By Jimmy Hyams
They came from California and Colorado, from Chicago and Cincinnati, from Dallas and Denver, from Raleigh and Nashville and Atlanta and Hilton Head to honor a man that had a huge impact on their lives.
Mike DePalmer celebrated his 85th birthday Saturday, but he didn’t celebrate alone.
More than 100 poured into Cherokee Country Club to show their respect and admiration for the 14-year former Tennessee men’s tennis coach who resurrected a program with his recruiting, resourcefulness and resolve.
Attending the surprise party were his wife, two sons, his daughter, his in-laws, his grandkids, his friends, his pupils, and tennis pros. They shared stories that were humorous and heart warming, revealing and risqué.
What you learned was that DePalmer could teach a forehand and teach with a firm hand.
He took in wayward players who got into trouble at Tennessee.
He taught juniors without charging.
He conducted clinics for countless youngsters from Portland to Asheville.
And he did so with a vast vocabulary.
Jack Fertig, a former Tennessee men’s assistant basketball coach who played tennis with DePalmer in the 1980s, said DePalmer spoke two languages: English and Profanity.
DePalmer could get his point across with a sarcastic remark, like when he told Vol Eric Vogues, who fell behind during a match at No. 6 singles: “I’ve never lost to a guy named Miles.’’
DePalmer reached out to Vogues, a Chattanoogan who was about 5-foot-6, 140 pounds with no backhand but a good record. DePalmer invited Vogues to walk on at Tennessee, where he cracked the lineup.
Chris Woodruff, UT men’s tennis coach and the only Vol to win an NCAA singles title, thanked DePalmer for the early morning workouts when Woodruff was in middle school.
Ben Testerman, the most decorated junior tennis player in Knoxville history, said DePalmer was like a father figure. As a junior, Testerman and his dad argued about where Testerman would attend college. Instead, Testerman turned pro and regretted it.
But before he did, Testerman traveled with DePalmer to the prestigious junior tournament in Kalamazoo, Mich. Sharing a room and thinking DePalmer was asleep, Testerman decided to sneak out.
When Testerman’s foot hit the floor, DePalmer asked: “Where you going?’’
Back to bed, obviously.
Howard Blum, former owner of Cedar Bluff Racquet Club, said once you made friends with DePalmer, you were always his friend.
Two of DePalmer’s grandkids were at the party. Caitlyn Williams, a top-rated junior whose career was curtailed by injury, is now teaching at Cedar Bluff Racquet Club.
Rhyne Williams, a UT All-American who turned pro after his sophomore year, was plagued by back injuries and after multiple surgeries has retired. He is a part-time teacher in Tampa when he’s not catching 150-pound tarpon or 250-pound bull sharks.
Several speakers said DePalmer didn’t get nearly enough credit for being on the front end of the DePalmer-Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Fla., which has produced hundreds of pros since the 1970s. DePalmer left the academy to become UT’s coach in 1980.
In 14 years, DePalmer won two SEC titles, had two top three national finishes and guided the Vols to a No. 1 ranking and 34-0 record in 1990 before losing to UCLA in the finals. Two players in the 1990 lineup – John Gibson and Tim Jessup – attended the birthday bash.
DePalmer collected the most wins by a UT tennis coach (299-119) and produced 21 All-Americans. He was the 1990 national coach of the year.
In 1991, the USTA named the DePalmers the No. 1 tennis family in America.
Mike DePalmer is in the Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame, the ITA Hall of Fame, the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame, and the Tennessee Vols tennis Hall of Fame.
In 1986, when I was working at the Knoxville News-Sentinel, the sports editor decided to assign a sportswriter to each UT “Olympic’’ sport.
No one wanted tennis because DePalmer had the reputation of being a rough, gruff complainer who couldn’t be pleased.
Since I played tennis and had a love for the game, I took the beat.
It turned out to be one of the best professional decisions of my life. I covered a great program with great athletes and a great coach. I traveled to Indian Wells, Calif., to cover the NCAA finals. I watched Woodruff win his NCAA singles title in Athens, Ga.
I’ve cherished my relationship and friendship with Coach D and his tennis family and the UT tennis players and the tennis community. I’m not sure things would have been the same had I not accepted the challenge of covering that ornery Italian.
I count myself among the fortunate who celebrated with Mike DePalmer his 85th.
And I can’t wait for No. 90.