Don Nead had never played tennis, which might have seemed problematic when he accepted the boys tennis coaching position at Crystal Lake Community High School in 1968.
But when Nead heard the tennis team would fold if no one took the job, he stepped up. The 28-year-old science teacher told athletic director Francis Wagner that he would coach the team for one year.
“Make sure you have somebody qualified next year,” Nead remembers telling Wagner.
Fast forward one year, Wagner did have a coach lined up – but the new coach backed out just before the season. This time, Nead wanted to keep the job.
And he has, for the past 50 years.
Nead coached 10 years at Crystal Lake Community and the next 40 at Crystal Lake South after it opened in 1978. This spring was Nead’s last as the Gators tennis coach.
“Little signs are coming up that indicate that it is time to get out,” said Nead, now 77. “I’m not burnt out, but I want to be able to walk off the court and not have them carry me off the court.”
Nead was honored Thursday at the Northwest Herald’s Most Valuable Athlete Awards with the Lifetime Achievement Award.
The numbers are astounding. In 50 years as a boys tennis coach, and the past 23 years as the Gators girls tennis coach, Nead’s teams have gone 867-256 in varsity dual matches, won 21 conference team titles and 29 district or sectional titles. In singles, 59 of his players reached state, along with 82 doubles pairs.
A native of Indiana, Nead went to high school at Twelve Mile School near Logansport, Indiana (which no longer exists). He graduated in 1958, went to college at Purdue and earned a master’s degree from Ball State. Like many native Hoosiers, basketball was his first interest, and he wanted to coach the sport. He also had interest in track and baseball.
Tennis wasn’t on his radar.
That first year in 1968, he learned the game of tennis from books and from his players.
“Fortunately, they appreciated that I took [the position] to help them out,” Nead said. “They also were very willing to teach me the game of tennis.”
By 1972, he was a tennis pro at Fox Trails in Cary, and later at Crystal Lake Country Club, where he was a tennis pro for 41 years. He has coached countless kids in the McHenry County area, and in many instances, those kids grew up, and Nead coached their kids, too.
“If you are a teacher or a coach at heart, then you can learn how to do that,” said Tracy Waters-Miller, who was Nead’s longtime assistant at South. “Some people just don’t get it, but Don does. There isn’t anything I don’t think he couldn’t teach or coach.”
Waters-Miller was the girls coach at South when the school opened. Nead served as her assistant and vice versa for the boys, until she retired in 1995. She returned to varsity coaching in 2004 as the girls tennis coach at Barrington.
A 1972 Crystal Lake Community graduate, Waters-Miller’s two brothers played for Nead. Nead has been a big influence on her coaching career.
After she took the Barrington job, she often called Nead after every match.
“Don helped me figure out the calculated gamble of what you do,” Waters-Miller said. “It’s like chess. And I would run it past Don.
“You talk about scores and research. It’s amazing the things that he does. I would not have had the success that I have had as a coach without Don Nead.”
Former players recalled similar memories of Nead’s approach to individual matches.
“He’s really good at reading other players, opponents, and figuring out the best way to use your strengths specifically against your opponent’s weakness,” said Cam Laktash, a 2011 South grad.
As a freshman, Laktash wasn’t sure if he wanted to play tennis or baseball. His familiarity with Nead from youth tennis helped steer him toward the sport. Laktash played four years on varsity, went on to play in college at Wisconsin-Whitewater and now aspires to be a coach himself.
“I definitely think that a lot of that comes from Mr. Nead,” Laktash said. “He’s been a big influence on my life. Honestly, I don’t even know if I would have ended up playing tennis in high school if it wasn’t for him.”
Nead makes a point of meeting future Gators tennis players before they reach high school age. He still plans to coach tennis camps this summer at South, a commitment he made months ago.
After that, it’s on to the golf course, where he and Waters-Miller play every Monday.
“It’s a penny a hole,” Waters-Miller said. “High stakes.”
Nead also plans to spend time with his two daughters, six grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.
Even at 77, Nead remains a student of tennis. Laktash remembers him always reading books on tennis and trying new drills in practice. Nead believes the sport hasn’t changed much in the past 50 years. Sure, the rackets are bigger, the game is faster, indoor tennis made playing year-round more common – but the kids are the same.
“I learned to enjoy the game,” Nead said. “I like challenges. Every year, having a tennis team is a challenge, trying to get them the best that they can possibly be.
“I’ve been privileged. I’ve been very fortunate to have players that were willing to work and appreciated what the coaching staff did for them.”