Watch ListenUp: Interview Dave Mullins, Managing Director at Intercollegiate Tennis Association

The Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) has been making transitions left and right to adapt to the nature of the pandemic and college tennis. In this episode, Bailey is joined by Dave Mullins, Managing Director at ITA, for insight into what the past year has entailed. Dave talks about his tennis journey from Ireland to the states and why he got involved with college tennis. They also dive deeper into one of the new service programs, Tennis For America, and what impact it has across the country for young tennis players.

Interview Transcript Below

Bailey Arredondo:

All right, okay, here we go. Hello everyone and welcome back to ListenUp, one of the freshest new interview series here at Stack Sports. Today we’re heading back to the tennis court and we’re joined by Dave Mullins, the Managing Director at the Intercollegiate Tennis Association, commonly known as the ITA. Dave, we appreciate you taking the time today.

Dave Mullins:

Definitely, Bailey. Thanks so much for having me and putting a light on college tennis.

Bailey Arredondo:

Yeah, let’s start with how you first got involved with tennis. Did you play tennis growing up? Does your family have a background in tennis? How did you and tennis cross paths?

Dave Mullins:

Well, I grew up in Dublin, Ireland, and so the popular sports there are soccer and rugby and we have some national sports, hurling and Gaelic football as well. People should YouTube those, they’re pretty exciting sports. But yeah, tennis wasn’t really on the radar until I went on a vacation once and had nobody to play soccer or rugby with, and just started hitting a tennis ball against the wall at the camp site and fell in love with the sport.

Dave Mullins:

Started taking it very seriously in my teenage years and got to travel and play in Junior Wimbledon, Junior French Open, got a college scholarship to Fresno State in 1998 and played four years there, played a little bit professionally. Very fortunate now to still be working in the tennis industry all these years later.

Bailey Arredondo:

So, is that what brought you to the states was tennis?

Dave Mullins:

Yep, tennis scholarship. Really, my parents weren’t going to let me turn pro out of high school or nor should I have. Education was very important to them as it is to me. But if you wanted to continue to play at a high level, I just couldn’t stay in Ireland. There isn’t the infrastructure there, there isn’t any funding, so I really had to kind of getaway. Most top Irish tennis players do the same.

Dave Mullins:

So yeah, very lucky. There was no internet back there, couldn’t really research where I was going, just kind of fumbled my way through and ended up at Fresno and had an amazing experience. Met my wife there and a big reason why I stayed in America, and just fell in love with college sports. I just thought it was amazing, there’s nothing like it in the rest of the world and couldn’t believe that you could be a college tennis coach and get paid to run a team of whatever, eight to 14 individuals. So, I actually ended up becoming a college coach and coached for 12 years.

Bailey Arredondo:

Wow. I actually find college tennis and college sports in general a lot more relatable than pro sports. I believe that sports on television is one thing and watching sports live in-person is another. I’ll never forget when I was young, I went to a tournament at UCLA with my dad and we saw Marat Safin warming up before one of his matches. He had a backhand, his famous one-handed backhand down the line, and it was so powerful that it went through the fence and landed at me and my dad, and it’s actually in the case behind me.

Bailey Arredondo:

I say that for the reason that, at that moment, tennis was taken to a completely different level for me, it almost seemed like a superpower in some ways. Do you have a moment in your life where tennis was taken to that different level?

Dave Mullins:

Yeah, it’s funny you say that about the pro stuff, there is something about that, right? Growing up in Ireland, we’re just a short flight away from the UK obviously and got over to London with my mom, we had some friends over there in London. We went to Wimbledon the day before it started, and somehow my mother BS’d our way in. I don’t know how she got us in there, we had no right being in there, but she got us in there and just walking around and seeing the players prepare.

Dave Mullins:

My hero at the time was Stefan Edberg. I don’t know if you remember him, an amazing player. I think six or seven grand slams to his name, serve-volley player, kind of very old school. Him and Michael Chang were just practicing, and I remember sitting there just watching those guys practice, just enthralled by it. They came up and they chatted with me, they gave me a tennis ball. From that point on all I’d wear would be Edberg’s gear, I’d try and copy his game, I played with his rocket, even though I wasn’t skilled enough at the time to play with it.

Dave Mullins:

Yeah, it’s amazing you say that, because I haven’t thought about that in quite some time, but definitely a fond memory and something that kept me engaged in the sport for many years to come and still engaged in it.

Bailey Arredondo:

Right. Those moments, they won’t ever leave you, those are something that’ll just keep in the back of your mind forever. I want to transition to the ITA and how you guys have adapted through this pandemic. I find it incredibly interesting how you guys put on so many tournaments throughout the years, specifically recently the indoor tournaments in Oklahoma City. How has your guys’ life changed throughout this pandemic in terms of what you guys can and can’t do?

