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Spotlight Feature on Former Athlete: Bill Bryan - Men's Tennis 1977-80
Bryan never went down without a fight
By Bruce Brown
For Bill Bryan, each match as a member of UL's Ragin' Cajun tennis program from 1977-80, came down to a simple equation.
Call it the law of the tennis jungle.
“To me, my opponent was someone I hated and despised,” Bryan said. “He was playing to make everything I had done up til now – all the conditioning, work and practice – a waste of my time. You can't like that guy.
“I looked at it like this – when I put on that (UL) shirt, I'm representing the school. They hired me to kick his (tail). I owe it to my family and to the people who came out to watch us play to play hard.
“We appreciated everyone who came to see us play. We never played before empty stands at home.”
There were exceptions to that combative nature, usually reserved only for teammates. Bryan and Steve Hernandez were rivals in Texas junior tennis circles, but both arrived at UL in the fall of 1976 to play for coach Jerry Simmons.
“Steve and I were both in the rankings, and I didn't like him,” Bryan said. “I signed with UL first, and then Steve called me and said Jerry was talking to him, too, and would I have a problem with that.
“I told him I'd love to have you as a teammate. You don't have to hate someone to compete with them. It's a game. You compete.”
Few competed any harder than Bryan, who is in the UL Athletic Hall of Fame along with teammate Paul Griffith as well as Skipper Hunt and Carter Lomax.
Bryan compiled an 89-35 singles record at the school, No. 3 all-time, with campaigns of 22-13, 24-6, 26-9 and 17-7. In doubles, his top seasons were 1978 (23-10) and '79 (22-9), mostly paired with Gary Bowles.
Griffith, Bryan, Hernandez and Danny Freundlieb arrived at the same time, fueling a dominance of the Southland Conference in the late 1970's.
They won three straight Southland tournaments and the 1978 team also knocked off Florida State, Auburn, Alabama and Texas A&M.
“Jerry is the best recruiter there is,” Bryan said of Simmons. “And, he took care of us unbelievably well. Whenever we needed anything, he saw that we got it. He always thought big, always scheduled big, and that helped recruiting.”
The group of four came to college tennis with hard work, none with dazzling resumes.
“We were the next guy up,” Bryan said. “Always that next choice for a scholarship. We had a chip on our shoulder to prove people wrong. I kept all my rejection letters, then when I'd beat a coach who rejected me I'd return the letter and say 'you made a mistake.' ”
That pugnacious attitude served Bryan well, playing mainly at the unsung but pivotal No. 5 or No. 6 singles slot and No. 3 in doubles. Not surprisingly, some of his favorite moments came when he beat the odds.
“Against Southern Illinois, I was the last guy on the court,” Bryan recalled. “I was down 5-0 in the third set, and won. Then in doubles, Gary and I were down 5-1 in the third, and we won. The team won, 5-4.”
So, how exactly did that Houdini act come about?
“I had very little talent, but I was meaner than hell,” Bryan said with a laugh. “All you can do is play the next point as well as you can.”
That grit came in handy when the Cajuns handed Nicholls State its first loss in 44 dual matches in a classic shootout at an overflowing Cajun Courts, winning 5-4. Raucous NSU fans tried to rattle Bryan with off-color taunts, but his now-classic response quickly became legend and quieted their verbiage.
Then there was the annual battle with Lamar, a school that recruited Bryan before he signed with UL. The Cajuns never lost a dual match to LU on his watch, and most battles were fierce.
“We were at Lamar, and they had a sign on the fence 'Go to hell USL,' ” said Bryan. “It was the court where James Boustany was supposed to play, and he said the sign was a distraction.
“Steve (Hernandez) said he'd switch with James, and I knew what he was going to do. He walked over to tear down the sign, and Lamar's No. 7 guy came out of the stands and was going to hit him.
“I got there and landed three punches before he could get to Steve.”
What's that about accepting a teammate you once disliked? Order was restored and the Cajuns triumphed as Bryan beat LU standout David Eckley, 6-2, 7-6.
“We were all tough,” Bryan said. “Paul, Gary, there's no quit in them. Gus Orellana is so good it's scary. There were no prima donnas on the team. We all got along well.”
It surprised no one that Simmons recruited Bryan, whose father John Bryan helped a high school-aged Simmons with the finer points of the game in Amarillo, Texas.
“I've known Jerry my whole life,” Bryan said.
Additionally, younger brothers Boyd and Vaughn both played for the Cajuns, while youngest brother Mike played at ULM. Boyd is a lawyer in Baton Rouge, Vaughn, who is a teaching pro, and his physician wife live in Qatar and Mike teaches tennis at New Orleans Lawn Tennis Club.
“I started playing when I was 12,” said Bryan, Tennis Director at Raising Canes Tennis Center at the Youngsville Sports Complex, “and started to do well my second year.”
The Bryans once lived for 6 weeks in a tent in west Texas, cooking on a Coleman stove, as John coached the game. And, since 1985, Bill and John are a coaching tandem that developed Louisiana Hall of Fame member Chanda Rubin, among others.
“We're terrific together,” Bill Bryan said. “He has a real good coaching philosophy. He and I can never have the same mood on the same day. We make it different.
“He taught me that I don't know everything, and that you can't be a player and a coach at the same time. I learned that it's not about me. It's totally them (students).”
Apparently, teaching the game is in the Bryans' blood. Bill, Vaughn and Mike all teach, while Bill's son Danny is entering his second year as head coach at Wichita State after playing for and coaching at LSU, his daughter Lindsay is also a tennis teaching professional. Bill's wife Glenda, whom he met at UL, is in real estate but has also taught tennis.
Unfortunately, Bill also took after John with heart problems. John has had three bypass surgeries, while Bill survived a scare of his own years ago.
“I always figured I'd die young, and I did,” Bryan said. “I just came back.”
Bryan, who hasn't been able to beat his rangy son on the court since Danny was 13, said today's players are better than his generation.
“LSU tennis players were benching 350 pounds,” he said. “Now, they're beasts. When I played, we had a few football linemen who could bench that much. It's not in the same time zone how much better they are.
“But we make better coaches. We know how to construct a point, how to hit 50 crosscourt forehands in a row and not give up.”
Great times at UL
Bryan relished the time spent at UL, playing tennis, securing his future, meeting Glenda, and building relationships with athletes in other sports.
“The athletes were all in the same dormitory,” he said. “Other athletes would come watch our matches, and we would go to their games. We developed a lot of friendships. I was there the same four years as (basketball great) Andrew Toney.
“It was a great time to be there.”
Bryan's legacy was topped by his Hall of Fame honor.
“I'm almost embarrassed by it, to be around the other athletes in the hall,” he said. “I never wear my ring around my brothers, or other athletes. In no way was I superior to any of them. Why is Gus not in there? How do I explain it to Gary?
“We were all in it together.”
That's just the kind of attitude you'd expect from Bryan, who never went down without a fight.
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Click here for Bill's Athletic Network profile.
Visit the Tennis Photo Gallery, 1977-80, to view photos of Bill and his teammates.
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Pictured above is the 1977 Men's Tennis Team. L-R: Paul Griffith, Steve Kohler, Danny Freundlieb, Tom Gillham, Karl Haydel, Bill Bryan, Mark Schultz, Steve Hernandez, Coach Jerry Simmons.
Click here for the chronological listings of the Spotlight on Former Athletes.
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