EAST LANSING – For the last two decades, Gene Orlando has been the face of tennis in East Lansing. Orlando is in his 24th season as the Michigan State men’s tennis coach and he has made his mark on the program.
“I actually have a picture in my house of me when I was probably about eight or nine years old and I was doing the Nike Tennis Camps and Coach O was running the camps,” senior player and East Lansing native Harry Jadun said. “That’s a picture that I’ve had, it was at my graduation open house. It’s just a funny thing that we’ve known Coach O. He’s been around at MSU for a long, long time.”
Orlando has put in a lot of work towards building the tennis community at Michigan State and it has paid off with his players.
“What’s kept me here is I’m a Midwest guy,” Orlando said. “I think playing in the Big Ten, you’re competing with the elite and playing against the best and that’s all I wanted. That opportunity is here. I wouldn’t even think about leaving and going anywhere else.”
While Tennis is considered an individual sport globally, it’s all about the team at Michigan State thanks to Orlando.
“We love him,” Jadun said. “He builds a family here. He’s a family guy, he’s really close with his family and we see that kind of extends out throughout the team. We kind of imitate his actions and create a family here.”
Sophomore Brett Forman agreed.
“We all are very close,” Forman said. “We hang out on weekends, we talk to each other outside tennis. I think he does a lot of stuff that makes it a really good environment and makes it easy to become good friends. I don’t know if all other teams have this kind of camaraderie, but I’d say this year especially, we’ve really become close knit. There’s no cliques or anything, its just one big happy family.”
Orlando’s coaching style has made it easy for the family environment to take shape.
“He’s patient and understanding,” Jadun said. “He’s not going to scream at your face unless you do something, but when he does get in your face it means a lot. He wants the best for you and really cares about you like a son. Sometimes you disagree with him but you know he’s doing the right thing and that’s why I think a lot of the guys really follow him.
That coaching style has helped Orlando develop a great reputation within the collegiate tennis ranks.
“He just does a good job of knowing the players and knowing how to communicate with them,” Forman said. “You don’t here people talking bad about him.”
MSU’s tennis program has improved significantly since Orlando was hired in 1992. Under his direction, four singles players and two doubles players have qualified for the NCAA tournament. The Spartans also advanced as a team to the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history in 2012-13.
“It’s been a slow process,” Orlando said. “Over the last six years, we’ve started picking off some quality teams. To be honest, I think the influx of really getting a full-time assistant coach, someone that can be with the program and be with the guys, has really brought us up to speed.”
Academics are strength under Orlando, established as a key part of the program. For the last seven consecutive seasons, the men’s tennis team has posted the highest team cumulative GPA out of all MSU men’s teams.
“I just try to recruit smart,” Orlando said. “The first thing I look at is their high school transcripts and test scores. If you’re not balanced and struggling in school, it’s hard to come to practice and be able to focus on just developing your game.”
MSU tennis had success on the individual level from the moment Orlando was hired, but it’s only recently that the team as a whole followed suit. In the last four seasons, the Spartans have twice won 18 matches and have their lone NCAA appearance. The Spartans also have finished above .500 in Big Ten play twice in that stretch, something the team had only done two other times since 1992.
Orlando cites the Big Ten conference as a big reason for his team’s development over the years.
“I think the conference itself has helped us improve our program,” Orlando said. “Since the Big Ten has gotten better, it’s helped us recruit a better athlete.”
Not previously known for its men’s tennis, the Big Ten has developed into one of the nation’s top tennis conferences.
“We’re getting closer,” Orland said. “The Big Ten conference itself has gotten a lot stronger. I’ve been here 24 years and its just amazing now how much the conference has improved from Illinois winning a national title, Ohio State making it to the finals twice, Ohio State winning the national indoors. Now if you want to compete in the Big Ten, you have to play at that elite level.”
Orlando knows the Midwest region very well. He played collegiately at Ball State from 1984-87 on four conference championship teams. Orlando topped the 90-win mark both as a singles and as a doubles player before getting into coaching as a graduate assistant at the school.
In 1997, Orlando was inducted into the Ball State Athletics Hall of Fame for his collegiate accomplishments.
“I had a great coach that gave me a lot of opportunities,” Orlando said. “It wasn’t even a wildest dream of mine. I just love working hard and I was able to have success.”
Orlando spent three years at Bowling Green before the job at Michigan State opened up in 1992.
“The gentleman that coached here was part-time,” Orlando said. “He was half kinesiology and half athletic department. The pay probably wasn’t as attractive, but I was a young guy and I was making more than I was in Bowling Green and it was the Big Ten and I thought, ‘Things are only going to get better here’.”
Orlando had success quickly, with the team having individual NCAA qualifiers in 1993, ‘94, ‘95 and ’96, but it didn’t continue.
“The conference took off,” Orlando said. “It got good and we kind of stayed the same.”
Tennis was a sport dominated by schools in warmer climates, but the power has started to spread out more nationally. Illinois won the national title in 2003, marking the first time a school outside the states of California or Georgia was champion since Notre Dame in 1959.
“I would say going back to when Illinois won the national title, was when the Big Ten went up because now it can be done indoors,” Orlando said. “Ohio State’s made it to the finals twice. They won the national indoors last year. Now the Big Ten has kind of gotten the reputation where it’s the conference to go to. When you add the academics of the Big Ten to the mix, it’s a nice package.”
Schools in warmer climates still make up the top teams in collegiate tennis, but other programs are making themselves nationally known too. In the current ITA national rankings, four Big Ten schools rank in the top 25, with two, Illinois and Ohio State, in the top 10.
“Everything continues to improve,” Orlando said. “When I came in, I was young and was excited to just be in the Big Ten. We might not have had everything we needed to be successful here early in my years, but each year things have always gotten better.”
Last year, Orlando topped the 300-win mark for his career. He has a chance to top that mark again this year only counting wins as a Spartan.
“It’s amazing how much time’s gone by,” Orlando said. “I’ve overscheduled at times and struggled. It’s a fine line to find that balance of what can a team handle.”
At this time though, Orlando is focused on one thing: this year’s team.
“We’ve played a really challenging schedule, started off the season with some great teams early,” Orlando said. “We’ve played Duke, North Carolina State, Georgia, Texas. Three of them are in the top ten teams in the country.”
The Spartans (10-9, 1-1) got off to a nice start to their conference season over the weekend with a 4-3 victory over Penn State Friday before falling to Ohio State on Sunday.
The ultimate goal is another NCAA Tournament. To make the tournament, MSU has to win the Big Ten or finish the year in the top 45.
MSU finished 44th in 2012-13 in their lone advancement to the tournament. Orlando credited that trip as a big step forward for the program.
“You know that it can be done,” Orlando said.
That lone NCAA Tournament appearance was a significant achievement for Orlando and players took notice.
“My sophomore year, we made the NCAA’s and I was talking to my teammate (Gijs Linders) and I was like Coach O’s been coaching for longer than I’ve been alive and he’s never made NCAA’s,” Jadun said. “Just him seeing our name come up in the bracket for the tournament must have been unreal. The guy has been here for 20 years and to finally achieve that, it must have been ridiculous. I’ve never waited that long for anything in my life. Just to see the happiness in his eyes, it makes me want to get there again.”