Advertisement

Believing in Boise : With Enthusiasm and Charm, Greg Patton Has Created a Snowbound Tennis Power

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Business is booming at the local ski resort, Bogus Basin, which has a snow base of 130 inches. Construction is underway on the expansion of the football facility, Bronco Stadium. The Boise State men’s basketball team is recovering from a slow start to make a run at the Big West Conference’s Eastern Division title. And the Boise River, which winds through Idaho’s capital city, is threatening to overflow.

But the talk of Boise in late January is tennis. And the man who is being talked about is Boise State men’s tennis Coach Greg Patton, who happens to be a great talker himself.

Patton, who came to this homey, sports-minded town of 190,000 from UC Irvine in the fall of 1992, is “floating in the clouds” somewhere above Boise after his 24th-ranked Broncos shocked the college tennis establishment and his own administration with back-to-back road victories over second-ranked UCLA and sixth-ranked Pepperdine two weeks ago.

“I blew the school president out of his seat,” Patton said. “I blew the AD out of his office.”

Advertisement

Playing a part in that victory was Joseph Gilbert, a freshman from Sunny Hills High who had never seen snow until he was recruited by Patton.

Gilbert said some of his friends wondered why he would leave Southern California for Boise.

“A lot of people questioned it,” he said. “I talked to them after the UCLA match and said, ‘This is why I moved up here.’ ”

Gilbert is the Broncos’ No. 8 player and Ryan Thompson, a sophomore from Foothill High, is No. 7. They are playing doubles for Boise State this season, and both will be participating this weekend in the San Diego Invitational.

Advertisement

The Broncos, in their first year of Big West play, followed their UCLA triumph with victories last weekend over two less-traditional tennis schools, 36th-ranked Northwestern and 41st-ranked Washington, to win the Great Northwest Shootout.

“I feel like I’m 16 again and going to my first Led Zeppelin concert,” Patton said. “You’re talking to the happiest man in Idaho. I love the city, the state, the school. I’m in love with my players.”

And the community of Boise is in love with him. It’s hard to meet anyone in town who hasn’t heard of Patton and doesn’t know what his tennis team has accomplished.

Patton said the response to his team has overwhelmed him. “I was at the grand opening of a Wal-Mart the other day passing out schedules,” Patton said, “This crusty old guy comes up to me and says, ‘I think tennis is a wimpy sport and I don’t like it much, but good for you. Good for you.’ ”

Patton has even turned Boise street people on to tennis.

“When we have barbecues during our matches, I’m the most popular guy in town with the homeless,” he said. “But I told them if they stayed, they had to root for the Broncos. Well, they rooted and they got pretty intense about it. But it got pretty profane and we had to stop that.”

Before Patton arrived in Boise, tennis ranked up there with the Democratic Party in popularity. The Bronco men’s team hadn’t won a Big Sky Conference title since 1974 and had never qualified for the NCAA tournament. But in Patton’s first year, he led the Broncos to a Big Sky title. The next three seasons, he directed them to three more Big Sky titles and three NCAA berths.

But not many people outside of Idaho took notice until Jan. 17, when the Broncos upset UCLA in Westwood, 4-3, handing the Bruins only their fourth home loss in 10 years. Immediately after the match, Patton called the man who hired him, Athletic Director Gene Bleymaier.

Advertisement

“That was a huge, huge win and it was extra special for me, being a UCLA grad,” Bleymaier said.

Patton said the UCLA victory was bigger than huge.

“People tell me this is the biggest win in the history of college athletics in Idaho,” Patton said. “Maybe it’s not, but in my mind, it is.”

In Patton’s mind, his team is giving Boiseans a sense of hope.

“I tell them they gave everybody in the community a reason to believe that dreams can come true,” he said.

And Patton says there’s nothing wrong with dreaming.

“People tell me I’m an idealist, a dreamer,” he said. “But it always seems to come true for me. And it’s not by accident. It’s about being passionate, surrounding yourself with successful, caring people and believing in the unlimited potential of people. This is a dream-come-true success story for a bunch of potato heads.”

