The story of Adam Steinberg: A new leader, new culture and new heights
Adam Steinberg sat in his office, feet up on his desk, and considered a tradeoff that would alter the trajectory of his coaching career and tennis legacy. The June 2014 calendar on his wall seemed like a ticking time bomb.
As Steinberg leaned back in his chair, he pondered swapping the soft sand of Malibu’s beaches for Ann Arbor’s brutal winters. He weighed the prospect of leaving the national powerhouse he established as the head coach of the Pepperdine men’s tennis program — where he was sitting on a 265-92 record over 13 years — for Michigan, which hadn’t advanced past the second round of the NCAA Tournament since 2008.
While contemplating this, it occurred to Steinberg that the change of scenery would amount to much more than just leaving palm trees in his past.
As his eyes wandered around his office, Steinberg recalled some of his greatest achievements during his memorable tenure with the Waves. An NCAA championship banner, 2006 National Coach of the Year plaque and over a decade’s worth of team photos dangled from the wall — enveloping Steinberg in the nostalgia of his most successful coaching stint to date. But when push came to shove, Steinberg’s competitive edge — a driving force in his playing days on Long Island and at Penn State — wouldn’t let the task of righting the ship at Michigan slip through the cracks.
“It was a very hard decision,” Steinberg said. “Pepperdine was special, but after being there 12 years, I was ready for a new challenge. Not many times in your life does a Michigan come along with that combination of athletics and academics. It was just too good to pass up at that stage of my life.”
After 13 seasons, a 2006 national title and 10 West Coast Conference Tournament championships, Steinberg called Pepperdine Director of Athletics Steve Potts to inform him of his decision.
With that, he punched his ticket to Ann Arbor, where a program mired in mediocrity stood stagnant at a crossroads between contention and irrelevance.
When Steinberg stepped down at Pepperdine, it wasn’t the first time he left a successful head coaching post in favor of a new challenge.
The first time, it was June 2002. A 36-year-old Steinberg had just wrapped up his fifth year as the head coach at Alabama. Under his tutelage, the Crimson Tide finished the season ranked inside the top-25 in four of five seasons.
Though Steinberg was one of the country’s youngest coaches at the time of his Pepperdine interview, experience was one of his strong suits. He became the head coach at St. John’s in 1990, just two years after the end of his playing career at Penn State. During his five-year tenure with the Red Storm, Steinberg guided the program to a 61-22 overall record — highlighted by a conference championship in his debut season — before accepting a job as Northwestern’s assistant coach after the 1995 season. He spent two years there, where he helped the Wildcats reach the NCAA Tournament in 2001 and 2002.
It was at that point that Pepperdine Director of Athletics Dr. John Watson gave Steinberg a call about the Waves’ head coaching job.
“In the interview process, he answered all the questions (the way) I wanted him to in tennis and student development, but also as human beings,” Watson told The Daily in a January phone interview. “He was an ethical person and a strong leader. He has a strong personality, but he’s also compassionate and understanding.
When Watson formally offered him the position, Steinberg looked him in the eye and made a guarantee before even picking up his pen to sign the contract.
“You will have a national championship in four years.”
Sure enough, the Pepperdine players dumped a cooler of Gatorade on their coach after upsetting Georgia in the NCAA Tournament final four years later.
“Winning is important to him," Watson said, "but not everything to him — he wants his players to be successful on the court, but more importantly successful in life.”
Michigan’s academic prestige, coupled with the camaraderie of its athletic pride and tradition, was enough to sway Steinberg to pack his bags.
Before he was an All-American, Michigan’s captain and national singles runner-up, 2018 graduate Alex Knight was just another redshirt freshman. A little more than a month before Steinberg was named the Wolverines’ head coach, Knight’s phone buzzed as a call came in from then-coach Bruce Berque, who recruited Knight and welcomed him with open arms as an early enrollee.
Their relationship was short lived.
After the team failed to advance past the second round of the NCAA Tournament for the sixth straight season, then-Athletic Director Dave Brandon decided it was time for a change. Berque had been fired, bringing his decade-long stint in Ann Arbor to a close.
