Women’s tennis coaching legend Jeff Wallace to retire

Credit: Kayla Renie/UGAAA

Credit: Kayla Renie/UGAAA

ATHENS — The truth is, Jeff Wallace has known for a while what he was going to do. The legendary Georgia women’s tennis coach has had an eye on retirement for a few years now. The only question was when.

Well, “when” became Thursday night on the eve of yet another appearance by the Lady Bulldogs in the NCAA Tournament. Wallace sprang it on his charges during a team dinner at his Five Points home in Athens. They weren’t surprised by the news, necessarily, but were taken aback a bit by the timing.

“When you know the time is right, the time is right,” said Wallace, Georgia’s coach for 38 years. “I feel like I’ve accomplished everything I set my sights on accomplishing, and I’ve enjoyed it thoroughly, all the way through. And I’m going to enjoy this NCAA Tournament. But now it’s time to move on and be ‘Papa’ to my four grandkids.”

Don’t let the sentiment fool you. Wallace didn’t get to be the active coach in college tennis with the most wins by ignoring motivation and competitive timing. His latest Georgia squad is as talented as ever and enters the NCAA Tournament as one of the nation’s hotter teams. The No. 4-ranked Georgia women (22-4) just shocked the field at the conference tournament by knocking off No. 2 Texas A&M to win their 20th SEC crown.

Friday, the Lady Dogs entered their NCAA Tournament opening-round match at home versus Florida A&M as one of the nation’s serious threats to win it all. Dutifully, they knocked off the Rattlers 4-0 and will face No. 26 FSU Saturday’s at 4 p.m.

Another national title would be No. 7 for the Bulldogs under Wallace. A little inspiration for the ol’ coach couldn’t hurt, right?

“It’s certainly trending in that direction,” Wallace said of his team peaking at tournament time. “They have an opportunity to be one of our best teams. They seem to step up in the big moments a la the SEC tournament and the national team indoors. We’ve shown some great maturity and played some incredible tennis. Sky’s the limit for this team.”

Having a team led by three seniors also influenced Wallace’s timing. Meg Kowalski, Lea Ma and Ania Hertel have been with Wallace through thick and then and stand as the strongest reasons the Bulldogs could make another deep run.

There were reasons for Wallace to stay on a little longer, too. UGA’s Dan Magill Tennis Complex will host the women’s SEC tournament next year and the NCAA men’s and women’s championships in 2026. Also, with 814 career wins, he’s only 32 from running down Indiana’s Lin Loring as the coach with the most wins all-time in college tennis.

In the end, all that stuff just isn’t that important to Wallace.

“I just felt like it’s better to put it out there now rather then the end of the season or the middle of the summer or something like that,” said Wallace, who will turn 63 in July. “You know, this is going to be my last NCAAs, and I’m very excited about it and excited about this team and what they can accomplish this year.”

A recent talk with Athletic Director Josh Brooks and associate head coach Drake Bernstein convinced Wallace the time was now. Bernstein, like Wallace a former UGA men’s tennis letterman, is expected to be given serious consideration as successor. An announcement is not expected to be long in coming.

“Jeff Wallace is Georgia women’s tennis,” Brooks said in a statement. “He played for and learned from the legendary Dan Magill and immediately seized the opportunity to lead the program with integrity and commitment to the student-athletes. … While Jeff will be missed, he will forever be a part of the Bulldog family.”

For now, though, attention is on Wallace and his 38th team. After that, he and his wife, Sabina, plan to travel extensively. Their son, Jarryd, is a world-class Paralympic athlete, and he and his sister, Brittany, have two children each.

“I’m excited to spend some time following Jarryd’s career,” Wallace said of his son, who has gold medals as an international sprinter. “I’ve never been able to go to one of his world championships or Olympics or seen one of his records or all the great things he’s done in his career. Now I’ll have that opportunity.”

Wallace is one of a great multitude who came to Athens for college and never left. He met his wife at UGA. The former Sabina Horne was a highly decorated distance runner.

A native of Portland, Oregon, Wallace played tennis for Dan Magill and won an SEC singles title in 1985, the same year the Bulldogs won their first outdoor national title. The next year he began his coaching career at UGA.

Wallace took a team that had a losing record and turned them into a squad that posted a 20-9 mark and finished in the Top 25 rankings. One year later, he guided Georgia to the NCAA national championship match. Only once during his time as the Bulldogs’ coach has the team missed the NCAA Tournament, and that was his first year in 1986.

Perhaps the most amazing statistics of the many that Wallace has accrued is this one: He is one of a select few Division I coaches across all sports whose teams have played for national championships in five different decades.

“That’s the craziest stat I’ve ever heard,” Wallace said with a laugh. “Not sure what other coach has done that.”

Few have done the things Wallace has. His next accomplishment might be his best.