July 3, 2012
By Jon Cooper
It takes passion to be a successful coach.
A passion so strong that it would lead someone to think, “I could really live on the moon as long as I have a tennis court and players to coach.”
Rodney Harmon, who said those words, has that kind of passion and has used it to be a successful tennis coach for more than 25 years.
Harmon’s next job will not be on the moon, but will require him to come down from his present location, which is proverbially over it.
The Richmond, Va., native was hired on Tuesday as the seventh head coach of the Georgia Tech women’s tennis team. He replaces Bryan Shelton, who took over as the men’s head tennis coach at the University of Florida on June 8th.
The close relationship between Shelton and Harmon — longtime friends, Harmon remembers watching Shelton as a junior player — led to a conversation between the two that piqued Harmon’s interest in the Yellow Jackets’ job.
“[Shelton’s] done such a great job with the team here for so many years,” Harmon said. “I thought I would love to continue the things that he’s already done here.”
Following his playing career which saw him star at the University of Tennessee, then SMU and briefly on the pro tour, where his career highlight was reaching the quarterfinals of the 1982 U.S. Open, Harmon broke into coaching, starting with a four-year stint with the United States Tennis Association.
After coaching three years at the University of Miami (1995 through 1997), where he was named Big East Coach of the Year his final two seasons, Harmon returned to the USTA, where he’d work for nearly two decades, working his way up to director of men’s tennis and coaching the U.S. Men’s Team at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Two years ago, at the behest of protégé’s MaliVai Washington and Todd Martin, he took the job of director of tennis with the Deerwood Country Club in Jacksonville, Fla.
But college coaching remained in his blood. Harmon admitted that he’d received several offers over the last couple of years, but didn’t find a compatible fit until the opportunity with Georgia Tech came up.
“I had to find a situation where it also was going to be good for my family, where they would be happy,” he said. “I’m fortunate to be able to come to this institution, because between my wife’s family and mine, we have over 20 family members in Atlanta. So for us, it’s just a situation that was almost perfect. Everything fit so well. It’s rare that everything lines up. It’s almost too good, you’re almost afraid. So when I got the phone call I was really, really excited because I was like, ‘this is awesome.'”
Harmon’s situation also is quite nice, as he inherits a top incoming recruiting class and will lead the team into action in the brand new Ken Byers Tennis Complex.
“Oh, my gracious, I’m excited about the tennis center,” he said. “It’s going to be a great recruiting tool and great for the players. A number of schools have new centers, so we’ll have this nice new, shining jewel here on campus.”
While he said that he and Shelton have similarities, and staying true the course Shelton has laid out is important, Harmon is very much his own man and determined to succeed his way.
“We’re somewhat alike but we’re different,” he said. “I just have to do what I do the best I can do it and make sure I do the best job recruiting and coaching the players that I can.”
In a Monday morning meeting with his new team, he made a point of stressing the importance of education.
“I prize education,” he said. “I went back to make sure I graduated from college because I felt that education was really important. I also told them the role that education has played in my life and how important it’s been.”
Harmon, who credited the late Arthur Ashe, a fellow Richmond, Va., native for inspiring him to complete his degree, went back to SMU to finish up only months after reaching the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open, where he fell to eventual-champion Jimmy Connors. It turned out to be a critical move, as injuries short-circuited his playing career.
“I wanted to make sure I graduated,” he said. “I enjoyed the education I had, I enjoyed the people that I went to school with and the teachers that I had and I wanted to make sure I finished. Fortunately, it all worked out because when I was on tour I got injured, had some surgeries and so I never was able to play at the level I wanted to after that. So without an education, without a degree, I wouldn’t be sitting here.”
Harmon has high aspirations for his players as far as success on the court. Winning a national championship is the ultimate goal but getting and keeping the Yellow Jackets in position to win is an important means to that end.
“The key is to be relevant and try to get to the Elite Eight every time,” he said. “When you’re in the Elite Eight every time you have a shot but you’ve got to make it to the NCAA site. That’s the goal and to be relevant. When you catch the right years, when you have the right mix of upperclassmen and underclassmen, things go well, then your chance comes. That’s what I’m looking forward to hopefully one day with our team winning a title.”
Coaching Tech to a title would help exorcise the demons from his senior year at SMU, which still haunt him but is also a driving force.
“One of the toughest memories I have is my senior year, we lost in the finals of the NCAAs,” he recalled. “Everything was lined up for us to win it, but we had a couple of injuries and things happened and we ended up losing to Stanford in the finals. We’d lost in the semis the year prior.
“I’ve always wanted to find a way to get that win because I won NCAA Doubles my freshman year (at Tennessee). So it would be great to be able to go back to the NCAAs and try to get our team to win it. That’s one of my goals.”