Tennis Spotlight: Michael Woodson and His Journey To The Highest Level of College Coaching

Michael Woodson is now in his 5th year at Baylor. Who would have guessed that love for tennis at a social level would develop into a love for coaching. Although Michael started the sport much later than most collegiate players, his love for the sport propelled him to the highest level of collegiate coaching. During this interview we talked about how it all started, his college career, a special story about selflessness, a pivotal moment in his life, his coaching career, and much more. Make sure to check out this unique story of how Michael has developed as a player, coach, and most importantly a role model for his players.

Credit: Baylor Athletics

If you wish to check out his career at Valparaiso click here. If you would like to see what he has been up to at Baylor click here and if you would like to follow along his journey on social media you can find that here.

  1. At what age did you start playing tennis? And when did you fall in love with the sport?

I started playing when I was 13. I didn’t really have much exposure to tennis. My mom took me out on the court and wanted me to play but I never took it seriously until middle school. I had a group of friends who played tennis and we wanted to be on the same team. I was number 7 on the middle school team and in 8th grade, I played number 3 on the JV team. It all started because I wanted to be on a team with my friends. During my freshman year, I wanted to play number 1 on the JV team but the coach asked me to play on the varsity team. I ended up playing #5 singles. I started training and playing in local tournaments in high school. I would say my training and commitment level in tennis was much lower than the average commitment and playing level at the division one level.

  1. Can you talk about your senior year of high school a little bit?

At that point in high school, I really loved tennis and wanted to keep playing. Academics trumped tennis though so I did everything I could do to get into a pre-vet program. I had to keep finances in mind as well. I visited a lot of schools in the south that have great vet schools. Coach Daugherty at Valparaiso wanted me to play there but I got a full academic scholarship at NC State for vet school. I was not good enough to play at NC State. 

Credit: Valpo Athletics
  1. What led your decision to go to Valpo to play tennis?

When I went to NC State I played even more tennis. I had a group of friends there who chose academics over tennis that would take tennis seriously. I almost left after my freshman year to go to Valpo but stayed one more year at NC State. I was playing the ITA Summer circuits with a friend from NC State and had success. We asked ourselves are we really going to go through college without playing college tennis? Regardless of what happens, we felt like it would be worth going. We wanted to go to a school together, and it turned out Valpo was the best option because Chris got an athletic scholarship and I got tuition remission from Valpo.

  1. How was your experience at Valpo? Was it tough going to a brand new school as a junior?

It was interesting for sure. I had a lot of pressure because I was a junior trying to compete. I felt like I was in my dad’s shadow a little bit because he was the baseball coach at Valpo. Coming in as a junior, the friend groups were already established as well because the students were a couple of years in already. I took a 5th year of college so that I could play another year of tennis, I had to have 3 different majors and 164 credits to be able to play a 5th year but it was fun.

Credit: Valpo Athletics
  1. What was your role on the team at Valpo?

I was never the best player by any stretch. I felt like I was a leader and turned into one over time. I liked teaching and coaching and felt like that was my role. I had a hard time focusing on myself because I was so caught up in helping my teammates. Coach Daugherty had a talk with me one day and told me not to forget about myself and continue to improve and not focus as much on helping others. I felt like that was my role though and tried to do it to the best of my abilities. I think I had more of an impact as a mentor, friend, and leader than as a tennis player.

  1. How did your tennis playing career influence your decision to coach tennis?

When I went to Valpo they did not have a vet program so I had to major in 3 different things. My focus shifted to pre-med because of that. I was preparing for all of that and had a couple of opportunities for a job. My mom passed on November 3rd of my senior year and that was tough on me. I did not know how I was going to handle what happened but I knew that I wanted to be near family and friends. Coach Daugherty sat me down and said Michael if you want to stay you can be my assistant and get your masters. I knew I would love coaching and was not sure if I would like the Med school route. I never in a million years knew I was going to do it for a career but I love it and have not looked back since. 

Credit: Valpo Athletics
  1. Can you talk about your coaching situation at Valpo?

It all started with recruiting. We needed to put together a full roster of guys as late as April going into the next year. We were able to put together a solid class of 6 guys coming in the next year. We had not won a conference match in 4 years and haven’t been to the tournament since then. We only had 1 scholarship for the whole team but I looked at it as a great challenge. We wanted to act like the big guys, who says we couldn’t get to that level. We acted as if we belonged and had guys coming in to buy into the vision. The players we brought in were going to be on all of the top record win lists and go to the NCAA tournament. We got guys who had a chip on their shoulder. We gave them an opportunity and they banded together. The first 2 classes put the stamp on the program and influenced future classes to commit to Valpo. It was an opportunity for me to put my heart into everything and distract myself from what happened to my mother. It was fun to see the hard work pay off over the 4 years there.

  1. Can you talk about how your career as a student-athlete at Valpo helped you with recruiting?

I definitely knew everyone from each department. I was able to sell the parents on academics and the care we were going to give these young men. I certainly knew how to sell the school and I believe that helped me a ton.

