Why UNC women’s tennis coach Brian Kalbas was a chance worth taking
Women's tennis Head Coach Brian Kalbas smiles as he chats with a colleague at the Cone-Kenfield Tennis Center on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019. Kalbas, a coach for the Tar Heels for 16 years, led his team to three ACC championships in a row from 2016-18 and was named ACC Coach of the Year five times. He holds a 602-180 career record, making him the winningest coach in ACC history and cementing him as leader in all-time wins at Carolina with 388-95.
Seated in his boss’ office in Notre Dame’s recently built indoor tennis facility, Brian Kalbas listened in on the phone conversation that would change his life forever.
His head coach, the one speaking, was Bobby Bayliss. On the other end was Millie West, the associate athletic director at William and Mary at the time. She and Bayliss were friends, and she called to get his input on a list of candidates vying for the school’s newly opened women’s tennis head coaching job.
“She wanted to know if I would go over the names she had and rank them for her,” Bayliss recalls. “And I did, and I told her the order I’d put these people in."
“And I said, ‘Do you want the best person, or the best person on that list?’”
West laughed: “Obviously we want the best person.”
Bayliss responded: “Well, then the best person is Brian Kalbas.”
West wasn't sold.
“Why don’t we do this,” Bayliss continued. “I’ll pay for his plane ticket out there, and if you hire him, you owe me the money for the ticket. And if you don’t hire him, it’s no problem, you don’t owe me anything.”
‘Based on being happy’
Kalbas had only three years of assistant coaching experience at the time of the call.
To this day, the UNC women’s tennis head coach says he learned 99 percent of everything he knows about tennis in only five years, under Bayliss’ tutelage.
He’d been around tennis his whole life, though. It first served as a way to connect with his dad, who’d been diagnosed with and treated for polio when he was very young. Kalbas’ dad had to wear custom-made shoes and one of his legs was bone-skinny, so he couldn’t play any contact sports.
When Kalbas was 7, the lore goes, he defeated a part-time pro at a local park. By 8, his parents furnished the means to allow him to join a club with a tennis membership, and Kalbas made a deal with the full-time local pro that he’d help out with odd jobs around the club in exchange for tennis lessons.
As Kalbas grew older, though, his relationship with tennis deepened. The court provided a familiar environment for him and his brother, Tim, and the more the Kalbas family moved around — Kalbas switched schools three times in his four years of high school — the more he hit.
How he viewed tennis at that point, he admits, is what drove him to attend Notre Dame — a school he would be at for four years, where, maybe, he didn’t need to rely on tennis for validation. He didn’t need it to feel at home.
“It was really challenging for my freshman year, moving away from my coach, and to move before my junior year, before my senior year,” Kalbas said. “During those three years, I never really had a tennis coach, per se. So that’s where the impetus was for me to choose a college based on being happy, and not necessarily about the coach and the program.”
‘Always puts himself behind the team’
To understand Bayliss’ confident defense of Kalbas with William and Mary’s management, you have to go five years before that fateful phone call, when Bayliss assumed the mantle of men’s tennis coach.
When Bayliss arrived in South Bend in 1987, Kalbas, a junior, was the best player on a bad team. In Bayliss’ first year, the Fighting Irish lost to Kalamazoo College, a Division III program.
“I had to change the team culture,” Bayliss remembers. “(My players) weren’t really used to the commitment I wanted, and Brian was the first guy to stand behind me on that.”
Kalbas and Bayliss each called it their “shared vision,” despite coming from different perspectives. Bayliss was an outsider, parachuting into a situation he didn’t really know; Kalbas was the frustrated junior, looking for a way to break his team out of the cycle of mediocrity it got caught up in. They saw each other as different means to the same ends.
Despite early season woes, the tides of the program started to shift in Bayliss’ first season at the helm. Notre Dame had just opened a new indoor tennis facility, an attractive point of interest for recruits throughout the country. Additionally, Notre Dame’s athletic department in 1988 fully funded men’s tennis, giving the team five full scholarships to work with, instead of two scholarships it made do with for decades.
Also that season, Kalbas hosted the No. 1 high school recruit in the country. David DiLucia had been close with Kalbas’ brother, Tim, and the two had been acquainted for a long time.
