Kostin Started Fast at VCU, Still Going Strong

Kostin Started Fast at VCU, Still Going Strong

By John Packett

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RTA Contributing Writer

When Richard “Doc” Sander took over as athletic director at Virginia Commonwealth University in the mid-1980s, the men’s tennis program was in shambles. In addition, there was no women’s tennis team.

Both of those changed big-time when Sander hired a little-known coach from Arkansas-Little Rock in 1990.

With plenty of financial help from the Thalhimer family, Paul Kostin quickly turned the men’s program into a state and national powerhouse and later took over the women’s team, propelling them to heights never before achieved on the downtown Richmond campus.

“When I got to VCU, we weren’t any good in tennis,” said Sander. “We had a part-time [men’s] coach. Then we got a [financial] gift from the Thalhimer family. Mr. [Charles] Thalhimer was very interested in tennis and wanted us to improve our program.

“We didn’t have courts. Didn’t have anything. So they gave us money to build the courts and money for scholarships.

VCU played its home matches at Byrd Park in those days, before the Thalhimer Tennis Center was erected on the southern edge of the campus on Cary Street Road. It contains six courts, which are covered by a bubble during the late fall and winter months.

Armed with enough scholarship money to put a competitive team on the court, Sander’s next job was to find a full-time coach.

“The way I knew about Paul was when I hired Sonny [Smith] to be the basketball coach [in 1989], one of the guys I looked at was a guy named Mike Newell, who was the basketball coach at Arkansas-Little Rock. Mike was also the athletic director.

“In going to Little Rock and talking to Mike, I heard about their tennis program and found out they had a really good program with hardly any resources. They were an urban school like us, and Newell just raved about Paul and what a great job he did.”

In nine seasons at UALR, Kostin led the men’s team to six Trans America Conference titles and a 159-74 record. In addition, he led the women’s team to a pair of National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) championships (1984-85).

“So when we had a job opening, I thought he’d be great,” said Sander, “and it turned out pretty good.”

That’s a gross understatement. Since taking over the men’s program in 1990, Kostin has guided the Rams to 19 NCAA appearances and 16 conference titles. That includes an incredible run to the NCAA final in 2000, where the Rams lost to Stanford.

Kostin took over the women’s program in 2002 and (assisted by Yana Carollo) has led the ladies to 10 NCAA appearances and four conference crowns. Heading into this season, which begins on Jan. 18, Kostin’s overall college record is 958-306 (men and women).

How was Kostin able to turn the men’s program around so quickly?  VCU had won only three matches the previous season.

“Well, I pretty much cleaned house,” said Kostin. “I brought a couple players with me from Arkansas and then I recruited a couple new guys in the fall and the spring. After that, we just kept on going. Plus, I had some experience, winning plenty in Arkansas.

“So I wasn’t exactly a rookie, doing things like that,” said Kostin, a Swedish native and graduate of UALR.

One of the first players Kostin received a commitment from was Fredrik Eliasson of Sweden.

“Paul’s commitment to building an elite tennis program was the main reason I chose to attend VCU,” said Eliasson, who makes his home in Jacksonville, Fla., and is chief financial officer for CSX, an international transportation company.

“His energy and excitement were very appealing, and the lessons I learned throughout my time with him were invaluable.”

Another one of Kostin’s top recruits was Jose Blanco-Sanchez, who was a member of the NCAA finalist squad.

“He talked to me bluntly, straight forward, like an adult,” said Blanco-Sanchez, a senior research associate for Dorset Management Corp., an investment group in New York City. “Most importantly, he prioritized my education over anything else.

“Tennis was secondary. He would always say that we were there to get an education, become human beings first, and that we had been given a great opportunity for success. Then, it was up to us to put in the hard work.

“It was very refreshing to hear someone who actually cares about your life rather than your wins and losses.”

Some of Kostin’s players went on to get master’s degrees at VCU and have landed excellent jobs. Some played professionally for a while before entering the workforce. Others, like Tatsiana Uvarova at Raintree Swim and Racquet Club, have become teaching pros.

