Two National Coach of the Year awards hang in Don Barr’s office. They serve as a reminder of two of the toughest years the USF men’s tennis coach has gone through.
He doesn’t hold any regrets for what he went through, he said. He has learned from past experiences, which has helped him become a better coach and mentor.
A tough road
In 2001, Barr suffered a heart attack while coaching a match against Miami. His wife, Lana, was in the stands.
“It was scary,” Lana said. “I never want to go through that again.”
She remembers rushing to her husband on the court and trying to put aspirin in his mouth as he lay on the ground numb. Barr received help from Nadim Nasser, a USF player at the time, whose father was a surgeon and was attending that day’s match. He had nitroglycerin in his possession and saved Barr long enough for the ambulance to transport him to the hospital. Barr underwent a quadruple bypass surgery because of the heart attack in 2002.
Nasser’s father had not planned on attending the match because his son was injured.
“I guess God just had a hand on him,” Lana said. “It just wasn’t his time to go.”
In 1995, Romain Sion, one of Barr’s players, was murdered by his girlfriend’s parents. He was pushed off a 12-story building in South America during Christmas break.
“I just felt so bad for his parents,” Barr said. “We’ve been through a lot here. It’s something I don’t want to go through again.”
Despite the tough loss, the team rallied to go on and win the Metro-Conference Championship that season.
Lana said their faith in God and support from friends and family helps them through
“Don and I have a lot of faith in each other and faith in God,” she said.
David Lane, the chaplain of USF’s football team, met Barr and Lana when he pastored at Northwest Baptist in Tampa. He was at the hospital after Barr’s heart attack and said he’s watched the two come a long way.
“He never complains,” Lane said. “He’s always thinking of others. They’re both very compassionate people always wanting to help others. They’re the two friendliest people I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing.”
A new mentality
It’s the events Barr has experienced that have re-shaped his coaching approach.
“It’s just a game,” he said. “Enjoy it. Do it as hard as you can. Work as hard as you can. That’s my philosophy. When the real problems in life come, when you fall apart … how are you going to handle the big situations?”
“When I see what those kids went through losing their teammate, and they pulled together and said, ‘Coach, don’t worry about us anymore, it’s only a game,’ … that’s the things you look back and can cherish.”
While Barr’s goal for his teams is to win, he doesn’t let that interfere with their education.
“Their tennis lives may be only four more years, and they’ve got to be looking at what they’re going to be doing the rest of their lives,” he said. “That’s a big part of helping them.”
That emphasis has helped the men’s tennis squad earn a 3.4 grade point average, the highest among any athletic team at USF.
“When someone is getting a little behind (in school), I pull them out of practice and make them study,” Barr said.
Success at USF
Barr, who ran track in the seventh grade, started playing tennis when he helped his older brother, Dan, train for a high school tournament. Without Barr knowing, Dan signed him up for the seventh and eighth grade competition — which he won. Shortly after, the high school tennis coach approached Barr at track practice one day and offered him a spot on the team.
“He told me they train horses to (run track),” Barr said. “(He said) you ought to play something you can play all your life.”
The Cincinnati native won a high school state championship in doubles, and was a runner-up in singles. Barr went on to play in the No. 1 singles position at both Kentucky and Morehead State.
He then hung up the racket in competitive play.
Barr taught a number of high school courses in Kentucky and Ohio, including physical education for six years, business, accounting and typing for four years and distributive education for two years, until his personal accountant offered some advice.
“My accountant told me I was making more money on the side teaching tennis and I should think about taking it on full time,” he said.
He played tennis at USF for one semester in 1967, and he’s the longest tenured athletic coach at USF, having served 18 years. He began coaching at USF in 1991 as an assistant and became head coach the following year.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes,” he said. “There were only three buildings here when I came … to come back and teach here — I was really surprised (how USF has changed).”
Barr has led USF to four titles in Conference USA and one in the Metro Conference. His teams have advanced to the NCAAs in seven of the past 12 seasons, and consistently earned national rankings. This year, the Bulls reached No. 27 in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association rankings.
“(The players) know that he loves each and every one of them,” Lana said. “I think they look up to Don as a father figure. They know he’s been through a lot. They have very much respect for him. You just see it. They trust his word and believe in him. If you don’t believe in somebody, you’re not going to give 110 percent, and those kids do.”
Sophomore Lucas Jovita earned the Bulls’ No. 1 position last year. Jovita said Barr has helped him become the tennis player he always wanted to be.
“I like him and the way he treats me,” Jovita said. “He’s changing my game. He
understands me and he tries to get me to improve. He’s a really good coach.”