Show integrity. Develop your academics. Win on the court.
This is the message Don Barr has been teaching the players of the South Florida men’s tennis team since he took over as coach in 1992.
The message is also something he practices on a daily basis.
“I was raised by a blue-collar type of family and your integrity is always the one thing you can’t lose,” Barr said. “The way you are as a person is what people will remember long after the wins and losses on the tennis court. That’s what I truly believe and that is what I try to instill into my players – my teammates.”
Barr has been at USF for 16 seasons, making him a staple of the athletics community. During that span, Barr has made himself one of the most successful coaches in the history of the University.
Despite having one of the lowest budgets in the athletic department, Barr has won more conference titles (five) with the men’s tennis team in his 16 years than the football, baseball, and men’s and women’s basketball teams have in their respective program histories combined (four).
Though tennis is his love now, that wasn’t always the case for the longest-tenured coach in USF history.
“I actually used to run track,” Barr said. “But when I was in seventh grade, my older brother signed up for a (tennis) tournament and needed somebody to practice with. I was practicing with him, but he signed me up for the tournament without me knowing. I ended up winning the tournament, and I fell in love with the game.”
Barr soon realized that he had a great opportunity on the tennis court.
“After the tournament, the high school coach saw me running the track, but stopped me to talk about tennis,” he said.”He told me that ‘horses get trained to run in circles’ and I should continue with tennis, which I did.”
Tennis eventually earned Barr a scholarship to play at the University of Kentucky, where he was a No. 1 singles player for the Wildcats in 1961.
He transferred to Morehead State in 1965, and was again the No. 1 singles player for his university.
After college, Barr became a physical education teacher in his home state of Ohio.
“I was a teacher for 10 years,” he said. “I taught elementary school for six years, teaching physical education and special education. Then I moved up into high school and taught business courses.”
Barr was also a distributive education teacher, which is a teacher who works at technical schools for students who go directly into the workforce after high school.
It wasn’t long, however, before he let tennis back into his life.
“While I was teaching at the high school I started teaching tennis on the side,” Barr said. “When I moved to Florida, I started teaching tennis full time.”
Tennis has been good to Barr, since he moved to Florida.
He owned a tennis management company, was a club pro at the Sweetwater Country Club in Longwood, an instructor at the Junior Tennis Academy in Bradenton and a tester for the United State Professional Tennis Association (USPTA).
Barr administered tests for coaches to be rated either Professional-1, which is the level required to run a major tennis club or program, Professional-2, or Professional-3. A level three professional is certified to give individual or small group lessons, according to the USPTA Web site.
He also spent time training some of the best players in the world. Barr ran a camp that featured eight-time Grand Slam winner and Olympic gold medalist Andre Agassi.
“I was running a camp and Andre came in when he was about 13 years old,” Barr said. “I paired him up with a player who was actually the No. 1 ranked player in the United States at 18-under. Well, I had them go out and play, and Andre ended up beating him. We knew he was good, but that was when we just knew Andre was going to be something special.”
After running tennis camps, Barr began his tenure at USF as an assistant coach in 1991.
That was his only season as an assistant. He has been in charge of the tennis program since.
“Don is really committed to his athletes,” said former Senior Associate Athletic Director of USF Barbara Sparks-McGlinchy. “A lot of his life revolves around making sure his athletes have a good experience. He is also one of the most ethical coaches I have ever been around.”
When Barr took over as coach, the University had about 30,000 students, six tennis courts and no football program.
“I remember the first time I came to this school there were only three buildings and six tennis courts,” Barr said. “(Former USF Athletic Director) Lee Roy Selmon did a lot for not only the tennis program, but for athletics at this University as a whole.”
During his 16 seasons at USF, Barr has hit some of the highest highs a coach can, such as his six Conference Coach of the Year awards (four in Conference USA, two in the Metro Conference).
He has also seen several players – most recently senior Mahmoud Hamed – win awards for academics.
“The awards that mean most to me are the academic awards that my players win,” Barr said. “It’s really a tremendous feeling to see that the players are not only good at tennis, but good in the classroom as well.”
During those 16 seasons, Barr has also had to deal with terrible personal lows.
In November 1995, he was faced with something every parent fears. While at a tournament in Tallahassee, he was informed that his son, Doug, was taken to the hospital after a drug overdose.
Doug had been in a coma for six days when his family decided to take him off of life support. He was 23.
“That was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” Barr said. “The team though, my teammates, really rallied around me and they helped pull me through it. Now I may seem like I am a little too sentimental with my players, and I probably am. They all just mean so much to me.”
