BUFFS ROUNDUP: Wednesday, May 27, 2020
For the past two or three seasons, Rod Robinson had been contemplating his future retirement plans from teaching and coaching tennis in USD 457 in Garden City.
After all, he had reached the age of 60 on New Year’s Eve, 2019, and had been teaching and coaching in the district for 28 years.
It was, as he said with a glint of sadness, time to hang the coaching the racket up.
When the final day of the unscripted and unheard of spring 2020 semester drew to a close on Friday, May 22, all Robinson had to do was go to the school, clean out his desk and box up a few supplies and mementos, and turn in his keys. And walk out.
It was game, set and match.
Having never played competitive tennis in high school or college, Robinson became the middle school girls and boys coach at both Abe Hubert and Horace Good in the early 1990s.
“There were many times early in my professional life that I never envisioned myself teaching, and certainly not coaching,” said Robinson on his final day as a teacher.
Having been born in Liberal and then moving to Garden City at age 3 with his family, Robinson attended USD 457 schools and graduated from Garden City High School in 1978.
A two-year stint earned him his Associate’s degree from Garden City Community College and he then went to work for a box factory in Garden City for a degree. All the while, he was taking night classes to work toward his eventual bachelor’s degree, something he earned from Kansas Newman (now Newman University).
In 1992, he was hired to teach at the Alternative Center, including all subjects. From there, he went to Friend Elementary for a half year before moving to Bernadine Sitts, teaching science and social studies through 2000.
“It seemed like that age group was a good fit for me,” Robinson recalled. “We always had good people to work with.”
In 2001, he split time each day between Abe Hubert Middle School and Charles Stones Intermediate School.
“It was always a bit of a rush to get from one school to the other on time,” Robinson said. “But it all worked out.
All the time, he was still coaching the middle school tennis teams, grooming them to move up to GCHS where they were playing for legendary Buffaloes’ coach Bob Krug.
“Coach (Krug) had asked me early on if I’d help with the middle school program,” Robinson recalled. “Kevin Thompson had moved up to assist him at the high school, so I took over the middle school program.”
It seemed like a match made in tennis heaven.
“I think we always had a good number of kids out for the program, and we were the feeder program into the high school,” Robinson said. “I’ve just always enjoyed being around the kids, helping them learn the game and to become good persons.”
Having never played competitive tennis, Robinson took up the game in his 20’s, and learned the game from Krug, who coached for nearly three decades at the high school.
“He was very patient and encouraging with me in learning the game,” Robinson said. “Once I started to learn to play, I wished I had played at a younger age.”
Robinson’s rise to learning the game was evidenced by traveling to USTA events across Kansas, eventually reaching the No. 1 ranking in seniors in Kansas USTA.
That was a far cry better than his days of competing in track at Garden High, where he described himself as a mediocre mile runner.
“I didn’t do very well, and I guess at the end of the day, I didn’t really enjoy it that much,” Robinson said of the track experience.
When Krug retired at the end of the 2002 school year, GCHS hired another coach to replace him and the hire didn’t work out.
“Bill (athletic director Weatherly) asked me if I’d do the boys and since it was already after the girls (2002) season, my first varsity coaching came with the 2003 boy’s season,” Robinson said.
Since then, he has been the Buffs’ head tennis coach for every girls and every boy’s season for 17 school years.
During that time frame, the Buffs have won 16 Western Athletic Conference championships, split evenly with 8 for each of the girls and boys teams. It’s been an especially strong run late in his coaching career, overseeing WAC titles for the girls in 2014 through 2019 and for the boys in 2014, 2015, co-champs in 2017 and outright crowns in 2018 and 2019. On multiple occasions, he’s seen his entire squad qualify for the state tournament at Class 6A regionals.
Robinson said there have been many challenges in developing a statewide competitive program in Garden City since there has been no quality indoor practice facility for year-round use, and there are not many high school programs west of Wichita, Hutchinson and Salina.
“We don’t have tennis clubs like Genesis in the metro areas of Wichita and Kansas City,” Robinson said. “There are no tennis academies where kids play year-round. They have private coaches and are competing all year. The kids back east can specialize where we have kids playing other sports and then it’s time to pick up the racket and play the season during school. Our kids who do the best practice some all year long, but they don’t get the same quality competition.”
Robinson said that there are differences and some similarities between coaching girls and boys.
“Boys are more ornery, although I’ve had some ornery girls,” Robinson said with a laugh. “I think before all the electronic gadgets, the boys would always be messing around in the van, but the electronics seems to have calmed them down. Girls are a little more emotional, but at least they let it show. Boys show anger, but it’s mostly against them.”
The satisfaction Robinson derives from his coaching comes with watching his team’s players improve through a given season.
“You can tell they’ve been working on their game when they come back from an off-season,” Robinson said. “They progress, get stronger and better and that gives them chances to qualify for state.”
Success at the 6A state tournament has been limited through the years, but Robinson said he would say Tyler Richard’s seventh-place finish at the state was one of the highlights he witnessed. Richard’s finish was the first state medal by a player coached in the Robinson era.
On the girl’s side, Robinson said it was the year that foreign exchange student Sofia Mattson of Sweden competed for the Lady Buffs, earning the No. 1 spot in singles on the team and eventually winning the 6A regional to qualify for state that year.
“She had never competed in tennis before coming here,” Robinson said. “She was incredibly talented, but had to learn how to be competitive. She was a special person and I think inspired all of her teammates. They really made her feel at home, and it was just a highlight season for me.”
That group, which also included Claire Schmidt, saw the team win regionals, the first such accomplishment for the Lady Buffs under Robinson’s tutelage.
In 2017-18-19, boys’ doubles partners Daniel Darter and Will Keller held the top spot for the Buffs and qualified for state each year. They won regionals each season and in 2019, which proved to be Robinsons’ final season coaching the boys, they medaled at the state to earn the first such honor during Robinson’s tenure.
Memories will abound for many years, for sure, but the final spring will have a lasting impact on Robinson as well as his senior boys who never stepped on the court to compete after the COVID-19 outbreak.
“We had a lot of young boys and missing this season will definitely impact them next year,” Robinson said of the Buffs 2021 team. “There will be a lot of rebuilding on the boys, but I also think our girls are going to be really good next fall.”
Robinson said it was a bittersweet spring, indicating he had looked forward to making it to sites where the Buffs had been competing for many years as sort of a farewell tour.
“I’ve enjoyed a lot of the coaches through the years and I wanted a chance to thank them for all the support they’ve provided to me through the years,” Robinson said. “We’ve been able to travel to some of the best tournaments in the state and that has helped our program grow stronger.”
The lost season of 2020 is just that, Robinson mulled.
“I would have never thought I’d go out sitting on my couch,” Robinson said. “I only coached for two weeks and then spring break came and everything went to …. from there. This whole thing changed for everybody. Their senior year will always be remembered as something they missed. I’m going to miss being around the kids and really didn’t get a chance to say goodbye.”