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Game, set, match Tennis coach Mike Benson ’69 retires after 30 successful yearsB Y L E N A T I B B E L I N ' 9 9 , S P O R T S I N T E R N ,
A N D N I C K D A W S O N , S P O R T S E D I T O R
After 30 successful years as head coach of the PLU’s men’s tennis team, Mike Benson ’69 will serve out the match during 1999, his final season.
Benson will leave PLU at the end of June and with his wife, Mary, move to California. Youngest daughter Kaarin is a junior and the No. 1 singles player at California Lutheran University, and the Bensons have missed her. Dad and mom want to be part of their daughter’s senior year in college. As for what they do after that, there are no set plans. “God will show us what will come,” Benson says.
Benson’s coaching career started in 1970 when then-Athletic Director David Olson hired him to direct the men’s program. Benson, a district doubles champion for the Lutes, admits to knowing little then about coaching. “That was an opening God provided for me,” he says. But after two years of “coaching by the seat of my pants,” says Benson, he grew into the job, leaning heavily on his own love for the game.
A look in the record book shows that Benson, indeed, learned a few things about coaching. Entering this season, PLU’s men’s teams have won 23 of the last 29 Northwest Conference titles and compiled a conference dual match record of 155 wins and 16 losses. His teams entering this year have won 57 straight matches. His teams have placed as high as eighth at nationals, and one player, Dave Trageser ’79, reached the national tournament championship match in both singles and doubles.
Not bad for a school from the rainy Northwest. In Benson’s five years as head coach of the women’s team (1981-84 and 1998), PLU won four conference crowns.
All of that has come despite PLU lacking what is generally regarded as necessities for such success: covered courts, athletic scholarships, good weather and, says the humble Benson, “a coach who’s capable of instructing in the mechanics and strategy of the game that most successful programs have.”
So how does he do it? “We’ve helped our people believe that it isn’t what we have that matters but what we do with what we have.” It’s part of Benson’s coaching philosophy that has developed over time and has come from observing other sports programs, not just tennis. Benson has added his own belief that all sports, at their root, are fun.
“I’ve come to believe there’s a pretty direct relationship between fun and playing up to your potential,” Benson says. “What we’ve been successful at doing is creating an atmosphere around the program that is encouraging, positive and supportive. People respond to encouragement and support, and to knowing that their coach and team like them. That type of atmosphere tends to take away the pressure that comes from sports.”
However, Benson is not about to put himself first when it comes to taking credit for the success of the tennis program. “I think we have done well at helping the people who’ve played tennis here to enjoy the game and have fun, and to enjoy the whole experience of college athletics,” Benson says. “We,” in this case includes players and others who have, in Benson’s words, “bought into that idea and helped promote it. And I know that God has played a big part in any success that we’ve had.”
Benson’s favorite match memory dates back to the 1984 spring break trip to California when the Lutes played the University of Redlands, a team that dominated the NAIA back in the ’70s and early ’80s. Redlands coach Jim Verdieck kept his top players on campus one day into their spring break to face the Lutes. “He treated us kindly, although he had no reason to,” recalls Benson. Each singles match ended with a Redlands victory and with Benson telling Verdieck how much he appreciated the Redlands teams playing PLU.
The 1984 Lutes were good and included some new players who, Benson says, “weren’t overwhelmed by the Redlands mystique.” After singles matches the score was 3-3. Figuring that the Redlands players hadn’t been prepared for singles but would be for doubles, Benson made sure that this historic moment was forever captured by asking his wife to take his picture next to the scoreboard.
Then PLU won two of three in doubles, and the match. Verdieck came up to Benson afterward and said, “I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciate you playing us.”
By the end of the season, Benson will have 30 years of fond memories. He and his tennis teams have been on numerous road trips for conference matches and spring break trips to such warm-weather climes as California, Florida and Hawaii. Other times Benson has been a proud coach and spectator as PLU athletes represented the school and region at nationals. He will leave a tremendous legacy.
A part of the Benson legacy that will live on is the expression, “It’s a great day to be a Lute.”
Despite common belief, the credit for this PLU mantra can’t go only to Benson. Tennis player Craig Koessler ’83 helped originate the saying. Koessler had a summer job as a door-to-door book salesman and didn’t like it, but stuck with it. After returning to campus he told Benson about his training, which included saying to himself, “it’s a great day to be a book salesman” each time he approached a house. The idea was to put himself into a positive frame of mind. “We talked it over and thought it fit for tennis,” says Benson. “There’s a strong scriptural reference for that saying; it’s Psalm 118:24: ‘This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it’.”