Barr’s heart was given little time to heal, as he suffered another tragedy just months later. Third-year player from Holland Romain Sion, 22, was murdered during a trip to Panama.
Sparks-McGlinchy believes that Barr’s devotion to his players helped keep the team focused in the face of such tragedies.
“His best attribute is his ability to do well in the face of adversity,” she said. “It never mattered what came up, he was always there to lead his athletes.”
Barr also said that overcoming adversity, while difficult, is something that he has done well.
“I’ve always felt that work helps to get through adversity from losses in your family,” Barr said. “You learn that these bad things are just bumps in the road, and it’s how you handle your adversity. If you dwell on it, it’s going to hold you back. If you know that there’s a reason as to why these things happen and you stress on setting your goals and moving towards them then you will always be able to get through any hard time.”
Barr’s team finished that season 20-4 and made its second straight trip to the NCAA championships.
In 2001, Barr suffered another terrible event. This time, however, the life in jeopardy was his.
During a match, on a hot spring day, Barr slumped over after talking to a player.
“It was a really hot day, so we first thought it was heat stroke,” Martin Wetzel, who played for USF from 2000-2002, said in a phone interview. “Then the ambulance came and they knew right away it was a heart attack.”
Despite pleas from the players, Barr told the team to stay on the court, Wetzel said.
“We all wanted to just leave right away and go to the hospital with our coach,” he said. “But coach told us that we had to keep fighting. He said that he would fight through the heart attack but we had to keep fighting on the court. So we finished our match. Then, as a team, we went to the hospital.”
Barr said he knew that he had to dig down deep and show the character he preaches on a daily basis.
“I know through my hardest times, in order to get through this mentally, I think that what you need to do is get up and go to your job and to devote your time to turn the negative around into a motivator,” he said. “You want to move forward and not dwell on anything or turn it into a negative. I try to push myself harder on every bad thing that happens to me. I try to work twice as hard and try to be more motivated to be successful in another area.”
Motivation is a strong tool in sports, and in order to motivate his team, Barr said he likes to turn to his friend and fellow long-time USF coach Jim Leavitt.
“Jim’s kind of a hero of mine,” Barr said. “I like to think that the way his players see him, mine see me. He’s one of the best motivators around. I love to take my team into the locker room and let them hear one of his speeches. That gets me just as pumped up as it gets my players pumped up.”
Leavitt said Barr is a good friend and a great coach.
“Don is a special guy,” he said. “He’s a loyal person and he has a great heart. I’ve grown to really appreciate him. I really do think a lot of him. I know that he likes to compete. He likes to win. When I saw him play Notre Dame for the Big East Championship and saw the fight that his team had, I thought that was really something.”
Though he has seen a lot of success on the court, Barr said he looks at the accomplishments of his players once they leave USF as his greatest successes.
“When I hear back from my players who haven’t been here for years, and I hear about how successful they’ve become, that’s what means the most to me,” Barr said. “That’s the reward I get. It’s not all about wins and losses in tennis.”
Several of Barr’s former players have gone on to accomplish great things.
“My best player was probably George Bastl (1995-1996),” Barr said. “He upset Pete Sampras at Wimbledon.”
In 2002, Bastl defeated Sampras, the player with the most Grand Slam titles in the history of tennis, in five sets.
Some of Barr’s former players, however, went on to do great things off of the tennis court.
Dirk Britzen – who played for USF from 2005-2006 – is now the worldwide market launch manager for Porsche. He said that Barr’s lessons helped him succeed in the business world.
“He teaches his players that you can only achieve your goals through total commitment and maximum effort,” Britzen wrote in an e-mail. “I think that really helps you in the time after college when you have to deal with personal challenges. Coach Barr always tries to set the benchmark with his work. When you see him working and recruiting on the weekends, you know that he really lives the things he tells you.”
Wetzel has also succeeded off the tennis court, working as a strategy consultant in Munich, Germany.
“For me, coach Barr was almost like a dad or a dad away from home and his wife, Lana, was like a mom,” Wetzel said. “They both did everything they could to make the players feel comfortable away from home.”
To be recognized like that by his players is something Barr said he will always hold close to his heart.
“I really stress integrity and academics, because those are the things that I feel the kids are going to need the most when they get out of school,” he said. “I look at them and see how much that stuff means to them, and those lessons are the things that these kids are going to take back to their countries. Those are the memories I cherish the most.”