ryan Rowe — NCAA champions, one point away from being the only team ever to win back-to-back NCAA titles. Huge servers, with Kev pounding returns and Rowe cleaning at the net. They were fearsome.
Professional: Bryan Brothers — Righty-lefty combo, athletic and bring an energy and intensity that might never be matched.
Illini: Ryler DeHeart — So many to chose from here, but I’m going with his three-set record in his senior year: 13-0. This guy always seemed to come up with his biggest shots in the biggest moments.
Professional: Novak Djokovic — Stays calm in the biggest moments with the crowd against him better than anyone I’ve seen.
Illini: Chris Martin — We’ve got an award named after him. Even though I only got to coach C-Mart one season, our leadership award is appropriately named after him. He set the tone by crushing opponents, winning all fitness contests and holding everyone accountable during practice.
Illini: Aron Hiltzik — ‘Twinkletoes’ Aron can get his feet into position on the toughest of balls. When he was a first week freshman, I used him as an example of volley footwork. His combination of strength and lightness allows him to float around the court.
Professional: Björn Borg — He was the reason I got hooked on tennis. He was so incredibly efficient, with very little wasted energy.
Illini: Dennis Nevolo — Of all the people that I coached, Dennis would have been the worst for me to play against. He always knew where his opponent was going and had an amazing ability to do something once he got there.
Professional: Andy Murray — He has a 65-mph second serve and never gets punished for it.
Sunday: Arieal Scott, basketball (19)
Monday: James Griffin, basketball (61)
Tuesday: Marcus Griffin, basketball (41)
Wednesday: Mike Turk, track & field coach
Thursday: Jill Nicklas, softball (24)
Friday: Keynodo Hudson, football coach (41)
Saturday: Lou Tepper, football coach (74)
By Mike Pearson, author of Illini Legends, Lists & Lore (Third Edition now available in stores). Get more Illini birthdays, trivia and historical tidbits daily on Twitter@B1GLLL. His website is www.SportsLLL.com.