For 15 years, Rance Brown commuted 66 miles from Laguna Beach.
The then-volunteer assistant coach for UCLA women’s tennis had to wake up at 5 a.m. every day to drive to campus, but spotting former Lakers star Kobe Bryant running along the Newport Coast Drive made the drive worth it.
“I made more money teaching in the private sector than I did (at UCLA) when I first started,” Brown said. “If Kobe can do it, I can do it, I used to tell myself.”
Brown worked at the Newport Beach Marriott Hotel and Tennis Club as the director of tennis prior to taking the position at UCLA, coaching elite juniors for 20 years from 1977 to 1996. His players won over 25 national titles and he placed around 75 players in NCAA Division I tennis programs.
In 1993, Brown would come to Westwood to watch Keri Phebus – a UCLA commit who Brown had coached since she was 6 – where he first encountered current coach Stella Sampras Webster.
“That’s kind of how we met,” Sampras Webster said. “He had a lot of credibility coming in from the private sector.”
In 1995, Phebus became the second-ever woman to win both the NCAA singles and doubles titles in the same season. She garnered 144 singles wins over her four years, setting a program record for the most overall victories in singles play in UCLA history.
Phebus said Brown has a genuine love for the game and a passion for his players.
“(Brown) is one of those coaches that would give you the shirt off his back,” Phebus said. “If I needed to warm up, he’d be out there at 6 a.m. He believed in me, therefore I believed in myself.”
When then-head coach Bill Zaima retired in 1996 and Sampras Webster was promoted to head coach, she said it was a natural transition for Brown to become her assistant coach.
“I always felt that we were co-head coaches because of his knowledge of the game,” Sampras Webster said. “We had that respect level and he’s very loyal.”
In 2005, Sampras Webster took the fall off when she was giving birth to her twin girls, Sophia and Savannah. Brown took over as the temporary head coach and led the team in the fall season. He handled the recruiting for the following season and landed the top-ranked class in the nation.
With additional maternal responsibilities as a parent, Sampras Webster has since delegated scouting and recruiting responsibilities to the current associate head coach.
“I do send (Brown) out to scout because I think he enjoys that a lot,” Sampras Webster said. “Recruits, parents and coaches all really like (Brown). He builds relationships which is very valuable to have with the coaches out there.”
The Bruins have had a top-10 recruiting class in nine of the past 14 years. Brown said the successful recruiting has proven having college experience under players’ belts is beneficial before turning pro.
“Now we have a track record of players coming here for four years or two years,” Brown said. “I think that’s a big key – getting players that love tennis and want to be the best they can be.”
Former Bruin Jennifer Brady came to UCLA for two years before turning pro. She is currently No. 94 in the world, achieving a career-high of No. 60. Ena Shibahara, who played at the top of the singles lineup for UCLA the past two years, elected to turn pro in the fall.
Having only coached women’s collegiate tennis, Brown said he believes he can have more of an impact in women’s tennis due to the parity and intense competition between players on the men’s tour.
“On the women’s side, I feel you can choreograph a match and help players out there,” Brown said. “I’ve just had a lot more women transition from a college level to a professional level.”
Brown said with around half of the Bruins’ current roster hoping to play professionally someday, he embraces the commitment of developing the players that he brings in.
“Over the last 20 years, we have built this program with stability,” Brown said. “When a parent is sending their kid cross-country, I take that with a huge responsibility. The impact you can have on an 18-22 year old is tremendous.”
Through coaching, Brown is able to vicariously fulfill his childhood dream of going pro.
“I started playing tennis because I wanted to look and play like Arthur Ashe on TV,” Brown said. “So for me, to sit here at this university and in this office gives me great pride.”
Ashe – the first African-American to be ranked No. 1 in the world – also became the first African-American male to win the U.S. Open, Australian Open and Wimbledon.
As one of the first black students in his school district in Huntington Beach, California, in 1962, Brown is no stranger to the challenges minorities face.
“We celebrated Black History Month 365 days a year,” Brown said. “My parents raised us well. Walking out of the house each day, we knew we were loved and we knew there would be challenges.”
Last season, the Bruins had four African-American players consistently play in the lineup. Then-junior Ayan Broomfield, then-senior Terri Fleming, then-redshirt sophomore Jada Hart and then-junior Gabby Andrews led UCLA to a 23-6 record and a quarterfinal finish in the NCAA championships.
“You will not see that in the next 10 to 15 years in college tennis,” Brown said. “We did not try and go out to recruit for certain this or that. But is it nice to see African-American ladies come in here and do well? Hell yes. I just want to pull up as many people as I can on my journey and hopefully open some doors for them. I hope I can have a fraction of an impact of a Jackie Robinson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Rafer Johnson’s of the world.”
Brown was vital in recruiting Hart – UCLA’s current top singles player – who he has known since she was 12. He was the one to offer her a full scholarship to play for the Bruins.
“I have loved having (Brown) on the court,” Hart said. “I love talking to him in between changeovers and in between practice drills because we have our little inside jokes.”
Brown said that developing long-lasting relationships beyond the players’ stay in Westwood was something that was important to him.
Despite UCLA winning NCAA titles in 2008 and 2014, Brown said his fondest memories are bigger than tennis.
“My biggest joys are going to the weddings of players, them sending pictures and getting their Christmas cards up on my desk,” Brown said. “When my players come back and ask me to coach their kids – that’s what it’s all about.”
After retiring from professional tennis, Phebus is now married and has four kids – Ella, Addie, Jake and Charlie.
Guess who coaches them.