Photo by Rick Parker
Just three years ago, the Utah State Men’s Tennis team went winless in the Mountain West Conference. Two seasons later, the Aggies finished the season 21-8, going 6-1 in conference play to come away with the Mountain West regular season title — the first Mountain West title for the Aggies in any sports.
Utah State finished that season ranked No. 60 in the nation. In short, things were looking up. That is, until head coach Clancy Shields accepted an offer to become head coach for the University of Arizona.
Enter new head coach James Wilson.
James Wilson is a product of the state of Texas in nearly every aspect. Born in a small Texas town less than an hour outside of San Antonio, tennis came calling early.
“I played other sports — football, soccer, and basketball and that kind of stuff, but I always liked tennis the most,” Wilson said. “I really liked the fact that it was a really mental game. I liked the fact that I was able to create some sort of independence… I felt like I could really stand out in tennis. It was also unique and I thought that was really cool.”
There was one final reason that led young James to pursue a career in tennis.
“Also, I was pretty good so that helped,” Wilson said.
That ‘pretty good’ ability led Wilson to become an integral player at Texas Tech, helping to shape the Red Raiders tennis program into one of the best in the country. At Texas Tech, Wilson already displayed the qualities needed to become a head coach. As former Red Raider head coach Tim Spiegel puts it, “James was like a second assistant coach. Number one, he really cared about the team. And number two, the things that were really important to him, such as team chemistry and leadership, he had those qualities.”
In his three seasons playing for Texas Tech under Spiegel, Wilson and the Red Raiders amassed a 47-28 record, entering the Top 25 and advancing to the NCAA tournament in each season. Wilson’s Red Raider days were not behind him, however. Wilson quickly entered the coaching ranks, becoming a graduate assistant for Texas Tech following the end of his playing career. After two short stints as assistant coaches for William & Mary and UNLV, Wilson again returned to Lubbock to join the Red Raiders’ staff, this time as assistant coach.
“It was an honor to be able to coach at my alma mater,” Wilson said. “We predicated our teams… on putting in work, being a good teammate, really playing hard for each other, and believing in ourselves. The program at Texas Tech is really strong today and I’m fortunate enough to be able to say I helped build that program.”
Why would James Wilson leave a great situation, at his alma mater no less?
“I knew that I wanted to be a head coach and I thought that this would be a great opportunity because of what Clancy installed here and built,” Wilson says. “After I came here on my interview, I realized that Utah State has everything necessary in order to be a successful program.”
So what does Wilson think lays in store for the Aggies?
“I certainly believe that because of everything that the athletes are provided and just the kind of attitude that we have right now… certainly there’s no doubt that we could be a top 30, top 40 program every year,” Wilson said.
Players have also taken notice of Wilson’s lofty goals, feeding off the energy Wilson has brought to reach them.
“He wanted to be successful,” said senior Jack Swindells. “As a first-time coach, that’s really exciting for us players, because it’s not just us who want to be successful. If you’ve got him driving us, and he wants it just as bad as us, it helps everyone. I think that was really exciting for everyone to get started. Having someone so motivated and committed to the team.”
Like many coaches, Wilson realizes that attitude and culture comes largely from his players, and Wilson is quick to give credit where credit is due. As his former coach and colleague, Siegel says Wilson always “understood those were the kinds of players that will really bring out the success in your program. It’s not the talented players. It’s the guys that really understand work ethic and teamwork.”
And the Aggies are certainly putting forth the necessary work. Wilson lays out a typical week of preparation for the team — 20 hours of physical conditioning, ranging from running sprints or intervals to spending roughly three hours in the weight room. The rest of time is spent on the court running through a plethora of singles and doubles drills. Each player also goes through a personal session with Wilson and assistant coach Ben Mullis.
“Players are putting in a good 20-25 hours a week of work and that is not even including the matches. The amount of preparation, the amount of work that goes into it is a lot,” Wilson said
Drawing upon the lessons he learned in his years at Texas Tech, Wilson also understands that more time is not the only ingredient necessary to build a successful team and program.
“[Wilson] is more of a teammate than a coach,” said sophomore Samuel Serrano. “He’s very friendly with us and he tries to get very close with us, being very positive, very friendly. I really enjoy that from him. We can actually have and build that relationship. He’s not my authority more than he is my friend.”
Swindells also sings praise for the approach Wilson has taken to coaching the Aggies.
“James will let us express ourselves a little bit more, which is nice, especially for me as a senior,” Swindells said. “It’s been a really good year with James and what he’s brought to the table so far.”
Everywhere Wilson has gone, improvement and success has followed, whether as a player and captain at Texas Tech to contributing to a 10-win improvement in his lone season coaching at UNLV. Spiegel, who spent nearly eight years around Wilson.
“It doesn’t surprise me that he’s going to have success… I have no doubt that James is going to continue to make big strides and do a great job,” Spiegel said.
Indeed, that was the goal as soon as Wilson was hired. After Shields accepted a coaching position at the University of Arizona, the possibility of the program’s momentum going with him was all too real. In the press release confirming Wilson’s hire, USU athletic director John Hartwell acknowledged Wilson as the man to avoid such a pitfall.
“James brings great passion and an impressive pedigree as a player and coach to our program,” Hartwell said. “He has played a major role in building one of the premier tennis programs in the west and has a clear vision for what he can do at USU.”
Surely, this season’s early success has to be a comforting confirmation to Hartwell and Aggies everywhere that the program is in safe keeping. Samuel Serrano certainly feels so. The sophomore elaborated on the program, saying, “I feel like the program is just growing, it’s getting better and better. We just keep trying every year, giving our best to make it better, to make more history. To make Utah State tennis the best it can be.”
With James Wilson at the helm, the argument can easily be made that it already is and will continue to be. The team already has a win over then-ranked No. 12 TCU, an invitation to the ITA National Men’s Team Indoor Tournament, as well as receiving votes in the ITA Top 25 poll. Wilson explains what it will take to keep momentum and continue onward and upward. “There’s no real secret to it. I just think that it just boils down to how badly do you want your team to succeed and how much are you willing to devote to that,” Wilson poses.
It seems as if the entire program is devoted. For Wilson and the rest of the team, it’s now time to see how far Aggie tennis can go.
“We’re just going to take it one step at a time,” Wilson said. “We’ll just see what happens.”