Courts in session
How a persevering professor and a generous alum sparked a renewal of tennis at Chico State
Thanks in no small measure to a determined professor and an alumnus with fond memories of playing in a national championship football game, Chico State University will soon have six new state-of-the-art tennis courts, giving students an on-campus place to play for the first time in eight years.
The professor is Mike Leitner, who teaches in the Recreation and Parks Management Department at Chico State and is an avid tennis enthusiast who formerly captained club tennis at the university. For years he has lamented the fate of the original 12 courts, built in 1963 and well used for 27 years.
Because it needed the space, the university took half the competition-grade courts when it constructed Yolo Hall between 2000 and 2002, and the remaining six were reduced to abject disrepair when they were used as an area for truck parking and materials storage related to the project.
Prospective students touring the campus visit Yolo Hall, opened in 2002 as the home of physical education and kinesiology, but fortunately do not see the courts, which are not visible from the hall.
Renovation from the ground up at a cost of $450,000 will begin in early June, reported Dennis Graham, vice president of business and finance. The rebuilding job will banish an eyesore that has embarrassed the university since construction began on Yolo Hall and will also provide the setting to restore a first-rate tennis program at the university and offer a new tennis resource to the city.
The rebuilt courts will have a base of ground asphalt and aggregate, then a layer of asphalt primarily to make sure they are level but also to prevent slippage, and a final layer of asphalt with a rubberized playing surface.
An anonymous donor, a Chico State grad, provided $200,000 as seed money to attract further money to bring the courts up to United States Tennis Association A-1 standards, Graham said, adding the university made up the balance by shifting various existing campus funds.
“We are absolutely thrilled,” said Phyllis Fernlund, dean of the College of Communication and Education, who will be responsible for the courts and their maintenance. “We can now bring back the tennis program we were justly proud of.”
Plans also call for a practice area with a backboard for players to hit against, full perimeter fencing, fencing to separate each court, drinking fountains, overhead lights, and neutral rather than busy backgrounds so players can track the ball, Graham said. He added the university decided to go with the best construction after core samples bored from the existing surfaces indicated the courts needed to be totally rebuilt.
President Paul Zingg made the decision to move “sooner rather than later” on the project after Leitner approached him several months ago. Leitner wanted to get classes back on campus on the old courts right away by using the money in hand rather than wait a minimum of three years for the renovation project to move up to the top spot on the priority list for minor capital-outlay funds and hoping even more money came in from fundraising efforts.
At present Chico State pays $8,000 per year to the Chico Racquet Club and Resort to offer three classes—two beginning and one intermediate—each term with an instructor provided by the club. With the rebuilt courts, Chico State faculty will be able to offer at least nine class sections, including an advanced class, each term.
Leitner, who also sits on the Board of Directors of the Chico Area Recreation and Park District, said he sought to create an option of using the $200,000 donor money to pay in full for eight rather than six courts plus two outdoor basketball courts using FlexCourt, a serviceable, lower-cost interlocking, porous synthetic tile that banishes puddles and maintenance. By leveling the surface and fixing major cracks only, the synthetic tile could have been laid on the existing courts, Leitner explained. He conducted all exploratory contacts and research on the relatively new surface that is gaining in popularity.
The recreation professor went directly to Zingg to make his case, and he revealed the president told him in an e-mail just before making the final decision, “Your advocacy has made a difference.”
Without Leitner’s intervention as a catalyst, progress on the tennis court project was uncertain at best during bad financial times. Last autumn Fernlund and Sarah Fry, fundraising officer for communications and education, flew to Portland, Ore., home of the anonymous wealthy donor, to show him architectural plans plus a 3D presentation for 10 courts that would cost $1.4 million. The donor, who had deposited $200,000 in the Chico State Foundation rather than promise that amount, liked what he saw and expressed interest in meeting Zingg to talk about a timeline.
Fernlund and Fry reported to Zingg, who didn’t like the price. He decided the project needed to come in at less than a million dollars, which meant fewer courts and at least $200,000 more from the university’s fundraising team to add to $400,000 in minor capital outlay money in 2010 or 2011. There was also some concern, said Dick Trimmer, former head of the Department of Physical Education at the time half the courts were removed, that years of delay might make the donor impatient, perhaps leading him to reassign the funds to scholarships, a favorite object of his giving to Chico State.
“You know, $200,000 is a major gift to a school like Chico State,” Fry said. “It’s not huge, but it’s big, and we naturally want to please the donor.”
Indeed, the donor made the pledge in July 2004 during a nostalgic anniversary dinner, Trimmer recalled. The dinner marked the appearance of the Chico State football team in the 1971 Camellia Bowl national championship game for Division II schools. He said the donor played as an offensive lineman in the game, staged in Hughes Stadium in Sacramento, in which Boise State edged Chico State 31-28. Pete Riehlman was the Chico head coach in 1971, and Trimmer was his assistant coach.
The donor toured the campus before the dinner, Trimmer recalled, saw the disastrous condition of the courts, and remarked that no physical education program should be without tennis. He and his wife both had learned to play on the courts, and he continued to play the game after he graduated with a physical education degree.
Where Leitner is concerned, he’s happy with the final turn of events and says six top-notch courts will work just fine. He praised Zingg for his leadership, saying, “I went to him with a problem. He listened and always got back to me. He found a solution and then made it happen.”
Editor’s note: Several people at Chico State contacted us to say former Physical Education Department head Dick Trimmer played a larger role in the tennis facility’s renovation project than our story suggests. We apologize for shorting any credit where it’s due.