When Howard University tennis coach Eddie Davis and his 12-man squad geared up for their bi-conference season two years ago, the odds were stacked against them. Davis had been losing about half his team to academic ineligiblity each year, he had no travel funds to help woo better players and, to top it off, the team didn't even have its own court.
So Davis hauled his players across Georgia Avenue to the Banneker Recreation Center every day where they tried to hone their backhands within the 45-minute practicing limit set by the D.C. Department of Recreation. As the Howard players practiced, area residents would stand anxiously on the sidelines, itching for their turn on the community courts.
"By the time we have to get off, we haven't even broken a sweat," said Davis, whose team, which ideally should practice three hours daily, still has to use public courts. "We might get one today and three tomorrow, but we make the best of what time we get."
Those precious few hours of practice, plus running four miles daily, lifting weights and "hitting a million tennis balls," added up to winning seasons and post-season championships in the Capital Collegiate and Mideastern Athletic conferences for the Howard team during the past two years. For Davis, it meant a Middle Atlantic regional coach-of-the-year award this year, bestowed by the U.S. Professional Tennis Association, a national organization of tennis teachers.
It was an unlikely laurel for someone who used to think of tennis as a "sissy sport."
That was back in the mid-1960s, when Davis was a high school football player at Cardinal Cushing Academy in Newburyport, Mass. "Tennis used to draw guys who couldn't make it in another sport," said Davis, whose muscular frame proves he was no athletic reject. "But I picked it up as something new, hacked around with it until I started getting really good at it."
Davis graduated from the academy in 1967, attended Morgan State College in Baltimore and graduated from Federal City College in 1973. He later taught science at Hart Junior High School in Southeast. All the while, with a steadily improving backhand, Davis was teaching tennis during the summer and, in 1976, landed a job as Howard's part-time tennis coach.
Only 27 at the time, Davis was often mistaken for one of his players. Even now, at age 33, he retains his youthful appearance and sometimes has difficulty convincing people he is the coach.
Just last year, the team traveled to the University of Miami but arrived late. A security guard at a gate, peering into the bus and checking his watch, said, "All right, fellas, does your coach know you're out this late?"
"I am the coach," Davis answered.
"Sure you are, kid," sighed the security guard. "Let me see your I.D."
Davis reached for his wallet and soon afterward the bus rolled past the front gate.
If only his other tasks were as simple.
Between his full-time teaching job at Hart and his part-time coaching job at Howard, Davis works 14-hour days during peak season, which leave little time to spend with his wife and two children in their Forestville home.
Because he has no travel or recruiting budget, Davis said, "I've had to do a lot of extra dancing," referring to letter-writing and word-of-mouth efforts to lure better players. Some players come to the school with academic problems. "In the early years, I was losing three a semester and had to start two-hour study sessions," he said.
The most severe handicap, however, has been the lack of a university tennis court, which forces the team to jockey for the few available spots at Banneker Recreation Center.
"I know that people in the community think of us as a pain," he said. "We need to use the courts the same time they do -- after work, after school. When our 45 minutes are up, we do some hitting on the side. There's talk of the university building its own courts, but the emphasis is not on tennis here. There's no big money changing hands at every match."
Davis said his is the only college tennis team in the area without its own courts. "Even George Mason and UDC -- everybody we play has a court of their own," he said. "We may be the only team in the Eastern region without our own courts."
Davis maintains, however, that having to overcome these obstacles has made his team stronger and helped make him coach of the year. "We just try to work with the system and keep plugging," he said. "We play by the rules, and we always play to win."
But when he and his squad face national powerhouses such as Clemson and Villanova, which have five or six courts and can practice twice as long as Howard, he thinks back to his first day on the job and the words of wisdom from the outgoing tennis coach: "If you rub steel on rocks, it gets stronger."