Dave Mullins:

Yeah, I think we’re still learning through it, and obviously we’re at the mercy of decisions being made at the local level by County officials, obviously, but athletic directors and presidents and what’s happening from one campus to the next. We never wanted to limit the opportunity. So we were determined, if a coach or a campus or a facility could do something for our college athletes, then we were going to support that.

Dave Mullins:

We have a summer circuit that runs … started very small, many years ago, but has expanded to where they have these tournaments all over the country throughout the summer months, combines junior players, high school players with college players, and maybe former college players, maybe some pro players. So we actually extended that into the fold, because most college seasons got shut down in the fall and college players were staying at home with their family, they weren’t going back to campus. But they were able to find some tournaments close to home and continue the competition, hopefully, continue some of their training as well.

Dave Mullins:

So we extended that up through November, that was very popular, and we had some other events where we really targeted some of the top players just to, again, showcase college tennis. So we had a combination of the top college players, some former players that are now pro, offered some prize money. We had great sponsorship from Oracle to help with that. Then moving into the spring, at division one level we do what’s called a kickoff weekend, so it’s kind of a qualifying for our indoor championships. Yeah, if you talked to me in December, it looked like a long shot, but somehow it happened with very little drama, very few instances where teams had to drop out or anything like that.

Dave Mullins:

It happened, and college tennis is moving along. I’m heading to D2 now. This week, unfortunately, we had to cancel division three, just a lot of programs still uncertain about what their spring’s going to look like. Many of them may not start until a conference season or may not start at all, but we’ve been determined to support college tennis obviously in any way we can and provide opportunities for student-athletes at every corner. But it’s been a challenge, it’s been a struggle, but I think we’ve managed it about as well as we could or any organization could. We’ve been fortunate not to have to let go of any staff or furlough any staff and stay committed to the cause.

Bailey Arredondo:

Well, building off what you guys provide for student-athletes, I want to get into the service program at the ITA that you’re actually involved in, the Tennis for America. Truly a life-changing service program, a year of service program designed for former college tennis players. Dave, how did Tennis for America begin and what was the goal in creating it?

Dave Mullins:

Yeah, it’s pretty amazing project and a big undertaking for a coaches association. We’re very unique, and maybe we’re a little bit over our skis with this one, but we wanted to try, we wanted to pilot it. How it came about, there’s a gentleman named John Bridgeland. He played tennis at Harvard, he worked for Obama administration, Bush administration, is now CEO of an organization called Civic, doing amazing work throughout the world.

Dave Mullins:

He won our ITA Meritorious Award several years ago, and he, I guess, threw down the gauntlet to our board of directors and said, “Hey, wouldn’t it be amazing if the NCAA offered a year of service program for all NC athletes? We have Teach for America, which most are familiar with, what if we did the same for NCAA student-athletes because of the experience they’re having, the growth that they get to take advantage of during their four years as a student-athlete.”

Dave Mullins:

At the time, the board of directors like, “Oh, it’s a nice idea, but we just don’t have the bandwidth to do it.” But through the years as other projects were tackled, we felt like, okay, we now have the space to explore this. We successfully applied for AmeriCorps VISTA Funding, which is a federal program to fund 12 individuals. We started it last summer, so the goal was to have 12 of this Tennis for America VISTA Fellows start the year of service in June. COVID hit obviously, we had to make some adjustments, we ended up with eight. So they’re more than halfway through their year of service now, and we’re opening up applications for year two.

Dave Mullins:

We have more cities involved, so now this year we have eight cities instead of four, we hope to have 12 VISTAs start work in June and July. Then in year three, we’re going to do our best to expand it to other sports and maybe try and get two or three other NCAA sports involved to pilot this. We’re committed to a three-year pilot, and if we could demonstrate that this is feasible, this is doable, that it’s worthy and impactful for not just the people doing the service, but the communities that they’re trying to help, then I think it will continue in some form or fashion. We’re just not exactly sure, we’re still learning a lot of lessons.

Bailey Arredondo:

Now, you guys partner with various tennis organizations around the country. To name a few, the Junior Tennis Champion Center in College Park, Maryland, Inspiring Children Foundation in Las Vegas, New York Junior Tennis and Learning in South Bronx, and of course the Sloane Stephens Foundation here in Compton, California. What kind of impact do you see coming from being a part of so many great cities around the country?

Dave Mullins:

Do you mean the impact to the people serving or at the specific locations?

Bailey Arredondo:

Both.

Dave Mullins:

Both. Yeah, I mean, for those serving, again, what a weird year to be starting anything new, and so the experience that we thought they were going to have obviously looks different. They’re doing the things virtually as we’ve been discussing, rather than being out in these communities, out at schools, training volunteers, recruiting volunteers, teaching them how to teach tennis and do afterschool programs.

Dave Mullins:

But they’ve adapted, they’ve been doing things virtually, creating curriculums that they can do online to keep kids engaged in healthy activities and learning after their traditional school hours, which are also happening virtually. So they’re also helping with fundraising, grant writing, with social media, marketing, updating websites, things like that. So depending on the location, they’re asked to do a lot of different things. Like any non-profit, I mean, everybody’s stretched thin, everybody wears a number of hats. I think these 23, 24-year-olds are having a life-changing experience and will be well-prepared for what’s next to come.

