Did you see the state title match? I asked Bob Coker about the May 13th R.I. Interscholastic League boys tennis state title singles match between Hendricken’s Jack Ciunci and Lincoln …
Did you see the state title match? I asked Bob Coker about the May 13th R.I. Interscholastic League boys tennis state title singles match between Hendricken’s Jack Ciunci and Lincoln High’s Camden DiChiara.
“Yes, I did. It was a great match,” Coker offered about the thrilling three-set title contest won by Ciunci.
I had hoped to see the match myself but other commitments kept me from Pawtucket’s Slater Park that afternoon, but I wanted a knowledge appraisal of the match. That’s why I asked Coker.
It has been decade or so since Coker, the Dean Emeritus of Rhode Island tennis coaches, has been the actual coach of a high school tennis team. But if there is an interesting tennis match happening in Rhode Island these days there’s a good chance 93-year-old Bob Coker will be there.
Coker, who was a physics teacher at various Warwick high schools for over four decades in the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s, started his tennis coaching career at the then new Pilgrim High in 1963.
He hadn’t playing tennis growing in Warwick. He was a basketball player and actually played on one of the early Rhode Island College (then R.I. School of Education) men’s basketball teams in the 1940s.
A But he loved sports and as a young teacher he understood the important role athletics could play in the blending of the academic, physical and social life of a high school student.
He was a member of the first faculty at Pilgrim High when the school opened in 1962 so when the new school needed a tennis coach he took the job. He already was a teacher, husband, father - now he also was “Coach Coker.” It was a title he held for six decades through tenures as a high school boys coach; a high school girls coach; a college men’s coach and a college women’s coach.
In the beginning he learned how to be a tennis coach by reading a lot and asking a lot of questions in addition to personally playing in local leagues. Before long people were asking him tennis questions. His decade tenure as the Pilgrim boys coach included the three-year span from 1969-71 when the Patriots Charlie Einsiedler became the first player to ever win three individual Interscholastic League state singles titles.
He patterned his coaching style on his dedication as a teacher. He was the type of teacher who when in the mid-1960s a group of motivated physics students wanted to create an advanced physics course at Pilgrim - beyond any level the school offered at the time - Coker told the students if they were willing to come in every morning an hour before the regular 7:30 a.m. start time he would teach the course for free. One of the students in that group was James Woods, who went on to Hollywood acting fame.
When Toll Gate High opened in 1972 Coker became a member of the first Toll Gate faculty and also the Titans tennis coach, both the boys and girls.
His Toll Gate girls’ team was one of the nine teams in the first Interscholastic League girls’ tennis league in 1973. He coached some of the top players in the new league. The Titans Cathy Roberts and Jean Ahlborg were the RIIL’s first doubles state championship team in 1973. Then in 1974 Toll Gate players Norma and Kathy Thompson and Melissa Ahlborg were among the players named to first Providence Journal All-State girls tennis team.
It wasn’t just students who he helped enjoy the benefits of playing tennis. Shortly after Toll Gate High opened, he organized a Toll Gate teachers tennis doubles League that played early Saturday morning at the nearby Tennis RI indoor club on Rt. 117. That league, now supplemented with some non-teachers, still exists today. It was only last year, at the age of 92 that Coker stopped playing in the League, but he still can be found most Saturday mornings after the matches having coffee with league players.
He retired from teaching and coaching in the Warwick school system in the early 1980s, but in the early 1990s, he became the head coach of both Bryant University men’s and women varsity tennis teams.
He retired from college coaching around the turn of the century, but he couldn’t stay away from coaching. Former Warwick athletic director Emo DiNitto lured him back into high school coaching where he coached both Toll Gate girls’ and boys’ teams. His Toll Gate boys’ teams won back-to-back Division II state titles in 2007 and 08.
He is a member of both the boys and girls high school tennis Halls of Fame. In fact, he actually has been inducted into the Boys Hall of Fame twice.
“I was one inducted in the (19)70s, but apparent the association lost some of the early records. So when I came back to high school coaching in the 21st century they inducted me again. I told them I already had been inducted but some of the coaches said they didn’t want to take any chances so they inducted me again,” Coker said with a laugh.
He finally completely retired from coaching about 10 years ago. He never kept track, but it’s safe bet he coached a few thousand high school and college tennis players through the decades.
Even though he isn’t actively coaching he still enjoys loves watching young players on a tennis court His greatest joy these days is watching one of his granddaughters, who plays for the East Greenwich High girls team and one of his grandsons who is one of the top Under-12 players in the state.
But it goes beyond just watching family members. He still enjoys being court-side watching some of the current top high school players throughout the state.
After all, he coached – or coached against - some of their mothers and fathers, even their grandmothers and grandfathers. He’s a well-known figure on the state high school tennis scene. These days it isn’t unusual for a young player who is involved in a big match to come-up to Coker and thank him for coming to watch his or her match.
“He is a great coach and gentleman. I am proud to call him a friend,” Richard Lawrence, the Hall of Fame former Mount St. Charles girls and boys tennis coach, said about Coker.
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