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Through 800 wins, 41 years and 30 weddings, Loyola Maryland tennis coach Rick McClure builds lasting bonds

Rick McClure poses for a selfie with women's tennis alumna Kaitlin Russo (2000-04) at a celebrate of his 40th year in coaching at Loyola University Maryland on April 7, 2019.
Rick McClure poses for a selfie with women's tennis alumna Kaitlin Russo (2000-04) at a celebrate of his 40th year in coaching at Loyola University Maryland on April 7, 2019.(Larry French/Larry French)

After her freshman year in 2016-17 as a member of the Loyola Maryland women’s tennis program, Alexandria Agee contemplated transferring. The cost of tuition and room and board was putting a heavy financial burden on her family, and the team’s first African American female player was not entirely comfortable on the Baltimore campus.

Before making a decision, however, she went to talk to tennis coach Rick McClure, who worked with Agee to increase her financial aid and connected her with the director of African, Latinx, Asian and Native American Services.

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“I remember when I talked to Coach about it,” recalled Agee, now a senior. “I actually sat in his office and cried, and the way he responded, he was comforting. … I was able to be vulnerable and honest with him from the get-go, and that allowed us to really develop a close relationship.”

McClure’s connection with his athletes has inspired a certain level of loyalty from his players, and they returned the favor last month when they helped him collect the 800th win of his career after the women’s team defeated Monmouth, 6-1, on Feb. 23.

The 66-year-old McClure, who has coached more than 400 players on the men’s side since 1979 and the women’s side since 1988, had added two more victories to his ledger before the coronavirus pandemic forced the NCAA to cancel all spring sports. Despite the premature ending, he said it has not diminished his thoughts on his 41-year career.

“I’m very proud of what I’ve done at Loyola obviously, and I couldn’t have done it without any of the people I’m lucky enough to choose to come to Loyola,” he said. “But I didn’t play or win a point of these 800 matches. So basically, it’s all on my student-athletes that were good enough to produce. They’re hard-working kids, and they love the sport.”

But McClure, who was hired by the university thanks to a referral from former Baltimore Sun reporter and columnist Phil Jackman, said his objective is not wins. Because the men’s program does not offer athletic scholarships and the women’s side only offers two, his priority is ensuring a worthwhile experience for his players.

So that means organizing two daily practices so that members can attend classes and lab sessions. Senior Kyle Gower said McClure frequently gives players permission to skip practice to focus on their academics.

“College coaches are normally super intense, and they want you to put your sport first and above everything else,” said Gower, who totaled the second-most, single-season singles wins in Greyhounds history (24) as a sophomore. “But he really embodies Loyola’s mission of caring about the whole person.”

The players’ affinity for McClure is not a contemporary quality. When a lighted, eight-court center made possible in part by a $3.2 million donation by the parent of a tennis player opened April 11, 2015, 175 people — many of them alumni — attended. Another 175 people showed up April 7, 2019, to celebrate McClure’s 40th year at the school.

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Bob Hauver, who was a freshman from Bel Air High School in McClure’s rookie season, attended both events. McClure wanted to christen the opening of the McClure Tennis Center at Ridley Athletic Complex by hitting a few volleys with McClure, who had been mourning the death of his son Will on Feb. 2, 2015, at the age of 22 because of complications from the flu.

“To me, it was very personal because really it was just Rick and myself out on the court just hitting a little bit,” said Hauver, 58. “It was very touching to me that Rick called to see if I would come out and be one of the first people to hit with him. It meant the world to me.”

McClure — who joked, “The last five years I’ve gotten more attention than I did in the first 36″ — said he has attended 30 former players’ weddings, including 15 in the university’s Alumni Memorial Chapel.

“It means a lot to me in regards to my contribution hopefully to their lives,” he said of his connection with them. “A lot of people will graduate from college and the things they will remember are the athletic things — the weekend trips, qualifying for the NCAA tournament, winning a conference championship, the majority of their friends. It’s phenomenal just to see how important that part of their lives was, and to bring those people together means a lot to me. It’s been a profession where you meet some very special people along the way, and I’ve been very fortunate to have done that.”

Agee teamed with senior Lin Robertson to win their No. 2 doubles match and propel Loyola to last month’s victory at Monmouth that gave McClure his 800th win. She said McClure did not talk about the milestone before the match.

“He definitely deserved it all,” Agee said. “It makes us proud whenever we see Coach happy. I think we all kind of see him as this little father figure, and we get sad when he gets sad. It’s a very empathetic connection between us.”

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McClure said the best part about No. 800 was the more than 330 emails, text messages and social media congratulations he received afterward.

“That to me was my celebration, people appreciating the fact that it had happened for me,” he said. “That was quite exciting. I just couldn’t believe the response that I got. It probably lasted about a week. People were coming out of the woodwork.”

McClure said parents of incoming recruits have questioned him about whether he intends to retire. But he said his health is good and his passion for the sport remains high.

“I try to do what’s in the best interest of my kids,” he said. “Every day, I wake up, and I ask my kids — all 24 of them — to be in my best interest, too. I say, ‘You have one coach that has to like you. I have 24 kids that I have to have like me. So go out of your way to have that happen. Find out what I like and don’t like from the kids who have been here for years, and try to do that as much as you can so that we can have a positive experience here.’”

So is McClure aiming for 900 wins? 1,000? The NCAA Division I record of 1,327 set by Hawaii’s Jim Schwitters?

“Numbers have never been that important,” he said with a laugh. “I never mention the word ‘win’ to the kids. I just say, ‘Effort, attitude and desire. Just give me everything that you have when you’re out there.’ They give it their all, and I’m proud of them when they do.”

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