Legendary Pioneer tennis coach Tom Pullen mulling retirement
Big change is coming to Pioneer High School tennis.
That much was obvious at the conclusion of Saturday’s Division 1 boys state championship tournament last weekend, at which the long-time powerhouse Pioneers took second place.
After the team had received its runner-up trophy, the players gathered around it for a team photo. Then Garret Halpert and Taylor Zdanowski — the only juniors on Pioneer’s team — took a couple lonely steps back and watched their 10 senior teammates pose with the it.
Pioneer last won a state championship in 2007, the last of eight consecutive, and the 2010 senior class is the product of the first rebuilding years the program has endured in a decade.
But those 10 players will all need to be replaced on next year’s team, and since this was the final senior class that Pioneer that won’t be sharing with Skyline, the pool of players Pioneer has to draw from won’t be as deep as in years past.
Beyond those immediate concerns, however, looms another, larger question:
Tom “Brick” Pullen has been coaching both the boys and girls teams at Pioneer since 1990. How much longer is he going to coach?
“I don’t know,” Pullen said, when posed that question after Saturday’s tournament. “I have a decision to make. I need to spend some time with my family, so I’m not really sure what my next step is going to be.”
Pullen, who turns 67 later this fall, will coach the Pioneer girls team in the spring — that is not in question. But with another rebuilding project on the way, at least on the boys side, Pullen is mulling over what kind of commitment he wants to make in the future.
“I could have retired in 2007 with the last state championship,” Pullen said. “But I said, ‘I’ll go one more.’ I knew it was going to take three years to build this team, and it did. It took three years. We had a nice group of boys here.”
When Pullen coaches the Pioneer girls next spring, it will be the 42nd team he has coached in his 21-year tenure. Along the way he has won 15 state championships — 11 with the boys and four with the girls — and over 100 singles players and doubles teams have won state titles under Pullen’s watch.
Pullen intends to stay involved in Pioneer tennis. He just isn’t sure in what capacity.
“It’s gonna change,” Pullen said of the program he has spent so long building. “When you take a third of your kids away, it’s gonna make a big difference.”
There is no shortage of tennis talent in the Ann Arbor area, however. Greenhills has won three straight state titles in Division 4, Huron won a state title in 2008, and wasn’t far from repeating in 2009. And Saline may be one of the most overlooked teams in the state due to its powerhouse neighbors.
“Saline is always competitive,” said Greenhills coach Eric Gajar. “They could be the fifth best team in the state and never get out of their region.”
Gajar said Pullen’s teams have been partly responsible for the high level of play among other local teams.
“(Pullen) has been all about winning and has put up staggering numbers and raised the bar around Ann Arbor,” said Gajar. “When you see a team that often, you can’t help but get better.”
PROGRAM BUILT ‘BRICK’-BY-BRICK
Pullen brings a foldout chair to Pioneer matches; written on the backside of the chair is one word: “Brick.”
According to Pullen, the nickname’s origins predate his days at Pioneer, but is rooted in his coaching. When he was coaching his son’s fifth grade basketball team at Dicken Elementary School some 30 years ago, all the kids’ shots kept clanging off the rim one day in practice.
“Quit throwing up bricks,” Pullen recalled telling them. The kids dared him to prove he could do better.
“So I dribbled, and I did my footwork and I threw up a layup,” Pullen said. “The ball went around and around and around the rim and missed. So of course all the kids started calling me ‘Brick.’”
The chair bearing his name sits empty at most matches; Pullen is more likely to be found pacing around, counseling his players, and speaking to anyone who will listen — and even those who won’t — about the conduct he expects on the courts.
Pullen deplores brash shows of emotion on the court, and takes care that the matches he presides over take place with a calm civility.
“Champions shouldn’t have to go out there and talk the scene,” Pullen said. “You let your racquet do the talking.”
That attitude was one that Pullen had to install over time.
“We were a little rowdy when we started out 20 years ago because that’s the way the system was,” said Pullen. “But then folks around said ‘that’s enough with this football atmosphere, this is a gentlemen’s sport.’ So we kept all fist-pumping away.”
During matches, Pullen keeps a close eye on his players, and is not afraid to do the same for his opponents.
“He’s a stickler for some of the things he sees out there,” said Gajar. “We certainly respect what he’s done. You have to give credit to a guy who stands up and speaks out.”
Pullen retired from his dental practice at age 59, but he has been devoted to tennis for far longer. That, he said, won’t ever change.
“If I’m physically able I’m gonna keep spending time with kids, as long as someone still wants a lesson,” said Pullen. “I’ll never stop.”
Whether Pullen continues to be the coach at Pioneer, or retreats into a position of a more-than-interested observer, he’ll have little control over the number of committed, high-quality players that stream into the Pioneer program.
But so long as the watchful eye of the man they call “Brick” is being cast upon the competitions, the integrity of Pioneer’s sportsmanship is sure to persist.
Bison Collins Messink is a sportswriter for AnnArbor.com. He may be reached at email@example.com.