Rather, a bunch of Southern Californians, Europeans and South Americans turned potato heads. Patton doesn’t have one Idaho native among the 13 players on his roster--a fact Patton says isn’t lost on some of the locals.

Advertisement

Boise State’s No. 1 player is Ernesto Diaz, a senior from Chile who attended high school in Northern California. At No. 2, is David Dalgaard, a sophomore from Denmark who clinched the UCLA match with a three-set victory over Matt Breen. Three others in the top six are transfers--No. 3 Albin Polonyi came from Georgia, No. 4 Rickard Strom from the University of Mobile and No. 6 Tsolak Gevorkian from Arizona State by way of Armenia. Ben Davidson, a senior from Vancouver, Wash., who plays No. 5, is the best player Patton could find near Idaho.

Patton said the key to his program’s future is keeping the Southern California pipeline open.

“No one wanted to come to Idaho,” Patton said. “They thought Idaho was Iowa. I had to convince them Idaho was the promised land and that California was just a suburb of Idaho.”

Thompson and Gilbert said Idaho was a hard sell, but they also said Patton is the best salesman around.

“I’d have hour-and-a-half conversations with him when he was recruiting me,” said Thompson, who also considered UCI and San Diego. “It was hard to turn him down.”

Gilbert, who won the Southern California Sectionals (Boys’ 18s) last summer and was also recruited by Fresno State, said Patton wouldn’t take no for an answer.

“All he said was, ‘Guarantee me a trip up here. I promise you’ll like it,’ ” Gilbert said.

Thompson said he liked the town immediately.

“If people would just come up here on a recruiting trip, there’s a lot more than you expect,” he said. “And for tennis, it’s great. There’s enough to do, but there’s not as many distractions. If I was at UCLA, I’d be going to the beach every day.”

Before Patton persuaded his players to move to Idaho, he and his wife Christa had to be convinced to leave Irvine, where he had been for 13 years.

Bleymaier said he was looking for a Southern California coach to upgrade his struggling tennis program, but he wasn’t looking for Patton in particular.

“I called him asking for advice on who I could talk to about the job, and Greg jokingly said he might be interested,” Bleymaier said. “I jumped on that opening. And when I met him, I was immediately impressed with his character and his charisma.”

Patton was impressed with Boise but he wasn’t sure Christa would be. So Bleymaier flew Christa, then seven months pregnant, to Boise for a visit. Bleymaier put the Pattons up in a fancy hotel on the Boise River, hoping the scenery would sell Christa on the town.

It worked.

“We were leaving the next day and Greg still wasn’t sure what to do and he wanted to make all these phone calls,” Christa Patton said. “I said, ‘Why don’t we take a 110-minute walk along the river and see if we really like living here.’ I saw an owl, some ducks, kids were swinging out of trees and splashing into the river. I said, ‘I love this place.’ ”

That night, as Greg tossed and turned over his decision, Christa made it for him. “She said, ‘I don’t know about you, but I’m moving to Boise, Idaho,’ ” Patton said.

Patton, who won nine Big West titles in 13 years at UCI and led the Anteaters to the final four in 1989, had a four-year plan for bringing Boise State tennis into the national spotlight. Last year, Patton’s fourth in Boise, the Broncos went 24-8 and finished 29th nationally.

Now, the Broncos are on the verge of cracking the top 10 when the new Collegiate Tennis Rankings are released March 1, but they must keep winning.

“I told the guys, ‘You’ve been invited to the dance with Cinderella. Do not get drunk. We want to be the ones escorting all the guests out of the ball at the end of night.’ ”

Regardless of what happens the rest of this season, the future looks bright. Plans are in the works for an indoor tennis stadium--the Broncos play in a small, bubbled structure--and a top-notch recruit from Southern California is close to committing to Boise State.

Patton feels there’s nothing he can’t achieve in Boise.

“My goal is to pack Bronco Stadium and have 35,000 people watching a tennis match,” he said.

Patton loved his 13 years at Irvine, but they don’t compare to his years in Boise.

“Those times at UCI were magical,” he said. “But I tell you what, it’s happening again. To do this at Stanford would be anticlimactic, but to do it here is something else. This is where I belong. It’s more gratifying for me to build something at a small school.”


Advertisement