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'Arizona State has treated me very well': She's been women's tennis coach for 40 years

The Arizona State University women’s tennis team is finishing up its last season in the Pac-12; they have three more matches before the conference tournament in California later this month.

ASU is 11-8 overall, and 3-4 in the Pac-12. That puts them in 6th place, just behind Washington.

But of all the numbers associated with this team and this program, one really stands out: 40. That’s the number of years Sheila McInerney has been the head coach.

The Show visited the Whiteman Tennis Center in Tempe to talk to McInerney during her last season with the team. She  officially retired in May 2024.

Full interview

SHEILA MCINERNEY: I, I don't know if anybody expects to be in one place for 40 years. So, but, you know, it's been a great marriage. I mean, certainly, you know, Arizona State has treated me very well and hopefully I've reciprocated that. But, yeah, I've really enjoyed myself for sure. I had opportunities probably like a lot of people to go other places. But, you know, I, I've always enjoyed the, the kids that I've coached in the athletic department and the weather and the conference and just everything. From a tennis standpoint, it's hard to beat.

MARK BRODIE: What has changed about your job and maybe how you approach your job over those four decades?

MCINERNEY: You know, I think it's like probably anything it's gotten more competitive. There are, there are a lot, you know, there's over close to 300, I think, 25 Division I women's tennis programs. And, you know, when I first got into, into coaching, you know, 40 years ago, not, not everybody really put a lot of resources into maybe women's tennis. I mean, I remember even schools like Duke, I think only had three scholarships back then. You know, Ohio State didn't have the indoor facility they have now. So I think just the competition, you know, everybody's trying. So I sort of like the better when everybody wasn't trying, to be honest with you, but ...

BRODIE: Easier for you, right?

MCINERNEY: Yeah, it's definitely become more competitive for sure. I think you've got a lot more international players and that's a testament to our team. We've got mostly international players. So I think that's really leveled the playing field, too. So it's, it's been interesting you got to keep up with, with all the changes for sure, no doubt.

BRODIE: So you mentioned the conference is one of the things that you like. Of course, that's going to be changing at the end of the season with ASU moving to the Big 12. What does that mean for your program?

MCINERNEY: You know, I think it's, you know, to be honest in some ways, certainly it's, it's, it's sort of sad for me. I mean, I was a player at Southern Cal. I played in the Pac-6. I coached in the Pac-8, I think Pac-10 and now Pac-12. So, you know, and we've always enjoyed the rivalries. We've had, obviously we'll keep the rivalry with Arizona. But Stanford, Cal SU, UCLA, you know, were sort of the stalwarts in the conference, I think, among the four of them they won 27 national titles. So, you know, you're going to miss that, but with change becomes opportunity. And it would be nice to go to different places and experience different, different programs and different facilities and things like that.

BRODIE: How did you start playing tennis?

MCINERNEY: You know, I sort of, you know, in the old days, I mean, you know, I, I, not a youngster but, you know, sort of a tomboy, so I played all sports. And where I grew up in upstate New York, Rome, New York. There's a playground right across the street. You played tennis in the summer time, you played, they put, you know, they watered the courts and they got ice for hockey in the winter time. So I played, you know, a lot of tennis in the summer. They just had a really good summer program. They had good, they had a couple of college kids that would come back in the summer and coach us. So it was a great experience.

BRODIE: What do you like about tennis so much?

MCINERNEY: I, I just think, you know, I've always enjoyed it. Obviously, I was a good junior player and then I played in college. But I think the beauty of college tennis is the team aspect of it. Most of these kids, you know, junior tennis, even when you start at 8, 9 years old, you're out there by yourself. So it can be sort of daunting, you know, playing on your own and calling your own lines and things like that. But I think the beauty of the kids if they sort of can manage junior tennis, I mean, come into college, I think they died and they think they've gone to heaven because you got a coach every day. You've got trainers, you've got teammates and I think you've got to keep people cheering for you rather than people sort of wanting you to lose out there when you're out there by yourself.

BRODIE: Oh, that's interesting. So, I need to ask about your playing career because you played against Billie Jean King, right?

MCINERNEY: Yeah, a while back. I mean, I played all through the juniors. I was an East Coaster, so I played in the Eastern section. Well, there, then I was fortunate enough to get a scholarship to Southern Cal, I played there for four years, was a four time all-American. We had really good teams back then. There weren't as many, you know, it was Stanford, it was SC, UCLA, maybe Florida. So we were fortunate enough to win three team titles. When I was at SC, we were runner-up. And then from there, I graduated in 1980 then played professionally for three years and, you know, played, I was sort of a journeyman professional. I wasn't one of these great, you know, pros or I would have been retired by now.

