Tennis coach attributes success to fatherhood
In only his second year at the helm, head coach Patrick Sullivan has put Houston Tennis back on the national stage. He credits his success as a coach to fatherhood and the patience it requires.
For Sullivan, it was tough to transition from rebuilding, but having a family has allowed him to grow as a coach and see things in a new light.
“Being a father has softened me a lot, and has really given me a different perspective,” Sullivan said. “I want to coach these girls the same way I want someone to coach my daughter in sixteen years, and I always thought that way, but I didn’t understand what that meant until I had a daughter of my own.”
Sullivan has a two-year-old daughter named Vera, and his wife, Caroline, is due to have their second child in October. Many of his decisions as a coach are based on how he would want his daughter to be treated. He believes these young women benefit from his methods, and their successes prove this much.
Under his guidance, the Cougars made their third NCAA Tournament berth in program history – the first time since 1998. The team’s inspiration came from the accomplishments of other various Houston sports teams.
“What’s awesome is the success of other (UH) teams — I think that creates a winning culture. You look around and see everybody’s having success, and we feel like, number one, it motivates us and number two, it’s like rightfully so,” Sullivan said. “Baseball was top 10, the golf coach is my neighbor and they’re top 10, track and field has been killing it and softball made the NCAA tournament.”
The coaches in the athletic department are all close, which is unlike anywhere he has ever worked, Sullivan said. The tennis courts are flooded with foul balls from the baseball field, so they’re close – both figuratively and literally.
The first step Sullivan took in rebuilding was forming a unified team culture. They did a lot as a team to get everyone together at once, but it takes an immense amount of commitment because the foundation of development is individual practice.
“You really develop the most when you have one-on-one instruction and interaction, which takes a lot of time and effort,” Sullivan said.
At first, it was tough for the returners because they were recruited by another coach with different goals and standards.
“They were all great young ladies, the ones I inherited, but they had not been used to being committed to a championship effort day in and day out,” Sullivan said. “It was really just a matter of getting them to change their attitudes and work habits, and it didn’t happen overnight.”
Under Sullivan’s second year campaign, the Cougars set a school-record with three athletes on the All-Conference First Team: Despoina Vogasari, Tina Rupert, and Elena Kordolaimi. Vogasari also became the American Athletic Conference’s first Freshman of the Year award recipient.
In the new AAC, Sullivan became the league’s first Coach of the Year recipient after guiding the Cougars to their highest national ranking in school history on March 4. UH was ranked No. 21 in the nation, and eventually earned the top seed in the AAC Championship Tournament.
Sullivan has found a good balance in his desire to win and being content with the results if the choices are correct. Assistant Coach Daniel Whitehead believes Coach Sullivan’s expertise is in his communication and motivation.
Whitehead was in a unique situation last season. He joined the program as a volunteer assistant coach on January 6 and on June 2 he was promoted to full-time assistant coach, so he has a good feel of how the system works and what’s expected of him.
“What I’ve enjoyed about working for Patrick has been his approach towards practice and matches,” Whitehead said. “On one hand, the guy wants to win as badly as anybody, and on the other hand, he doesn’t overload the pressure on anybody and always emphasizes choices, in that if you make the right choices then the results are what they are.”