By John Frierson
UGA Staff Writer
Jeff Wallace first arrived in Athens, Ga., as a player for Utah. He came here in 1981 to compete in the NCAA Championships back when Georgia hosted the men’s tournament every year. He liked it here so much he transferred to UGA, played his final two seasons for Dan Magill, and soon after was hired as the women’s tennis coach despite being only a couple of years older than the players.
During an interview back in 2020, Wallace said transferring to Georgia “was the greatest decision of my life — certainly one of them.” He enjoyed two great seasons playing for the Bulldogs, was the SEC champion at No. 6 singles in 1984, and then he took a job that he did at the highest level for 38 years. More importantly, he met the love of his life, Sabina Horne, who was a runner on the women’s track team, and together they have two children and four grandchildren.
“You just never know when you make what seems like a pretty simple decision in your life and how altering it really can be. It’s worked out wonderful for me,” he said.
On Friday morning, a few hours before the No. 4-seeded Bulldogs cruised to a 4-0 win over Florida A&M in the first round of the NCAA Championships at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex, Wallace announced that this season will be his last. The news wasn’t a surprise, but it will be really weird to think of anyone else leading the program that he built into a national powerhouse.
As J. Reid Parker Director of Athletics Josh Brooks said in the announcement, “Jeff Wallace is Georgia women’s tennis.” Of course, if you ask Wallace, he’ll tell you that Georgia women’s tennis is all of the great people and players that have been a part of the program over the years.
“It’s about the University of Georgia, it’s about the athletic department, women’s tennis, and it’s mostly about all of these great players that have come through this program,” he said earlier this season. “You can’t do anything without them — that’s the starting point.”
They’re both right.
In March, Wallace earned career win No. 800, putting him in a club of two, along with retired Indiana coach Lin Loring. They’re the only women’s tennis coaches to reach 800 victories. With Friday’s win, Wallace is now up to 815. Five more will get him to 820 and will get him a third NCAA team title, to go along with the four ITA National Indoor titles his teams have won.
If he came back next year, Wallace, whose squad is 23-4 this spring, would have a good shot at matching or passing Loring’s all-time record of 846 wins. But Wallace didn’t want to stick around chasing a record; he’s done plenty already:
• 815 wins and counting
• Six national championships (two NCAA and four ITA National Indoor)
• A combined 20 SEC championships (11 regular season, nine tournament), including the SEC tourney title this spring
• 14 national final appearances (five NCAA, nine National Indoor) spread over five decades, including earlier this year at the National Indoor
• Four National Coach of the Year awards
• Coached two players whose daughters went on to play for Georgia (Elizabeth Alexander Brinson/Caroline Brinson and Shannan McCarthy Gaudette/Haley Gaudette) ”Congratulations to University of Georgia Head Women’s Tennis Coach Jeff Wallace on the happy occasion of his retirement,” said ITA Chief Executive Officer Dr. Timothy Russel in a text message. “What an amazing career! What a wonderful coach, teacher, leader and mentor! Our Association and sport wish Jeff much happiness in the next chapter of his life.” In 1986, Wallace took over a program that had a recent NCAA singles champion in Lisa Spain Short (1984) and had won, under coach Cissie Donigan, SEC regular-season and tournament titles in 1983. But it wasn’t yet an annual powerhouse. It soon would be.
In Wallace’s first season, Georgia went 20-9. The NCAA field was only 16 teams at that point, and the Bulldogs didn’t make the tournament. They’ve made every one since.
In his second season, in 1987, Georgia went 26-5 and advanced all the way to the finals of the NCAA tournament. The Bulldogs lost to Stanford in the championship match, but the program had announced its presence on the national stage.
In 1994, Wallace and the Bulldogs broke through in emphatic fashion. Georgia won the program’s first ITA National Indoor title, and then, when the Georgia women hosted the NCAA tournament for the first time, not only did Wallace’s squad capture the program’s first NCAA crown, but star No. 1 player Angela Lettiere-Simon won the singles title as well.
Georgia followed that up with another National Indoor title in 1995, and a second NCAA title in 2000. The championships and excellent seasons have continued, including this spring. The Bulldogs have 15 wins against ranked teams and won a thrilling SEC tournament last month by avenging their only SEC loss during the regular season, beating No. 2-ranked Texas A&M in the final.
Longtime Florida head coach Roland Thornqvist has been battling Wallace and the Bulldogs for SEC and national titles for 20 years.
“For decades, the most storied rivalry in the SEC has been the Florida/Georgia battle,” Thornqvist said in a text message. “Almost every year, the road to a title had to go through Jeff. It will not be the same without him on the sideline.
“He drove all of us in the SEC to higher levels!”
Now, it’s time for someone else to do the driving. And for Wallace, it’s time to dedicate more time to being “Papa Wally,” which is what his grandchildren call him. And to improving his golf game, of course.
Counting his playing and coaching years, Wallace has given his all for Georgia for more than 40 years. He’s earned a celebratory walk off into the sunset. But first, there’s still work to be done, starting with Saturday’s NCAA second-round match against Florida State. And then, hopefully, a few more after that.
Assistant Sports Communications Director John Frierson is the staff writer for the UGA Athletic Association and curator of the ITA Men’s Tennis Hall of Fame.