It was 1990. Will Marino, a member of the California State University, Bakersfield tennis team, was playing in a title-clinching doubles match on Chapman’s courts.
It was the final match of the season, and the two schools, which were in the Division II California Collegiate Athletic Association conference at the time, were tied at four. A victory would qualify the winning team to compete nationally, and it was up to Marino and his partner to beat the third-ranked Panthers, he said.
At the time, Chapman’s courts were relegated to a far corner of campus, and were so small that students had to walk off the courts, through a parking lot and into the Student Union to use the restroom.
To most people, a 27-year-old tennis match in shoddy facilities would barely register. To Marino, the experience is impossible to forget.
Nine years later, Marino was hired to lead the Chapman men’s and women’s tennis programs.
“Who would have ever thought I’d be at Chapman?” Marino said. “It was ironic that years later, I get hired to coach for Chapman on those same courts. The court that I clinched my victory on, court two, I kept that as my court. I used to teach there, and I always wanted to play on it because it was my lucky court.”
Now, 18 years into his coaching career, Marino sits in his office at the newly designed $7 million Lastinger Tennis Center, complete with 1.75 acres, seven tennis courts, home and visitor locker rooms, and most importantly, its own toilets.
It’s a little before 10 a.m. on a Tuesday and the courts are quiet, except for a group of about five men and women practicing. Marino arrives wearing almost head-to-toe Nike apparel – from his hat to his socks – except for a long-sleeve “Chapman tennis” T-shirt. For the next 10 hours, he won’t leave the area.
“It’s a long day,” Marino said.
During the offseason, Marino teaches an hour-long physical education class that begins at 10 a.m., then a private lesson until lunch. The women’s team practices from 1 until 3 in the afternoon, followed by the men from 3 to 5 p.m. Afterwards, there are more private lessons until 8 p.m.
While this schedule only lasted for three weeks in the fall, it will pick up again for the entire spring semester.
Marino isn’t fazed by his nonstop schedule – he knows what it’s like to work long hours.
From 1999 to 2005, Marino served as the director of tennis at Ridgeline Country Club in Orange while teaching private lessons at Chapman. He would start his day at 8 a.m. at the country club, head to Chapman at 1 p.m., then go back to the country club from 6-10 p.m.
It was at this country club where Marino met his assistant coach, then 4-year-old Jimmy Fernandez. Marino mentored Fernandez through clinics and summer camps, and years later, approached him about coaching together.
Still in his office, Marino smiles and waves at players – who simply call him “Will” – as they come and go from the facility.
For someone who works 10-hour days, coaching a pair of teams with losing records can be discouraging. Last year, the men’s team went 5-15, the women 3-16. In six of the women’s team’s matches, the Panthers failed to win a single game.
“It’s hard,” Marino said. “The last few years have been tough because we didn’t have the facilities and we were off campus. It took a toll. I was losing players, and it was hard to fill teams up.”
But junior Nicole Fouts, who has been on the team since she was a freshman, stuck around.
“He tried to keep us positive,” Fouts said. “He would bring music to the courts, small stuff to keep it fun and make sure that even when we’re losing, we’re still having a good time.”
But Marino knows talent when he sees it. In 2010, a young woman in his beginner physical education class caught his eye.
The student, Jenna Ford, had no training or previous experience, and when Marino approached her about joining the team, she was hesitant because of her commitment to Chapman’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, Marino said.
“You’re good enough,” Marino told her. “Don’t worry about what the other girls think. You’re going to help us win.”
Since Chapman is a Division III school, Marino understands that academics can be a higher priority than tennis. Because of this, he said he doesn’t coach like a drill sergeant.
“Will tries to push us,” Fouts said. “He wants to improve your game. But he’s not super strict to the point that nobody would want to come to practice.”
Instead of focusing on the teams’ records, Marino said he tries to put the friendship first.
“To get to know the players, especially freshmen, sometimes, it can take years,” Marino said. “I chat with them during practice, during off-time. I get to know their family life, meet their parents when they come to games.”
When Marino learned that Fouts was struggling financially, he helped find her a work-study job of washing the courts after practice, and also assisted in getting her a tennis coaching job, Fouts said.
For sophomore Raven Hampton, Marino made an impression when she visited Chapman in high school, because he was honest about the program.
“A lot of coaches (at other schools) have on this huge smiling face,” Hampton said. “Will said, ‘Here’s what I ask of my players, I think you’d be a good fit.’ He didn’t sugarcoat anything.”
Marino also doesn’t sugarcoat his goals for the team. Despite the losing records, Marino aims to win a championship within five years.
“I’ve done everything else,” said Marino, who lives in Tustin with his 2- and 4-year-old sons. “Winning a championship is the last thing.”
He’s even played against – and lost to – his tennis idol, Pete Sampras, at a tournament in Arizona in the summer of 1989.
“He steamrolled from there and became one of the best players in the world,” Marino said. “Yeah, he was good, but I didn’t think he was that good to win the U.S. Open. But with tennis, you’re able to gain confidence quickly.”
This is the same confidence that Marino tries to instill in his players, even after they’ve left Chapman.
“I had a student here who graduated in 2005 who took all my classes in tennis,” he said of Nick Thomas. “After a three-year period, he left, and then he called me to say that he wanted to get better at tennis. He’s still taking lessons from me.”