Impact is something that every coach hopes to have on every player they come across. An impact on not only their athletic ability and knowledge of their sport, but also on who they become as a person and the way they act off the field.
Former Colorado State University tennis coach Jon Messick was able to do just that.
Messick started his reign at CSU when he was hired as the men’s team head coach. He was working as a head pro at the old tennis center in Fort Collins and was looking into some graduate courses at CSU when he met with Fum McGraw, the athletic director at the time. The men’s position was open, McGraw offered him the job, and Messick could not refuse.
31 years later, Messick would become one of four CSU coaches in the entire athletic department to coach for more than 30 years, a list that includes former football and track coach Harry Hughes.
The program was in awful shape. Messick described how they had to make their own uniforms, which were just matching t-shirts, and all the players on the team were walk-ons.
“If we are there and we are practicing,we are competing,” Messick said of his start with coaching the men’s team. “We might as well do it right and do it at the best level we can.”
The team would respond to his message, as the men were able to win 120 matches over his 11 seasons as their head coach. An impressive number for a program that had no scholarship players. One notable win was when the team defeated Wichita State, who won the Missouri Valley Conference championship that season and was nationally ranked at the time.
Messick would soon take on coaching the women’s team as well in 1989 and would coach both squads for six years until the men’s team was disbanded due to Title IX reasons. CSU had too many men’s sports and had to make cuts, but the sacrifice did provide more spending and opportunities for the women’s side.
From that support, Messick would make the most of the women’s program. He has led them to the most successful era of tennis CSU has ever had. The Rams were able to reach an 11th regional ranking in the 2006-07 season, the highest ranking ever achieved by CSU, and were regionally ranked seven times.
During the 2014-15 season, Messick would lead his team to what he recalls as the biggest win of his career when the Rams took down a New Mexico team that was ranked 54th nationally and were eventual Mountain West champions.
“I was the last match on the court,” senior Celine Voss said of the match against New Mexico. “It was tied three all and I won and it was the best experience I’ve had with [Coach Messick] and the whole team.”
“It was just fun to see because you always tell the team on any given day you can beat anybody,” Messick said. “And it happened that day, it was just really rewarding to have that happen and to tell them look, I wasn’t just lying to ya.”
But Messick’s impact did not stop with his on court success.
“They all have to understand that if they can’t stay in school, they can’t play,” Messick said.
Coach Messick always emphasized school to his players, as seen by the team having a cumulative GPA over 3.20 for the seventh straight year last season. The International Tennis Association also honored four of the players as ITA Scholar-Athletes, meaning they had a 3.50 GPA or higher.
“I would rather, ‘look we got a trip coming up but you got an exam and you’re struggling in this class, you’re going to stay home and get that taken care of,’” Messick said.
Messick also expected his players’ best effort and wanted them to be good people off the court as well.
“I wouldn’t get upset if they lost, but I would get upset if they didn’t try,” Messick said.
“The other thing was to just be solid people. Stay out of trouble, be responsible, be a good person and represent the university,” Messick said.
The key to Messick’s 31 year success was being calm and collected with his players and never getting too loud or over the top with them.
“Coach Messick was just really calm and would calm us down and keep us really relaxed so we wouldn’t freak out,” Voss said.
“I never really believed in getting upset with a player, never believed in getting upset with officials,” Messick said. “If you win that’s great, if you lose and you tried hard and played the best you can, then we just have to learn how to fix it.”
One way Messick liked to keep things light was playing practical jokes on his players. Messick recalls one of his past players being a practical joker and he thought to himself, “I want to do that and I can do it better.”
Ever since then he has planned out ways to trick his players, most notably a couple years ago when he dawned a new look. Voss recounts the story of how Messick came to practice dressed up as one would imagine a CSU super fan would, decked out in all kinds of green and gold material. He wore a ball cap and hoodie with the hood up and started to throw water balloons at the players. The players knew that this could not be the end of the joke and they were right once Messick took off his hood and cap and revealed a bright and shiny bald head. He had shaved off all of his hair.
“We never thought that was going to happen,” Voss said. “Because he loved everything about [his hair].”
His jokes had worked every time until his joke from last year. The team had finished playing New Mexico and he asked the hotel workers down in Albuquerque to make it so the players’ room keys would not work. From there, he would tell the players something went wrong with the booking and that they now had to leave for Colorado Springs that night to play Air Force the next day. It would have worked except the keys did end up working, Messick’s plan had failed.
“What was my fault was leaving it up to the hotel,” Messick said. “If you want to make sure it works you got to have control over that.”
Nowadays, Messick is enjoying his retirement and enjoys the fact that he does not have somewhere to be every single day. His love for tennis has not been extinguished as he is now an official for tennis matches and helps teach the game at the Boulder Country Club.
Jarod Camerota has taken over as head coach after being Messick’s first paid assistant last season, something Messick did not have when he was coaching both men’s and women’s tennis.
“I became the head coach and without him putting in a good word for me it probably doesn’t happen,” Camerota said. “The fact that he was very loyal to me after a short time of being his assistant kind of shows the guy he is.”
Camerota said how Messick still hangs around with the Rams and will call or text him before coming to practice to be polite and to not intrude on anything he is trying to do.
“I yell at him at him and say you don’t have to ask permission just come whenever you want,” Camerota said. “He has an open invitation. Any match, any practice.”
At the end of it, the tennis team will always remember the impact Messick had on his team and it is something that the organization wants to always do. That is why last fall they renamed the annual tournament the Jon Messick Invitational.
“On some levels it’s embarrassing,” Messick said of the tournament being named in his honor, “I always thought that if you had something named after you it was because you had died.”
But Messick is humbled by the fact that he had a great opportunity to do something he was passionate about for so long and the way he was able to influence the lives of young students.
“I’ve been grateful for the opportunity…to represent Colorado State and work for the university all these many years has been satisfying,” Messick said. “I think that is the most rewarding thing about the whole coaching [job] is to have an impact.”
Most would call 31 years, 243 wins, an ITA award named after your leadership skills and a tournament named after you as having a lasting impact.
Austin White can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @ajwrules44