Prior to a month ago, the last time the USC men’s tennis team won a national championship was May 21, 2002. They were coached by Dick Leach, who retired after securing the program’s 16th title. Ten days later, Peter Smith was announced head coach.
That was the beginning of Smith’s career with the Trojans. In the seven seasons that he has been head coach, he has sent the Trojans to the NCAA Tournament six times. Most notably, Smith led the 2009 men’s tennis team to a national title — the program’s 17th and Smith’s first.
Smith’s career as a head coach, however, did not begin with USC. It began at Long Beach State where Smith played tennis for three years before trying his hand as a professional.
He participated in prestigious tournaments such as the U.S. Open and Wimbledon during his 15-month stint as a professional player. He then returned to Long Beach to finish his undergraduate degree and coach the 49ers men’s tennis team that he had been a member of less that two years prior.
At the age of 23, Smith became the youngest Division I head coach in history.
“It was a unique situation and it was a blast; half the team were my [former] teammates,” Smith said. “Fortunately I had a good reputation so it wasn’t too hard but we were a gang is what we were and I was the leader. That will never happen again.”
Smith said that being an undergrad, he was taking the same classes as some of the players he was coaching.
After his four years coaching at Long Beach State, Smith moved on to Fresno State where he took an ailing program and turned it into one of the best in the nation. Smith led the Bulldogs to their first-ever Western Athletic Conference championship in 1996 as well as their first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance in 1994. He also coached the program’s first All-American.
At that point Smith began to gain national recognition for his talents as a head coach. His next move was to Pepperdine University, his last stop before USC. At Pepperdine, Smith coached eight All-Americans and led the Waves to a West Coast Conference championship each of his five years as head coach.
When Smith received the job at USC he had two incoming freshman recruits, Scott Doerner and Kevin Borzenski, who opted to stay at Pepperdine. Four years later, as seniors in 2006, Borzenski and Doerner won the national championship as Waves.
Smith was elated for his former recruits who he never had the chance to coach.
“I loved those players and it’s kind of funny because Scott just sent me an e-mail congratulating me,” Smith said. “Those were two great, great kids and in the end it’s character that matters. It’s the character that’s going to come through and achieve the greatness. I was rooting for them the whole way.”
In three years Smith would learn what it felt like to coach a team to national championship success, but the road was far from smooth.
In 2008, Smith coached Robert Farah and former Trojan Kaes Van’t Hof to a doubles championship. Van’t Hof had been the only senior that year so it seemed the roster would still be in tact for the following season, but that was not the case.
Somewhere between the 2008 and 2009 seasons, five players left the team, Van’t Hof being the only graduate. That left Smith with only five returning players — Farah, Abdullah Magdas, Jaak Põldma, Jason McNaughton and Daniel Gliner.
“I’ve taken criticism from people outside the program asking me what’s wrong with the program,” Smith said.
With the help of his five returning players and five talented freshmen joining the roster in Steve Johnson, Matt Kecki, Daniel Nguyen, Andrew Kells and Ben Lankenau, Smith proved there was absolutely nothing wrong after all.
The freshmen talent ran deep, deep enough to fill three of the six spots in the lineup and contribute to a national championship.
“I loved the potential that we had. We had three freshmen in the lineup and each of those freshman also played doubles. That’s amazing,” Smith said. “In January I never thought we could have won, but when I saw the draw I said: ‘That’s the draw for us to win.’”
Smith has coached talented teams before, but this young team — with only one senior [Magdas] — was his first to win a championship.
“This team had a really unique combination of talent, depth of character and a real determination to win,” Smith said. “They all were kind of on the same page.”
At the end of the day it may be his ability to relate to his players that sets Smith apart from other coaches.
“I hope they can see that I care a little bit more and that I’m just with them,” he said.
Smith has found that coaching satisfies his desire to help people, his competitive drive and his ability to problem solve.
“Being at USC you have a ton of pressure on yourself to succeed. It’s always kept me on my toes and always got me out of bed,” Smith said.
Today Smith still participates in tennis tournaments and is looking forward to getting the Trojans another national championship next year.
“USC is the team to beat, absolutely the team to beat and we’ve worked hard for that,” Smith said. “In the end the best team always wins, and we proved that we are the best team.”