After the weekend, Kalbas effectively convinced DiLucia to commit to Notre Dame and challenged him to beat Kalbas out for the top spot. His senior year, after playing on Court 1 his first three seasons, Kalbas played on Court 2.
“That’s kind of what he was,” Bayliss said. “He wanted the team to do better. He always puts himself behind the team.”
Per his own estimate, Kalbas hosted 67 Notre Dame recruits his senior year. Of those, 11 players in the top 100 came to Notre Dame.
He said that he was one of a select few Bayliss could fully trust; so as a senior, in essence, he was building the foundation of a team that would be nationally known three years down the road.
So when Kalbas’ father — who was worried about how his son would use his business degree to leverage employment — stopped by to see Bayliss and told him that his son had been taking aptitude tests and seeing psychologists, Bayliss went to his own boss to see if Kalbas could be his assistant.
“Obviously, I had the good fortune of having recruited the No. 1 player in the country my first year,” Bayliss remembers. “So (the athletic director) believed in me and knew that it was a move he had to make.”
Kalbas was the Notre Dame men’s tennis program’s first ever assistant coach. He made $8,000 a year, but was happy to pour himself into 16-hour work days. In exchange, he saw the team — the team he helped sow — grow into the college tennis canopy. By Kalbas’ third year as an assistant, when the first-years he saw into the program were juniors in 1992, Notre Dame made a run at the NCAA Finals.
“And nobody north of the Mason-Dixon line ever got to the finals of the NCAAs,” Kalbas said.
So here he was, a proven instructor, player and right-hand man to the coach advocating for him on this side of the phone line. West, who had never met Kalbas, had her reservations — and rightfully so. But the conversation ended when she agreed to have Kalbas for an interview and for him to run a practice.
Bayliss got a call a few days later. It was West.
She said she would reimburse Bayliss for the plane ticket.
‘Has to be a home run’
The hire wasn’t confirmed with those two calls with West, apparently. The next day, Bayliss received a third call: this time, from the sole major donor to the William and Mary tennis program and founder and chairperson of IMG, Mark McCormack.
“I know what you told Millie,” Bayliss recalled McCormack saying. “And look, this has to be a home run. He’s too young. I don’t think he’s ready for William and Mary.”
What happened next is written in record books and on hardware. This spring marks Kalbas’ 27th year as a collegiate head coach — 11 seasons at William and Mary, 16 at UNC. Kalbas coached William and Mary to two NCAA quarterfinals appearances and nine conference titles, and he won the ITA National Coach of the Year award in 1998.
Since starting at North Carolina in 2003, he’s won three ITA National Indoor championships, added another national coach of the year honor and has won four ACC Championships — including three in a row the last three years.
The kind of coach he became, more importantly, is found in the details. Kalbas hasn’t had a player transfer from his program at all during his Tar Heel tenure.
When he recruits, he does less in text messaging and more in handwritten, personalized letters — sometimes enclosing articles that remind him of prospective Tar Heels, and scribbling in the article’s margins.
He’s not ashamed to admit the struggles he had his first season at William and Mary — struggles at times so tough that he questioned his decision to leave South Bend. He sees it now as a growing experience.
He's never been afraid to ask for advice from some of the greatest Tar Heel coaches to ever do their jobs. He learned from Dean Smith to never sacrifice character in recruiting. He’s adopted tactics from women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance: Every year, his team reads a different book, and a player presents on a chapter each week.
“I learned so many things from him I couldn’t even name, same with the things he’s helped me go through at UNC,” said Hayley Carter, one of the greatest players in UNC women’s tennis history, and a best friend of Kalbas. “From bad exam grades that I’d be freaking out about … to the bigger things, like my dad passing away, and him being the first one to have me over at his house to talk and be with my family.”
It’s easy to see it now. But for Bayliss, while on the phone with McCormack, none of this success was guaranteed, or even likely.
But for a constellation of reasons, Bayliss knew that a chance on Kalbas was one worth taking.
“Mark, you’ve got it partly right,” Bayliss responded to the William and Mary shot-caller. “But the problem you’re going to have is keeping him once you get him there.”
He re-emphasized: “William and Mary isn’t ready for him.”