No one radiated a sunnier mood during a balmy NCAA Tournament practice than the 65-year old with a knee replacement and less than a month left of unretired life.
“You see that, coach?!” Bill Zaima yelled to Stella Sampras Webster. The animated volunteer coach was feeding return drill balls and witnessing fierce rallies between senior Carling Seguso and sophomore Courtney Dolehide, two players who spent much of the season hobbled by lower body injuries.
Each Bruin, however, looked to be regaining form for the postseason, as they laced their points with a chorus of grunts and punctuated exchanges with vicious finishes. All the while, Zaima offered his encouragement and suggestions
The man who can sometimes be seen wearing team-matching yellow shorts has a way of drawing smiles throughout the program with his lighthearted nature.
“He’s always bringing something: a baseball, a mitt, something to keep the players loose,” Sampras Webster said. “Players enjoy that part of a coach that can come in and be fun with them.”
A former two-time head coach, Zaima still holds onto some of the disciplined ways that UCLA rode to the national title game twice during his second stint, from 1987 to 1996.
“He loves to run the players and kill them!” Sampras Webster joked, prompting freshman Robin Anderson to proclaim her hatred for “Bill drills” while in the middle of a fit of giggles.
“They will miss it! Right now (current players) may be happy (that Zaima and his exercises are gone), but I have former players that miss that drill and want to play with him.”
A Bruin in the late ’60s, Zaima entertained the ideas of playing for John Wooden or Al Scates, and even went to volleyball workouts. His 5-foot-10-inch frame, however, motivated Zaima to quit pursuing a sport that was still without the libero position ideal for shorter players.
Despite describing himself as a “basketball player that never met a shot he didn’t like and always thought he could play better than the coach thought,” Zaima never gave himself a chance to reach his athletic ceiling in college. Instead, he forged a legacy out of helping others tap into the best of themselves.
Zaima wasted little time in legitimizing a tennis program that he received the keys to shortly after a few years working throughout the recreation department. It was 1972, and the women’s athletics only had a green trailer by the dance facilities to its name.
Zaima’s first stint as head coach, which ran through 1976, went far in ending the days of taking vans on long road trips and paying for meals out of pocket.
Despite the fact that Zaima coached girls that had much more tennis experience, the team prospered under his management skills. UCLA earned varsity status before the last year of Zaima’s first stint and played in the first NCAA tournament in 1982.
Women’s tennis has evolved tremendously because of leaders like Zaima, and according to him, such changes have heightened the difficulty in coaching. Zaima does not see himself now, nor did he in his head coaching years, as being a coach that has to deal with athletes on such a personal level.
“I don’t take (work) home with me at night, and head coaches certainly do. (Head coaching now) is a 24/7 job, you’re always on call,” Zaima said.
Sampras Webster, who played four years under Zaima from 1987 to 1991, argued that he was ahead of his time in being a round-the-clock mentor. The current coach, handpicked by Zaima, remembers that although she spent time juggled throughout the singles lineup, Zaima’s faith in her never wavered.
“He can never look back and say “˜I should have done this,’” Sampras Webster said.
As one of two players that Zaima zeroed in on coaching over the last five years, senior McCall Jones also benefitted from Zaima’s commitment to providing players with guidance and care.
“He was definitely a great support system. Any time a racket was broken or I was feeling slightly injured, he was the first to talk to the trainer and make sure it was taken care of,” Jones said. “He was a really good fatherly type figure for the girls, making sure we were healthy and everything was okay.”
Associate head coach and 2012 ITA Assistant Coach of the Year Rance Brown, recalls how Zaima’s care for players and staff sometimes meant growth through tough love.
“One time my first year ““ I’ll never forget it ““ he told me I was very dogmatic. I took it to heart, but I understood where he was coming from. … He wasn’t trying to demean me or put me down. … It shows him as a classy man. He always tried to help you grow,” Brown said.
Though he wishes he had a few more first-place finishes, Zaima assesses his comfort with retirement more by his interaction with and development of players into well-rounded people than the two championships he won as an assistant or the two he lost as a head coach.
“If (players) stay with you for four years, they take away part of your philosophy. … I’m really proud to see the successes of the players that stayed with me and Stella for four years, because a coach really gets a chance to put their imprint on an athlete,” Zaima said.
Excited by the prospect of seeing the world with his wife and doing whatever he wants on his own time, Zaima walks away from the tennis courts without putting a face on the next phase of his life.
The program he leaves behind loses one of only faces it has ever known, but bears his fingerprints in every facet for years to come.