The majority of Kostin’s players have come from Europe or Russia, and he was criticized in some circles for not recruiting more Americans.

“Some people were not happy with it, but I was just trying to get a competitive team,” said Kostin. “It had nothing to do with where you come from. The bottom line is they had to represent the school well and graduate and so on.

“I had seen so many other schools do it before I came to VCU. I played in this country myself in the 70s. Now the whole world does it.”

Kostin’s success has continued through three conferences, Sun Belt, Metro and Colonial Athletic Association, and the Rams will begin play in yet another league, the Atlantic 10 Conference, this spring. Don’t count on anything changing.

“I think he’s the best coach I’ve ever been around, to be perfectly honest,” said Sander. “Paul always got the most out of every player. He knew exactly what buttons to push, whether a kid needed to be left alone, to be encouraged, maybe get on them a little bit.

“Whatever it was, Paul knew that, and he managed to give every player what they needed to be their best. Plus, technically, he was really good. He worked with kids individually a lot, made them better. It was amazing to see some of the kids improve.”

Eliasson and Blanco-Sanchez echoed some of Sander’s thoughts about Kostin’s success.

“Paul is a successful coach because he recognizes that all of his   players are different,” said Eliasson. “He finds what motivates each person and helps them achieve the most possible. He helped me find the right balance and supported my goals on and off the court.”

Added Blanco-Sanchez, “He knows the college tennis game better than anyone I have ever met. The most important thing he would always stress was in whatever you did, make it simple and never beat yourself. He was a great strategist, but always using common sense.”

Kostin, who turns 60 this year, is closing in on 1,000 career wins but still enjoying his job.

“It just means I’m getting old,” he said of the plateau. “It also helps to be running two teams [men and women]. It’s not that I’ve been doing it for all these 33 years but it adds up. I never pay much attention to it, but in today’s world, everything is stats.

“I feel I have a good job. I’m happy and dealing with good kids. I like it here and I have a lot of good friends here. As long as I’m healthy, I probably do it a few more years.”

VCU players and tennis fans will be happy to have Kostin as long as he wants to call Richmond home.

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The VCU men’s and women’s teams have plenty of home matches coming up this winter and spring. Here is a listing of their matches, where they would greatly benefit from the support of Richmonders. All matches are at the Thalhimer Tennis Center. Admission is free.

VCU women’s home schedule

Jan. 18: VCU 4×1 invitational, TBA

Jan. 19: VCU 4×1 invitational, TBA

Jan. 20: VCU 4×1 invitational, TBA

Jan. 21: VCU 4×1 invitational, TBA

Feb. 1: Virginia, 3 p.m.

Feb. 3: Winthrop, 10 a.m.

Feb. 16: South Carolina, 10 a.m.

Feb. 17: West Virginia, 10 a.m.

Feb. 19: Virginia Tech, 1 p.m.

Mar. 1: Maryland, 3 p.m.

Mar. 3: South Florida, 10 a.m.

Mar. 27: Binghamton, noon

April 6: Georgia St., 9 a.m.

April 9: William and Mary, 4 p.m.

VCU men’s home schedule

Jan. 18: VCU 4×1 invitational, TBA

Jan. 19: VCU 4×1 invitational, TBA

Jan. 20: VCU 4×1 invitational, TBA

Feb. 2: North Florida, 1 p.m.

Feb. 15: Michigan St., 2 p.m.

Feb. 16: N.C. State, 2 p.m.

Feb. 23: Penn State, noon

Feb. 24: South Carolina, 1 p.m.

Mar. 2: Illinois St., TBA

Mar. 12: Wake Forest, 2:30 p.m.
Mar. 16: Penn, noon

Mar. 22: Charlotte, 2 p.m.

Mar. 24: George Washington, 1 p.m.

Mar. 30: Virginia Tech, 11 a.m.

April 5: Louisville, 3 p.m.

April 7: Memphis, TBA

April 14: St. John’s, TBA

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