Our latest USTA Southwest Member Profile puts University of New Mexico women's tennis coach Erica Perkins Jasper in the spotlight.
We recently interviewed the do-it-all tennis coach/mom/former USTA employee/wife gives us a lowdown on how she got started in the game, tells us why she got started coaching, and addresses the significant changes happening in the college game today.
USTASW: What got you started in tennis? Was it a family influence or just your own good luck to find it?
EPJ: I grew up in a tennis family--I think I had a racket in my hand by probably age 3. My dad was a very good tennis player—he played tennis and basketball at the University of Washington in the 50s.
My older half-brother was also a good player and was playing high level juniors and pro tennis when I was young, so in a lot of ways the only reality I knew growing up involved playing tennis. I never realized that most 7 or 8 year olds didn’t play tennis every day like I did! Luckily I really loved it and got better!
USTASW: We see that you grew up in Seattle and played at Washington State (and hey, a Pac 10-All Conference baller for a couple of years). What do you remember about your college days and what do you try to tell your players about that time and how to maximize their college time socially, scholastically and as a player?
EPJ: I had an incredible college experience and I guess that is a big reason I ended up getting into coaching.
I had an amazing college coach, Cari Groce, who saw something in me that no one else did, and she helped me overachieve during my years on the Palouse.
I wanted to help other players have that kind of experience that I did—there is nothing quite like it. Of course, everyone remembers the big matches, the highs and lows of a season, but really what makes the college tennis experience special is being on a team and representing something bigger than yourself.
Almost all of my best memories from college revolve around things I did with my teammates. I try to encourage my players to enjoy this experience as much as possible as those four years absolutely fly by.
USTASW: You've been in Albuquerque for a few years now (Jasper is going into her third season as the UNM Lobos Women's coach). You took kind of a circuitous route going to UNM after being in Georgia Southern, William and Mary and Michigan State? Did you ever guess you'd be there and WHY did you ultimately choose UNM?
EPJ: My first six years in coaching were a whirlwind—I was busy trying to climb the ladder of college coaching and was willing to move wherever necessary to do so, which as you can see, I did!
But in 2008 I was offered a really interesting opportunity to work for USTA Player Development in Boca Raton, Fla., where I was tasked with handling college tennis programming. At the time, a lot of the programming was in its infancy or didn’t exist, so it was challenging and exciting but I definitely missed being on a college campus and working with players directly on the tennis court.
I also went through a lot of changes personally during that time—I met my husband Colin, we got married, had our first child, Miles—and my desire to return to coaching became stronger and stronger. This time around though I was a little pickier as to where I would take a job. Both Colin and I love the west (he is from Idaho originally), so we decided that I would only look at jobs out this direction. I also wanted to go somewhere where I felt I would have the means and support to be successful. So frankly, it was a pretty short list. Ironically the UNM job opened soon after and I was fortunate enough to get an interview. Not only did we love Albuquerque but also I felt like UNM was a great fit for me and my coaching style.
USTASW: The UNM athletic department is one of the better ones in the country for sure as far as administration since your school's Chief Operating Officer (Tim Cass) is a former tennis player and coach at UNM and is highly-respected by the NCAA. It seems a lot of athletic departments across the country don't value tennis. Do you think UNM sees the importance of it for the school, and what does having a former tennis coach as a higher up do for you?
EPJ: Obviously working for Tim is a great blessing—not often do you get to work for one of the great minds in college tennis (and I would argue in college athletics). I really enjoy my time that I get to talk tennis with him and get his insight on things.
One of the things I love about UNM Athletics and our AD Paul Kreb’s leadership is the emphasis on being successful at the conference level and nationally in ALL sports. We have some unbelievably great coaches and programs here—it’s amazing to be a part of it.
I definitely am lucky to be at a place where Olympic sports are valued—but I also think it is on me to make sure my program is relevant both in my department, in Albuquerque, throughout the Southwest, and nationally.
This means not only do I need to do a good job recruiting and coaching on the court, but also I must market our program well and do outreach in the community. If no one knows how great our team is on the court, in the classroom, and in the community—then our successes are diminished.
USTASW: We know you're a relatively new mother again (congrats!), and that you have two kids (Miles and the newbie, Caleb). You're definitely "leaning in" these days as a working woman, taking on motherhood while being a travel-all-over-the-place coach. How hard is it to juggle that time and who helps you do that?
