Two years ago, Oliver Reynolds was a senior at Samford, leading the Bulldogs to the NCAA men’s tennis tournament.
Now, Reynolds, just 24 years old, may be the youngest head coach in any Division I sport (those records aren’t kept). An Atlanta native, Reynolds is in charge of The Citadel’s program, which like Samford plays in the Southern Conference.
“Everybody said as long as you know what you are doing and get the job done, it doesn’t matter what age you are,” he said.
Reynolds took over a program that hadn’t had much success. The Bulldogs hadn’t won a conference match since March 23, 2010.
Kemper Baker, who coached Reynolds at Samford and brought him with him to The Citadel as an assistant coach, left for the College of Coastal Georgia in late January and Reynolds was promoted to interim coach on Feb. 4. This year’s team has yet to start conference play, but under Reynolds it is 5-1.
“I’ve been able to learn as much as I can about college tennis in the past year and a half,” he said. “I’m not nervous. Everything is going smoothly since everything happened. I’m just trying to keep the guys focused.”
Reynolds, a member of two state championship teams at Woodward Academy, began unofficially coaching as a senior at Samford. After Baker left, Reynolds was asked to help the team. He ran practices and matches while the school looked for a coach.
Though he graduated with a degree in Finance and had a job offer in that field, he said he wanted to continue coaching. It’s something he did for four summers while in college at the prestigious Northeast Harbor Tennis Club in Maine.
“I’ve told him if you love something, follow your heart,” said his dad Oliver, who wasn’t just spouting empty platitudes.
Oliver, who goes by “Chip,” played in college before becoming a teaching pro. He then was a banker for 35 years before re-starting his first career as a tennis coach. He now teaches at Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy in McDonough.
“There were times in there when it wasn’t that much fun, but it was my profession,” he said. “I told him, look into coaching if that’s something you want to pursue. He’s relishing working with these young kids and trying to get them better.”
The younger Reynolds said his passion may be the biggest difference between himself and more-experienced coaches.
Because of his age, he said he feels like he can relate to how the players feel before matches. He says he tries to take advantage of that and The Citadel’s military history and purpose to come up with plans of attack the night before matches. On match days, the team doesn’t start warming up until everyone is one the court. He lets the players put together their own music compilations, whatever pumps them up.
Lastly, he likes to remind the players to be aggressive, telling them to be the wolves and not the sheep during matches.
“For the military kids that’s very important for them,” he said. “They are looking to go forward. They have a lot of motivation. When you get them in the mindset of fighting that really gets them excited.”
That military discipline may be why Reynolds hasn’t had any age-related issues during his short spell. He said tennis is more of an escape for the student-athletes than a job.
Reynolds said the hardest part has been deciding which players won’t get to travel with the team to the away matches.
He doesn’t feel like any of the players have tried to take advantage of him because of the relationships built when he was the assistant coach or because of his age. He said he respects them, but they are still his players.
“I’m trying extremely hard to steer clear of making any bad decision,” he said. “I’m trying extremely hard to stay focused on what we are trying to achieve, have fun and enjoy time in college and their sport.”