April 28, 2007
When Bruce Berque took his first head coaching post in Ann Arbor in 2004, the Big Ten veteran knew the Wolverines' legendary fight song well. But the once perennially distinguished Michigan men's tennis program, coming off its first losing season since 1997, had little to sing about at the time.
Three, short years later, the Berque's turnaround coup has the conference and the nation ringing with a whole new rendition of "Hail to the Victors."
When the 20th-ranked Wolverines take the court against ninth-ranked Illinois on Saturday at the 2007 Big Ten Men's Tennis Championships, Berque will already have proven his capability as a head coach. But his squad's first legitimate shot a Big Ten crown in more than a decade won't be a measuring stick of his progress - just a compass for the future.
The Wolverines have won nine of their last 10 matches, including an 8-0 run through a perilous road stretch in Big Ten play that propelled Michigan to a second-place conference finish - its best since 1999.
Methodical and composed with an earnest enthusiasm for the game, Berque came to Michigan with plenty of experience despite never manning the helm on his own. Berque put in time at Florida and Ohio State before serving for six seasons under legendary Illinois coach Craig Tilley, a stint that included the Illini's undefeated run to the 2003 NCAA title.
He took over a storied program that tops the list for most conference titles (36) and trails only Michigan football's illustrious count of 42 for the most titles by any one team in conference history. But despite the overflowing trophy case, Berque points to the university's academic reputation for making it such a good fit.
"The biggest reason I took the job was because it's just a terrific opportunity," he said. "Michigan is just one of the best academic schools, so for that reason it's a huge draw in recruiting. It has certainly been one of if not the most accomplished athletic programs in the Big Ten.
"I just felt like for my first head coaching job there is no way I could pass it up. It was just too good of an opportunity with great facilities and great support from the administration."
And it comes as no surprise that Berque's philosophy for revamping the Maize and Blue has been all about the give and take of opportunity cost.
Along with obvious changes to the team's training system and recruiting approach, Berque's main focus was to give the Wolverines a chance to be the best in the country by playing the best.
"I wanted to immediately raise the bar in terms of expectations," he said. "I feel that where you set the schedule is where you set the bar and the players will eventually rise to the level of expectation that you have for them."
In the two years prior to Berque's arrival, Michigan played only one ranked team outside of conference competition. When the new mentor got a hold of the schedule, the new ideals were immediately made evident. During the 2004-05 season, the Wolverines faced off against four top-20 squads. In his second season, they took on four in the top 10, including eventual national champion Pepperdine.
Despite counting seemingly lopsided losses in each of those matches, Berque's plan was working.
"I really felt like our guys did a good job with that competitively on the court," he said. "I think is after having several opportunities over and over again, it was in failing on capitalizing on some of those that we realized we had a chance to win eventually. The players start to believe that they can and should win those matches.
"First you say the right things like `Yeah, we can win this match,' but I think there's still some doubt. It changes after losing a couple close ones, consistently getting those opportunities over and over again, and then having a little more depth to take advantage of them."
After making the team's first NCAA appearance in four years in 2006, Michigan decided this season was time to quit talking about the could-haves and should-haves. The Wolverines started walking the walk with a momentous upset of then-No. 12 Texas in February.
Led by a doubles sweep and straight-set wins by Michigan's top two single players, Brian Hung and Matko Maravic, the Wolverines broke into the ITA top 25 for the first time in seven years with a 5-2 stomping of the Longhorns.
"The Texas match was certainly one of them because that's a good team that we beat and we did it convincingly," said Berque. "These guys didn't falter when they had opportunities to finish the match. That really showed me that they did believe in themselves."
But more than that victory - Michigan's first over a ranked team in five years - Berque said the team's ability to hold onto those convictions of confidence at its lowest point was a sure sign of progress and potential.
At the start of Big Ten competition, the Wolverines suffered a huge setback in a heart-breaking 4-3 loss to a tough Penn State squad. Six days later they traveled to Michigan State and found themselves facing a Spartan upset after dropping the doubles point.
"We were in trouble," Berque said. "That would have been a time coming off a tough loss when things weren't going well in a hostile environment where it would be pretty easy to fold. I just remember thinking, `We might lose this match.'"
But the Wolverines did not fold. Instead, they rallied behind their singles players for a 5-2 victory. The effects, however, came through in more than another tally in the win column. Next, Michigan turned a hard-hitting Big Ten road trip to Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa into a victory lap, taking its place among some excellent company at the top of the conference standings with Illinois and Ohio State.
"I was very impressed with the way our guys kept their composure and continued to fight," Berque said. "We got through that match and a few tough matches after that. Gradually, slowly but surely, we seemed to be back on track."
But perhaps the most blatant showing of Michigan's rise to the top came against its coach's former team.
The Illini carried a top 10 ranking and undefeated conference record into Ann Arbor on April 6. But they left with a whole new impression of their Big Ten foe.
Michigan again faltered in doubles to find itself facing an early 2-0 deficit. But those beliefs, that newfound confidence prevailed and the Wolverines responded with five straight singles victories to beat Illinois for the first time in 10 years.
"We really stepped up to another level against Illinois," Berque said. "The belief system is there now. There's no question when we play a top team we've been there enough to actually capitalize on some of those opportunities.
"The guys really do believe that they can win now. It has been pretty consistent since I've been here, but now we have a deeper, stronger team. We're physically better able to take advantage of some of those opportunities so we do have more skill."
Berque admits he was lucky to have an eager and willing group already in place at Michigan, a group that included his three current seniors - Hung, Ryan Heller and Steve Peretz - who have been the cornerstones of the team's resurgence.
"I was really lucky that the group of people we already had on the team, the student-athletes were just terrific," he said. "[Those three seniors] were very vital - all three of them. I felt like each of them right away gave me the benefit of the doubt to listen and try to follow the path that I was trying to set."
But most importantly for Berque it was the trio's on-court support of their coach's ideals that he says permeates their teammates with a selfless understanding of what it means to be a team.
"In dual matches, you can count on the three of those guys to compete. This is what people see the most," Berque said. "I don't think we have a selfish person on our team - not even close. I've never even seen a selfish act by any of our players. I think that's pretty unique, especially in this sport. They put the team before themselves, each and every one of them."
Now the Wolverines look forward, awaiting the nation's fourth-ranked recruiting class, who will come to Ann Arbor for the 2007-08 season. The group's most recent addition was California native Jason Jung, the third-ranked junior player in the country.
But Berque said that final and crucial component of recruiting is made rather easy not just by Michigan's outstanding facilities and academic reputation but by the group he already has on his roster.
"Every recruit will say it's because of guys on the team," he said. "They are just the kind of group that other people want to be around."
That includes, apparently, the growing Michigan tennis community. During the win against Texas, the team saw a record crowd turn out to the Varsity Tennis Center, only to see that attendance mark shattered when 467 fans showed up to support the Wolverines' upset bid again the Illini.
"Compared to my freshman year the crowd is a lot better," noted Hung. "It definitely helps when you're playing in front of a home crowd to compete and fight, knowing there are so many people behind you."
One of Berque's biggest motivating tools is letting his players know there are a lot more people counting on a win than the ones on the court. Making a connection with program alumni was an important goal for Berque. When the team traveled to Houston to take on 27th-ranked Rice in April, John Erickson, an All-American and member of the 1957 national championship team, came out to support his alma mater. Former Wolverine and 1996 Wimbledon finalist Malivai Washington traveled to watch the squad at NCAAs.
"I think it's important for the players to know that who they are playing for is just not themselves and their teammates but also the whole Michigan community and family."
And you can bet they are all humming "Hail to the Victors" with a little different tune.