  1. Can you talk about your coaching philosophy at Valpo? Did it change once you went to Baylor?

When I started working at Vapo, Coach Daugherty and I wanted to revamp everything. He was revitalized when I joined and we went through every part of the program and gave up with different ways to impact these young men. Recruiting was a huge piece but we needed to deliver and make them better. If we didn’t we would never get any more good recruits. If you do not keep your players happy you will not get any other good players because players help recruit organically through their experiences. We listened to their input and tried to deliver. When I got to Baylor I wanted to see if it was the same at that level. Coaching is the same at all levels, it’s all relative. These guys are slightly better athletes and hit slightly bigger but they are the same athletes and go through the same trials. After seeing this, I knew we were doing the right things at Valpo and were on the right track.

  1. Can you talk about your initial goal when you arrived at Baylor and what is your goal today?

I did not want to leave Valpo and loved it there. I felt like we were not quite done yet. For me it was the right move, It was a personal move for me to come to Baylor. My goal was to know if what I was doing as a coach worked at this level and I wanted to learn international recruiting. I learned so much and had to continue to improve. You do not fill up a team full of players the same way, every guy has a completely different story. If I was going to move up the ladder I needed to grasp international recruiting. I always want to help develop these young men into husbands and fathers, men of faith over time, and the best tennis player they can be. It is my job to deliver on that.

  1. How have your challenges at Valpo differ from Baylor?

They were completely different. I think it is a huge deal to be at a school that has fewer resources. I believe that makes you better as a coach. I strung the racquets, painted logos on the courts, helped build locker rooms, was their tutor, taped ankles, fixed shoes, and more. I did everything you could imagine that goes around a tennis program. I then transitioned to a program at Baylor where there are 15 people that have different responsibilities. Once I got to Baylor I just focused on recruiting and coaching the players as the assistant coach. Right now, we have to find the best way to utilize these resources and continue to push the guys. Here at Baylor, we are making sure guys are not getting complacent and making sure they are still hungry and growing as men.

  1. How hard is it to balance family life when coaching college tennis? 

It is definitely a constant challenge. If you want to, you can work 24/7 365 days a year. As I have learned and developed I have learned to be a mentor and be a great role model. If I want them to be men of faith then I need to make sure I am doing the same. I love having my family around so my guys can see what is important to me. We are all working together. I have to be present with the guys and with my family. I make sure my staff can unwind a little bit and spend time with friends and family as well. 

  1. Can you talk about a mistake or hurdle you overcame and how did you do that?

It was a difficult transition at Valpo when I went from player to coach. I would think as a player a little too much in the beginning. I think I tried to keep the guys’ confidence up too much. We didn’t give them the truth enough about why they may not have been playing. I think that is one thing that I have really learned, it’s so competitive. Someone is a 7 and someone is 8 on the team. I never addressed why they weren’t playing and would just tell them they’re doing well. I did not give the guys an opportunity to improve and I think it hurt relationships. We need to be upfront and honest with guys and why we are doing what we’re doing. I would not be where I am today if I did not make those mistakes.

  1. What is your most memorable coaching experience to date?

When we won the Horizon League conference and went to the NCAA tournament for the first time in Valpo history. To see the guys’ hard work pay off was amazing. It is all relative, here at Baylor we are playing bigger tournaments but at Valpo, I saw the reward of guys working hard during a 3-year process, and how much work was put in with a close-knit group of guys was super special. It will take a lot to surpass that memory as a coach.

  1. What is one of your biggest strengths and weaknesses as well?

One of my biggest strengths is building relationships and utilizing them to improve the program. I have always been good at building relationships and meeting new people. One of my weaknesses is that I try to accomplish things too fast and I end up rushing. If I have a task I try to complete it quickly and will not stop until it is done, that is not always the best route to take.

  1. What roles do a head coach make up and how would you rank them in order?

Every day it is a little bit different. The number 1 most important thing is to make sure the players are taken care of and progressing in all aspects of their life. In addition to that, recruiting is a huge piece. It is always on your mind. Networking and fundraising are huge as well, we need to make sure that the athletic department knows we are doing our part. Those are 3 main things that I deal with day to day. No day is the same so it is always fresh. 

  1. What has been the most nervous moment of your career?

I am doing something that I love and having been through what has happened with my mom I understand that there are a lot bigger things in life than a tennis match. With that being said, I do not get nervous during matches. I remember at Valpo When I brought the guys to national tournaments I wanted them to have the opportunity to get a national ranking. I would get a little nervous. Now at Baylor I know we are going to have a lot of opportunities so I do not get nervous.

Credit: Baylor Athletics
  1. What is one thing you always tell your players before a match?

The guys make fun of me for this. I always talk about how great of an opportunity this match is. I probably say “This is a great opportunity” more than I probably should.

  1. Do you have a team-based goal for Baylor this year?

I believe that we will win a national championship. I said it once at the beginning of the year and have not brought it up again. I am not results-oriented. We like to stay process-driven and continue to improve and work hard.

  1. Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

Hopefully here at Baylor. My plan is to be here for a long time. This is a wonderful place for my family and I. We are hosting the national championships here in 5 years and I want to be here for that. I am super blessed and fortunate to be here.

  1. When you retire from coaching, what do you want to be remembered for?

I want to be remembered as a guy who helps others along their path in life, who makes others better, and leads them closer to who they ultimately want to become.

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