Adam Steinberg doesn’t remember the first time he heard Bo Schembechler’s “The Team” speech, but it was during his initial visit to campus in 2014, when he was interviewing to become the new Michigan men’s tennis coach. Over his first 23 years of coaching college tennis, Steinberg had worked to establish a mindset that Schembechler’s speech embodied.
“It’s perfect,” Steinberg said. “When I heard that speech, I was like, ‘Wow, this is it. This is the place.’ ”
So just before noon last Sunday at the Varsity Tennis Center, Schembechler’s words began to play over the loudspeaker.
No man is more important than the team. No coach is more important than the team. The team, the team, the team. … Everything that you do, you take into consideration: What effect does it have on my team?
When we play as a team, when the old season is over, you and I know, it’s gonna be Michigan again. Michigan.
After Schembechler’s speech, the Michigan men’s tennis players gathered for a loud, rambunctious huddle. Then, they went out and defeated Purdue, improving to 12-0 this season while playing at home.
In less than two years, Steinberg has used his unique philosophy to change the trajectory of the program. Former coach Bruce Berque was fired in 2014 after failing to advance past the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Last season, Steinberg’s changes took a while to kick in as Michigan finished 7-17, its worst season since 1991-92. This year, the 21st-ranked Wolverines (6-1 Big Ten, 17-4 overall) are on pace for their best season since 1987-88.
Lots of coaches say that when they start at a program, they want to change the culture. Steinberg’s change, one that has put together one of the biggest turnarounds in the country, is a broad one: As he puts it, he wanted to change “everything this program is about.”
“I have a different concept, that we’re going to take an individual sport and make it a team,” Steinberg said. “Your first priority as a Michigan tennis player is to make your teammates better. That’s something that’s another language for a tennis player — ‘What do you mean, I have to think about somebody else?’ ”
It’s not their fault, Steinberg says. In junior tennis, team events are rare. You play your game, on your court, against your opponent.
But not at Michigan. Here, the players pay as much attention to other matches as their own. Last weekend against Purdue, as soon as the last shot of each point landed on their court, they looked over to the next court and yelled encouragement at their teammates.
“Our opponents should feel like they’re playing three guys, not one,” said redshirt sophomore Alex Knight.
At Steinberg’s previous stops — most recently at Pepperdine, where he spent 13 years — he has used this approach. It took him a year to get there at Michigan, which is why (coupled with heavy graduation losses), the Wolverines struggled last season.
But last fall, while his team competed in non-scoring events, Steinberg could tell that things were different and that his methods were starting to sink in.
In the season opener Jan. 24 at Kentucky, Steinberg saw individuals playing again, and Michigan lost, 4-3. The following weekend, the Wolverines dominated Princeton and Cornell on the road, and that attitude changed for good.
“That was the first time I saw from them a real team out there,” Steinberg said, “and we really haven’t gone back.”
The players on the court played their points, then turned to watch the matches on other courts. The players on the sidelines shouted encouragement to their teammates. Even in warmups, Steinberg felt a different vibe.
“We’re not just going to hit tennis balls,” he said. “We’re going to be there for each other.”
Michigan came home from the East Coast, started rolling and hasn’t stopped. The following weekend, the Wolverines pulled off three 7-0 sweeps in three days, including one over No. 25 Duke, starting a remarkable run of 12 straight home victories. The players have taken to calling their home courts “The Slaughterhouse,” trying to make it even more intimidating for opponents. There they are most comfortable, and there the team-first mindset has a chance to shine.
But such a drastic transition started a long time ago. Every single day in practice, when Steinberg sees his players playing as individuals and not as a team, he will stop practice and ask a player: Eight other guys are looking at you right now, and what are they seeing? What’s your body language right now? Are you helping anybody?
Either the player will say, “Yeah, you’re right, I need to change it,” or he’ll send Steinberg a text later, after the emotion has worn off, with the same message. That has happened enough times to make it show up during matches.
“Just like you work on a forehand, you work on teamwork,” Knight said. “Each day, our goal is to get better at recognizing lulls in matches, recognizing, ‘We’re a little bit low, someone pick it up.’”
Steinberg admits that his team is still far from perfect. Even when he won the national championship at Pepperdine in 2006, his team wasn’t perfect. Every day, he sees moments in practice he needs to fix — but now there are considerably fewer.
“The only time you’re going to be able to play really your best tennis is when you know everyone else on this team has sacrificed everything for you, and they’re doing what they need to do,” Steinberg said. “And then you don’t have to worry about anybody. And then it just flows.”
Steinberg knows that there are teams that stick to playing an individual sport, focusing on their match. Some of those teams are even better than Michigan right now, one of them being Ohio State, which beat the Wolverines on March 27, 4-0.
But that still didn’t faze Steinberg.
“We got beat, but they never gave up on each other ’til the last point, which was terrific,” Steinberg said. “We got beat. It’s OK. Every team has a match like that.”
Even when they win, the recipe doesn’t always work. At one point last Sunday against Purdue, sophomore Runhao Hua led his match, 6-3, 4-4, 30-30, and he and Knight were both between points on adjacent courts. They met between courts, and Knight slapped Hua’s hand, hit his chest and encouraged him, “Come on!” Hua lost the last two points of the game, but he went on to win the match and clinch a victory for Michigan.
As Michigan’s record shows, Steinberg’s method works far more often than it doesn’t, and he hopes it stretches off the court, too.
“Life’s not about you. Life’s about giving to others, and you will get in return,” Steinberg said. “It doesn’t work the other way. I don’t live my life that way, and I don’t want them to.”
And he also recruits people who fit that mold.
“It’s the first thing I talk about with every recruit,” Steinberg said. “I tell them, ‘If that’s not the environment you want to be in, it’s not for you.’ I don’t hide it at all, and it’s not for everybody.”
If Steinberg learns that a player played tennis for his high school team or played a team format in juniors tennis, he wants that player. He’ll take him over a higher-ranked player who won’t fit in as well with what Steinberg is trying to do.
So some teams end up more talented than his. He’s different, and that’s OK with him. Come into the Slaughterhouse, listen to Bo Schembechler’s speech and try to beat his team.
Lourim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @jakelourim.