June 10, 2011
By Matt Winkeljohn
– At the beginning and the end of the conversation, Kenny Thorne said, “I’m not taking credit for it; no way,” and both times Georgia Tech’s most recent national coach of the year meant it – yet for different reasons.
It’s a big deal to be named the Wilson/ITA Division I national coach of the year. Friday, Thorne spoke of the combination of force and fate that are essential in earning something like the award he landed a few days ago.
The force has to do with tangible elements. This might be championships, win-loss records, impossible-to-miss improvement — easily notable achievements.
His team went to the Sweet 16 of college tennis for the second time in school history, beat powerhouse Georgia for the first time in 23 years, set a school record for ACC wins (8-3) and produced three All-America players (Guillermo Gomez, Juan Spir and Kevin King), so there’s evidence.
Thorne has said repeatedly that he could not do what he does without the talent and passion of his players and assistant Aljosa Piric, and he’s right.
Likewise, they likely could not do what they do without him. He seeks passion; his peers have in 13 years seen that in Thorne.
All of this is bit odd considering that the long-time Yellow Jacket nearly didn’t coach college tennis. Here we get to fate, a big thing on Thorne’s plate. He’s a proponent of the principles of providence.
After his stellar career at Tech, where from 1984-88 he set a school record for singles wins (112) that was eclipsed only this season by Gomez (119), Thorne turned pro. He had success, winning seven titles, yet there were inconveniences.
He and wife Bridget (Koster), a former Tech cross country standout, were starting a family and the travel of pro tennis is not conducive to that. So he and Bridget decided to, “set up camp somewhere,” in 1998.
Choosing where to live was not difficult, although Thorne had grown up in Hot Springs, Ark., and later Birmingham, Ala. The Alpharetta camp now has four kids (two boys, two girls) in it.
Deciding what he was he was going to do for a living was a trick.
Short-term, he helped out former Tech coach Jean Desdunes coach the men. The idea of being a college coach — a head coach — was not in the plan although the plan was not exactly clear. It was, to use a word favored by Tech associate athletics director Wayne Hogan, fluid.
“Absolutely not,” Thorne said when asked if he knew at the end of his pro career that he would end up a college coach. “I was helping Jean and interviewing outside . . . I had the industrial engineering degree, and always thought that I was going to use that in some capacity.”
While biding time, Thorne poked around to get some idea of what life in the real world might be like. He and women’s coach Bryan Shelton – college teammates who spent time training with and competing against each other on the pro tour after their days at Tech – had a former roommate with an “in” of sorts.
That real-world connection was in cell phone design and logistics, and Thorne began paying attention to what his friend did, the rhythms of his life. “I didn’t have an idea where I was going to fit in,” Thorne said. “I was trying to see what it would look like as soon as I started to work my way into the corporate world.”
That didn’t work out for two reasons. First, the business of assisting at the college level met eye-to-eye with Thorne’s inner being.
“I was having a great time with the team and the guys on the court and a lot of the things that you do as an assistant coach,” the one-day coach said. “As I started working at it, I felt my strengths were tennis-related from my past experiences . . . I could help the players relate based on what I had gone through.”
Second, and most importantly, at the end of the school year Desdunes moved on, and Thorne was approached about the position.
So many things that had appeared muddled became clear.
“At the end of the season, I found out Jean was leaving and I was like, `Wow! This is exactly where I think my strengths are and this is what I would like to be doing,'” Thorne recalls thinking. “Until then, it hadn’t crossed my mind.
“This ability to influence lives of young people is probably what appealed to me the most. I couldn’t pass it up.”
Turns out it was not a terribly difficult decision for Thorne to make, but he says he is to this day surprised that he ended up in a position where the decision was there for him to make.
Ken Byers, a Tech tennis supporter then and now, offered support at the time. Thorne consulted his father, who said he thought the job would fit his son’s personality.
It has. Thorne was ACC coach of the year in his first season, has taken 10 of his 13 teams to NCAA tournaments, and assembled a dual meet record of 180-130. That includes a mark of 39-14 the past two seasons.
A hard, hard, hard-core player while growing up, Thorne knew for years that after college he would give pro tennis a shot. He never knew what would happen after that. Then, it hit him in the face like a ball jumping off a different surface.
He’s grown to love his personal providence.
“As a college coach, you’re dealing with people’s lives and not just on-court,” Thorne said. “Their backgrounds, everything that they bring to the table from their childhoods, it can come out on the court. I believe we’re all created for a purpose; God knows what he’s doing.
“I got off tour, and so many pro athletes have a tough time in that transition. I prayed about it so much. I wanted to go in a direction I wanted to go, not just chase money. It was really cool how a door opened . . . and I said, `This is where I should be.’ But I’m not going to take credit for how it happened.”