But, you know, I am fortunate enough to play with the main draw, Wimbledon, the French and the U.S. Open. And the U.S. Open years back, I was fortunate enough to, you know, get the opportunity to play against Billie Jean, which, which was fun, which is, you know, she's your idol growing up. I mean, she's done so much for women's athletics and athletics in general that she's still going strong and I think 80. What a pioneer she is and a good role model for all of us.

BRODIE: Was it intimidating going up against her?

MCINERNEY: I mean, it was. I mean, it was exciting, you know, because I had qualified to get to the Open and I won my first round match, but it was exciting but yes intimidating and, but, you know, she was great. We walked out of the locker room and she was asking me about how, you know, because I was still in college at the time as a freshman, just finished my freshman year at USC, and how school was and this and that, I mean, she couldn't have been nicer. So that took a little bit of the edge off.

BRODIE: What was it like playing those majors? I mean, that's, that's a really big deal.

MCINERNEY: Yeah. I mean, it, you know, like, as a kid it's a dream come true. I mean, you know, to walk around the grounds of Wimbledon, the, Open, the French. So, yeah, it was, it was fantastic, you know, to think that you've played in those now, you watch them on TV. And the kids in your team are watching. So, but, but all, but good, you know, great memories and I had a lot of good tennis friends that I traveled with. So it was, it was a fun time for sure.

BRODIE: I want to ask you about how you describe your coaching philosophy because, as you described, when you're in the college level, tennis is very much a team sport, but it's still, you know, one player or if you're playing doubles, two players out there sort of in their own individual match. So, how do you try to, like, how do you coach, you know, your, your players to, you know, help them and get the best out of them, in what both sort of, I guess an individual and a team sport?

MCINERNEY: Yeah. I mean, I, I think, you know, we try to do a lot of the coaching during practice still, you know. I think that's sort of, you know, the teacher, I guess if I wasn't a coach I'd be a teacher because I, I enjoy teaching, you know, because that's when you can make a lot of the corrections as far as maybe even technique. But, but, you know, you, you treat everybody a little bit differently as far as some like to hear a lot, some like to hear more technical stuff. Some people, you know, once you get into a match, it, more strategy, like, hey, I think this girl is trying to, you know, take the ball down the line to get to your backhand. You might need to take some backhands cross court to neutralize that.

So, but I think everybody is different. Some kids like to hear a lot on the change over. Some people just like to sort of get with their own thoughts. So I think it's important to know the person individually for sure.

BRODIE: What is it like for you, I mean, you've been doing this long enough where you have players that you coached, who are now grown ups and have families of their own. And I'm curious what that's like for you to see, you know, young women that you knew when they were 18, 19, 20 years old now, you know, sort of out in the world and living their lives.

MCINERNEY: Yeah. I mean, I think that's probably one of the most, I think, you know, when you talk to coaches, either when they retired or even while they're coaching and ask them what's the most important thing, I think they'll say relationships, right. I mean, it doesn't really come down to winning and losing, you know, once these kids, particularly once they graduated and moved on. But, you know, we just had a reunion in November. We had 45 players back and a lot of them brought their kids and boy, we had a ball, you know. The stories you tell and things like that. But just to see how they've, how they've matured and, you know, it's fantastic and, and they, they do really appreciate their college years, I think sometimes they, you know, that's the thing they would tell our players. Hey, look, it goes fast. I know we heard that when we were in school, we might not have believed it, but, but enjoy it. And I'm just really, very happy and proud that, that they really have enjoyed their, my former players.

And I'm very, you know, you started out to be sort of a little bit older than them. You know, when I was, I started 25 ... then I became more their big sister than their mother. And now I'm, you know, almost, I'm, I'm about the age of some of their grandparents. So, anyway, but it's, it's been fun. Yeah, because I've got some players now have almost hitting the, the 6-0 year, if you can believe that. So, it's pretty crazy.

BRODIE: How much longer do you think you want to keep doing this?

MCINERNEY: I don't know, it will be a year to year thing. I think you just sort of have, you know, you have to realize how, you know, if you still got the juice to do it and how effective because, you know, you want to be good at what you do, you know. So, you know, we'll see, I think you always, you always do that. I don't think you want to say five more years or, you know, this is it, you know. So I think you just sort of wait and see what happens and, you know, I think that's going to be important for me.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.