EPJ: Well first, I would be lying if I told you it was easy! Luckily, I have an amazing husband—he put his career on pause for our first year here so he could stay home with our son as we adjusted to our new lifestyle (Miles was 6 months old when I took the job).
Now that he is back working and we have two little guys, it does get a little crazy, but it a fun adventure and we wouldn’t want it any other way! On the work front, I am super lucky to have Kelcy McKenna as my associate head coach. The timing of my pregnancy wasn’t exactly ideal—I had Caleb in the midst of our spring season last year.
Not only did I miss the final month of our season but also I was quite uncomfortably pregnant for the last month or so, which made things like running practice and doing individuals very tough. Fortunately, Kelcy stepped in and did an unbelievable job.
My players also play a big part in me being able to balance my life. All of them understand that I have a family and that my family is a big part of our program. I am also very fortunate that our administration here is supportive of me and my family. It definitely takes a village!
USTASW: So, you're a former employee of the USTA and now a coach at University of New Mexico. How did your four years (2008-2012) in USTA Player Development (specializing in collegiate programming) help prepare you for this gig?
EPJ: First things first, I can find things on USTA.com faster than any other coach in the country! Ha ha, but seriously it was a great experience working for USTAPD for so many reasons, but the biggest one was the relationships I made with both men’s and women’s college coaches, and I’ve been fortunate to carry on those friendships as I returned to college coaching.
I also was able to watch some of the best coaches in the country—both our National coaches and top college coaches—and frankly I learned a lot. I am a lot different coach now than I was 12 years ago when I got my start.
USTASW: There's been many changes in the format of college tennis and what it looks like to fans and players in the last few years. Some people have pushed back and railed against some of these changes, while others have tried to press forward. Many people are concerned about the changes affecting the integrity of the game, whereas others are concerned more about the sustainability of tennis itself as a college enterprise and worry that it might not even exist without these changes. How do you balance both those things at once and come to a compromise for the good of college tennis?
EPJ: . College tennis is at an important crossroads. Many people believe that due to recent changes in the NCAA governance structure and the overall climate of college athletics that Olympic sports are at risk of becoming obsolete.
There are others who believe that because of this time is ripe to make a change. Regardless of what side you may fall on, change is most likely upon us and it is important to stay relevant.
The face of college tennis has changed in the last 40 to 50 years--if you look at the history of college tennis, the format has evolved significantly and has always made it unique in comparison to the rest of the tennis world.
This past year I served on the ITA Steering Committee for format change and I am also a member of the ITA Operating Committee. It was an interesting experience and I learned quite a bit in the process about compromise.
But at the end of the day the committees were able to get behind a few important unifying concepts such as shortening the dual match, attracting more fans, and keeping doubles as an integral part of all matches.
Change is always difficult—I remember vividly as a player when we switched from the singles first, nine point match to the doubles first seven point match, I was convinced the powers that be had ruined doubles and college tennis’ emphasis on it.
Of course, now I wouldn’t want to play it any other way! I have a feeling that although many players and coaches might have similar sentiments about this format, once we all get going and our competitive juices get flowing, I think the adjustment will be easier than many people think.
And honestly, the court is still 78 feet—give me a format and I’m going to do my best to coach my team to win!
USTASW: What's the toughest part of being a college coach? The bus trips? The amount of estrogen on a court at once? Long days and late nights? Running the social media accounts for your team?
EPJ: It really is an amazing job—I feel fortunate to be a college coach.
Sometimes the crazy schedule, travel, and hours can catch up with me in the midst of the spring dual match season—that’s probably the toughest part—but I love working with my student-athletes and being on a college campus.
It also isn’t a bad deal to be able to wear sweats or shorts to work almost every day!
USTASW: So we really enjoy your tweets about the UNM Women's team bus trips. Do you plan on keeping those a staple on the Twitter feed?
EPJ: We try to keep things fun and light and offer people a little insight to what it’s like to be a Lobo Women’s Tennis player, so hopefully you’ll see some more interesting stuff this season.
I do a lot of the posting, but the girls usually have much cooler, funnier ideas, so I’m going to try to defer to them more this year as we continue to modernize and ride the social media wave!