Nov. 12, 2013
Jim Serbalik considers Siena's men's tennis alumni to be part of a big family, and after 24 years running the program, that's one big family.
"I like to say I have 28 tennis grandchildren who maybe will be recruits one day," Serbalik said. "That's a bit overwhelming, but I kind of look at myself as their `Alum-Grandfather'".
Serbalik's former players remain close to the program, regularly staying in touch and attending the annual alumni game each fall. The majority have gone on to achieve remarkable success in their chosen field, and many attribute that success to the life experience they gained playing tennis for the Saints.
Serbalik's main coaching philosophy has always been to prepare his team for their futures by serving as a mentor off the court and in the classroom. He doubles as the College's Registrar, and his "academics first" message has had a tremendous effect on the student athletes he's coached the last 24 years. In his 46 semesters as head tennis coach at Siena, Serbalik's teams have posted at least a 3.0 averaged GPA 44 times.
"I teach to be a student first," Serbalik said. "When I recruit, I tell them academics first and not tennis. When students decide to come here they have to understand they will be graduating and they will get better at tennis."
Serbalik's former players have become lawyers, doctors, educators, administrators and business executives. The relationships he's built over the years have been extremely important to the program, as influential alumni are huge advocates for the current members of the program and their future.
"The alums are always reaching out and helping," Serbalik said. "They even help fund our spring break trips."
Serbalik attributes much his team's off-the-court success to the leadership of athletic director John D'Argenio, who has given him the freedom to run the program the way he wants while supporting his academics first goal.
"John is concerned with the student athlete just as much I am, and I'd like to thank him because he does not receive credit for the work he has done for this program," Serbalik says.
Serbalik said coaches across the region are starting to take notice, and many have asked him for advice about how to stress academic achievement.
"Occasionally a new coach will come in and ask me how and why things are done this way," Serbalik said. "It's just a matter of consistency. I'm intense. I have high standards, and it's just the way it is. I would love to take credit, but it's the players who have perpetuated it and committed to the program and to their future."
The culture of academic excellence Serbalik has built is something his players take great pride.
"I often just sit back and watch them push themselves, because they really want to see each other excel," Serbalik states.
Serbalik also wants his students to make the most of their Siena experience and fully immerse themselves in the College community. He encourages his players to participate in intramurals and join clubs.
"I want them to do other Siena things during the offseason, so when they get back we can have something else to talk about," he said. "There are opportunities all over. They have to stay in shape and be involved, and bring back something new to the team in the spring."
Senior co-captain Peter Collins calls Serbalik his mentor.
"Coach has given me the opportunity to pursue my lifelong passion at the Division I level," Collins said. "He's more than a coach. He brings passion and intensity to the court, but he's always available off the court as a mentor and supporter. His coaching style and philosophy have allowed me, and many other players, to succeed in the classroom and on the court."
In a few months, Collins will be making the same walk dozens of former men's tennis players have made, and Serbalik will be there to cheer him on.
"My proudest moment is shaking the hands of the athletes and parents at graduation," Serbalik said. "That's what it's all about."