When you think of sports dynasties, the coach and the team become nearly synonymous.
Nick Saban and Alabama football. Mike Krzyzewski and Duke men’s basketball. Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots. LeBron James and whatever team he’s on – OK, maybe not that last one.
But here’s another one that should come to mind: Billy Martin and UCLA men’s tennis.
For the 42nd consecutive year, the Bruins have reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament, and Martin has been at the helm for the last 24 of those.
No other school can match that claim.
Three-time defending champion Virginia lost in the second round to Columbia over the weekend. And 21-time champion USC endured a stretch starting in 2003 during which it failed to surpass the Round of 32 three out of the next four years.
In comparison, what Martin has achieved during his tenure in Westwood – quarterfinal-or-better NCAA tournament finishes in all but two years – is astounding.
His crowning achievement is the 2005 NCAA championship, in which No. 7-seeded UCLA defeated the top-three seeded teams, culminating in a 4-3 victory over top-seeded Baylor. That Bruin team ground back from a 3-1 deficit and won the final three singles courts, snapping the Bears’ 57-match winning streak.
Martin also breezes through milestones with ease.
Two seasons ago, he picked up his 500th career win, the fourth-highest active total at the time. And there’s no end in sight, as he is 26 wins away from 600 in a sport in which playing 30 matches a season is uncommon, if not rare.
But for all of Martin’s success, arguably no other coach has fallen victim to a more tantalizing narrative.
He still only has one national championship trophy as a coach. A second eluded him by centimeters when an umpire ruled that Adrien Puget’s foot grazed the net on a would-be match-winning volley in 2013.
This year’s team has a better chance to win than either of the teams I covered the past two seasons. UCLA could potentially face No. 6 North Carolina, No. 3 Ohio State and host No. 1 Wake Forest, but UCLA has its deepest team since I’ve been in Westwood.
Granted, Southern California is a hotbed for tennis talent, and the Bruins undisputedly benefit from the school’s location. But like that of college basketball and football, competition for blue-chip high school tennis recruits is typically dominated by powerhouses such as USC, Stanford, Georgia and Virginia in addition to UCLA.
Yet, Martin continually finds freshmen that he can mold into a winning combination – take this season, for example.
Freshman Keegan Smith leads the Bruins with 23 dual match wins and 38 overall victories, while fellow freshman Connor Hance anchors the lineup with a 14-4 combined record at courts four, five and six. Freshman Bryce Pereira, who Martin said would immediately step in as one of the team’s best doubles players, is tied for the team lead with 20 doubles wins in dual match play.
Smith, Hance and Pereira will have four chances to win a national championship, and they’ll be expected to sooner rather than later.
But if I had to guess how they feel about competing this weekend, they’d probably say it’s a sweet opportunity.
Just like it has been for Martin the past 24 seasons.