“Winning and inclusivity wasn’t the primary goal,” Knight said. “(Berque) would admit it too — he didn’t crack down on a few guys he should’ve. The reason for the (shortcomings) was a kind of clown culture.”
When Brandon hired Steinberg, his new leader embodied the much-needed attitude change he sought throughout his national search. As a result, Knight and his teammates saw their goals align with Steinberg’s from the start.
“After (Berque was fired), players wanted an environment that was positive, fun and hard-working,” Knight told The Daily three weeks ago. “(Steinberg) came in and said the exact same things, and we had to start from ground zero to lay the foundation for the program.”
With a blueprint in place, the team began to build.
When Steinberg joined the fold, Brandon also brought back Sean Maymi, the Wolverines’ former associate head coach under Berque from 2006-2011. Knight credits Maymi with installing the program’s work ethic, accountability and precise attention to detail.
Still, Steinberg’s cultural renovation didn’t yield immediate results. Michigan posted a 7-17 record in 2015 — its worst season since 1992. Despite the poor record, the program’s entire outlook changed.
“It was such a shock in terms of how far off we were from being a good program,” Knight said. “We went from, ‘You come to practice, you try to get away with as much as you can, then you leave and go party’ to ‘Hey, every minute of practice is a gift, and you need to come out extra, and your number one priority needs to be getting your teammate better.’ ”
Because players grow up representing only themselves at tournaments and national draws, most struggle when they’re asked to buy into a team atmosphere in college.
After a lackluster season, Steinberg and Maymi took a creative approach when they went back to the drawing board. The next season, they put the burden of leadership on everybody’s shoulders by redefining the role of a “captain.” All 11 players on the roster received the title, and the idea made a massive difference on the practice court.
“When you practice, you’re not practicing for yourself,” Tishman said. “You’re focusing on getting your teammates better. The idea is that if all 11 guys are doing that, it’s going to come back around to help you. In theory, your tennis goes through the roof. And it has worked beyond words.”
The mindset took Michigan to new heights, as the Wolverines won 21 matches in 2016 — a season that marked the team’s transformation from bottom feeder to contender. Michigan’s 14-win turnaround set a program record, and the entire roster wholeheartedly embraced Steinberg’s culture. By the end of the season, it had become an enduring staple of the program.
“You support and play for each other,” Steinberg said. “It’s something bigger than yourself. (This program) takes the individuality out of tennis, which is hard because these kids have only ever experienced playing for themselves. We try to create ‘team’ each day. I did it for 12 years at Pepperdine, and I’ve done it every day here.
“To me, college sports are all about pride and passion and playing for your school, so you have to show it. I tell (the team), ‘Never apologize for being passionate about something in your life.’ We don’t accept anything less.”
Now, the passion in Michigan tennis is more apparent than ever.
“Michigan is the only program in the country that truly preaches team first,” Knight said. “Tennis is usually an individualistic sport, but college tennis is a completely different animal. (Michigan’s culture) is unique to Steinberg.
“He’s the best coach in the country.”
Just two years after Steinberg’s hiring, No. 24 Michigan put its growth to the test against sixth-seeded Wake Forest in the second round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament. The Demon Deacons — who entered the match having already eclipsed the 30-win milestone — were widely expected to cruise past the Wolverines. To their surprise, Michigan came out strong, riding its team-first philosophy to a hard-fought doubles point. Moments later, the Wolverines took fourth singles via retirement. Wake Forest eventually battled to back to complete the comeback on its home court, but Michigan boarded its flight home with no shortage of takeaways.
“We went right to the end with them,” Steinberg said. “After that, I could see we were really ready to move forward. That was a big turning point because you could see the guys believing they belonged for the first time.”
From there, the Wolverines knew the future was bright. With the infrastructure in place, Steinberg began to score big wins on the recruiting trail.
When Steinberg gets on the phone with a high school prospect, the first topic of discussion is his program’s culture. He knows it’s not for everyone, and finding the right puzzle pieces while recruiting is crucial to his team’s success.