Dave Mullins:

The goal of the AmeriCorps VISTA program is to help expand the capacity, build the organizational capacity of any organization these VISTAs are a member of. So if you think about say the Sloane Stephens Foundation, okay, they only have two or three full-time employees, but if you’re able to add one more person, it’s amazing, right, how much more can be tackled.

Dave Mullins:

So all these projects that the Sloane Stephens Foundation wanted to get to, needed to get to, but just didn’t have the human resources to do so, they’re able to now do that and free up some of their more experienced people to go tackle that big donor or that big grant or whatever it is. Then that filters down to being able to offer more programming, having more kids involved with their program and attempting to fight poverty through better educational outcomes for these kids.

Bailey Arredondo:

Now you deal a lot with coach education, and I’m curious on how those conversations go and what languages you use. What are you exactly educating them about?

Dave Mullins:

A whole host of things. I mean, one of the things I started with was just a podcast, because I started my coaching career as a 25-year-old and didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I feel terrible for the kids I was coaching at the time. Anybody’s listening, I apologize, but I really learned from speaking with older more experienced coaches and just throwing questions at them, throwing scenarios at them. So I felt like with the podcast medium, why not have these conversations and share them with all these coaches that may not have access to some of our more experienced, more “successful,” I put that in air quotes, coaches.

Dave Mullins:

So we try and release one of those every couple weeks, and it depends on the background of the coach. It might be we focus on the X’s and O’s, player development, or it might be fundraising. It might be community engagement, it might be what did they do in their first three months when they took over a program? How did they manage their career? What is their coaching philosophy? Really, what I’m trying to do is pull out all the core competencies as to what it is to be a college coach and a successful one at that.

Dave Mullins:

So we started putting together a masterclass, which may turn into a college coach certification so that those interests in becoming college coaches could actually go through a certification program to hit the ground running when they get that job, as opposed to me flailing around not having a clue what to do. So we also started a mentorship program, so we match, again, experienced coaches with younger coaches coming through the system, and we put them through the Celia Slater’s True North Sports Coach Development Academy, we pay for that.

Dave Mullins:

We have an annual coaches convention that we do. We did that virtually this year, which was a big hit with our coaches, because it’s expensive to fly to a convention, so we’re able to capture a lot more of our membership and something we’ll look to do in the future again.

Dave Mullins:

So yeah, a lot going on, Bailey, but really what we’re trying to do is give coaches at least a start, especially new coaches, a starting point so they know what those first weeks, months, I guess, years on the job will look like and where they should be focusing some of their attention.

Bailey Arredondo:

Well, I think it’s incredible, the versatility. We’ve talked about student-athletes, children, coaches, and I think you guys at the ITA really get it in terms of the impact tennis can have. Let’s end with this, Dave. Fast forward to the end of the year, December 31st, 2021 seems like a lifetime away, but what would make you and the ITA the happiest in accomplishing by the end of the year?

Dave Mullins:

Yeah, I think a big thing that we didn’t touch upon, Bailey, is just the current state of intercollegiate athletics as a whole, and maybe the fuel that COVID has poured on certain trends. We could say at the university level, that might just be virtual learning, right? It might be kids not coming to campus and paying for a dorm and food and the same tuition because they’re studying at home. What does that look like going forward? Then how does that trickle down to an athletic department?

Dave Mullins:

Decisions athletic departments are making, obviously, through this, we’ve seen that they are more than willing to double down on football and basketball and invest more money, and non-revenue sports have been suffering because of that. I mean, I think Iowa’s a great case study where you see them counseling I think four programs, men’s tennis being one of them, but giving pay raises to their assistant football coaches. So, that’s a trend that we’re obviously very concerned about.

Dave Mullins:

If you said what does success look like by the end of 2021? It’s that no more tennis programs have been canceled or eliminated, and we’ve actually added some programs and have a better understanding and a better outlook for non-revenue sports, not just tennis moving forward. And is there a new model? Is there something that the NCAA is willing to change or do to ensure the long-term viability of Olympic non-revenue sports for decades to come?

Bailey Arredondo:

Well, Dave, what you and the ITA were able to accomplish this year and really are set to embark on in 2021 are really remarkable and exciting for college tennis and really the nature of tennis in general in this country too. I think so many points that you brought up were important for our audience to understand. I want to make sure they check out tennisforamerica.com, because I do think that the application process is important. We’ll get you guys more involved with the outreach too of how many different states you guys have become a part of.

Bailey Arredondo:

Wherever you’re located, if you love tennis, that’s going to be a great opportunity for you to get involved, even if you’re not already a college athlete, like you said. It was great catching up. I appreciate you taking the time and we look forward to keeping in contact, Dave.

Dave Mullins:

Definitely, Bailey. Thanks so much again for having me on.

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