After working with a mixture of Berque’s recruits and his own, Steinberg was finally able to bring in personalities that aligned with his philosophy. Headlined by blue-chips Andrew Fenty and Patrick Maloney, Steinberg put together the nation’s fifth-ranked recruiting class in 2018.
In Knight’s eyes, that’s the key to taking the next step.
“The only rebuilding that ever has to be done is personnel,” Knight said. “The culture is there — with that comes not only a good work ethic in everything you do, but inclusivity. When freshmen come in, it’s like a family — whereas before (Steinberg’s arrival) it was an environment of hazing and upperclassmen being different. Now it’s inclusive.”
Though Knight and his classmates have graduated, their posters still hang in Ann Arbor’s Varsity Tennis Center, a reminder of their impact on the program. By buying in from the start, Knight’s class paved the way.
Putting the team first takes sacrifice. It takes humility. It takes emotional strength. But above all else, it can’t be done without giving.
Steinberg is no stranger to that. After Pepperdine won the national championship in 2006, his players knocked on Dr. Watson’s door to call in a favor.
When the team was invited to the White House for a celebration, the players went to Watson at Steinberg’s request to ask if they could fly back two days earlier than scheduled. When Watson asked why, the players told him they wanted to go to an underprivileged side of town and run a day-long tennis clinic for kids.
Fresh off their championship, the Waves coordinated and carried out the children’s tennis clinic. After spending a humid day on makeshift communal courts, the team joined the families for dinner at a cluster of tattered public picnic tables. The parents — who could barely afford food for their own children — prepared a potluck meal to express their heartfelt gratitude.
“They were there all day long encouraging those kids,” Watson said. “Not to become professional tennis players, but to understand the value of the sport and know how it can build relationships with other people.”
The next day, President George W. Bush praised the young men for giving back.
“That’s what champions do — they give back,” Bush said in a presidential address.
Though Knight will never sit in the Oval Office, he reflected on a similar takeaway.
“This culture teaches giving, and through giving you get,” Knight said. “The end goal with setting up that kind of culture wasn’t just to have a good tennis team, it was to become better men who lead better lives. Now we’re seeing the fruits of that success.”
Today, Steinberg’s office calendar marks February 2019. The Wolverines — fresh off a Sweet 16 appearance last season — are locked and loaded with talent throughout the roster. The synergy of the program’s culture and increasingly-talented recruiting classes could propel Michigan to the same heights Steinberg reached at Pepperdine sooner rather than later.
“Our goal here is to win Big Ten championships and national championships,” Steinberg said. “That’s what Michigan is all about. With the support, the facilities, and everything else we have here, that has to be the goal. It was a big part of the allure of this job. The academics, the college town, the name, the block ‘M’ — it all means so much.”
Since the day Steinberg arrived, the team-first attitude has grown contagious. Once players embraced it as fact, wins started to come. They kept coming, and they haven’t stopped since — the Wolverines boast a 66-21 record over the last three seasons.
But unlike most of the nation’s top programs, Michigan isn’t operating on a title-or-bust mentality. Instead, winning admittedly takes a back seat to the program’s philosophy.
“I learned selflessness and how rewarding it truly can be,” Knight said. “If you give everything, you get a million times more than what you would’ve gotten and you truly get better. That’s something that truly applies to life, to relationships, to family, to random people on the street.
“Obviously, the goal is to win championships. That’s Michigan. But the end goal is to become better people, and that has certainly changed my life.”
After 27 years of coaching, the tennis court has naturally become Steinberg’s classroom of life. It may lack desks and chairs, but it isn’t missing the most important component: a teacher devoted to his craft.
“That’s the secret: This (culture) makes you a better person,” Steinberg said. “I feel like that’s the most important part of my job — helping these kids understand life’s not about ‘you’ as much as it’s about being unselfish, giving and caring about others, whether it be on the tennis court or anywhere else in life.”
This article has been updated to reflect a clarification in a subject of a quotation.