The Tennis Empire of Bob Hansen

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The Slugs, led by coach Bob Hansen, bring home their second NCAA tennis title in 1995. Photo courtesy of Ryan Witt.
The Slugs, led by coach Bob Hansen, bring home their second NCAA tennis title in 1995. Photo courtesy of Ryan Witt.

Going undefeated in one season is a difficult task. But the UC Santa Cruz men’s tennis team went undefeated for nearly a decade in the 1990s, with a 73-0 record against NCAA Division III opponents.

The record is one of many accomplishments former UCSC men’s tennis coach Bob Hansen established in his 31-year NCAA tenure. Upon his arrival, Hansen helped build UCSC’s tennis empire when there was hardly an athletic scene on campus. Not only did he lead his teams to seven NCAA National Championships, but he also received Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) Coach of the Year four times, which led him to being recognized as ITA Coach of the Decade in the 1990s.

Hansen, a San Jose State University alumnus, arrived in Santa Cruz in 1977 to take over the UCSC men’s tennis team — a sports club with no history or identity at that time. He faced the challenge of transitioning a weak athletic culture into a competitive one.

“It is possible to have a brilliant, highly successful athletic program in a low-tier UC system,” Hansen said. “It is what college is all about. If done right, athletics is a great contributor to academics.”

After a three-year battle of attempting to qualify for NCAA competitions with the minimum number of sports teams, it took the approval of the Office of Physical Education, Recreation and Sports (OPERS) director to call the NCAA’s office to achieve that goal.

For a $500 fee, UCSC was officially recognized as an NCAA Division III school in 1980. Under Hansen’s guidance, men’s tennis appeared in 13 Division III National Team Championship games in his 21 years of coaching, including milestone achievements in 2005 and 2007 when the school captured its illustrious triple-crowns by triumphing in team, singles and doubles competitions.

“It is a coach’s dream to play for a championship and some people never reach that goal,” Hansen said. “I’ve been fortunate to say I’ve had several. The best part of it was proving people wrong and showing we can win championships at this school.”

Hansen’s teaching ability made the campus in the redwood forest an attractive destination for some Californian athletes despite the absence of athletic scholarships. The team went on to produce 117 All-American athletes during his epoch.

Players view Hansen as a mentor, often noting his ability to form close relationships with his team — he left his office door open as an invitation for conversation about anything.

“He treated the team like we were his kids,” said former UCSC tennis player Thomas Oechel, who won five NCAA National Championships under Hansen. “I had several scholarship offers from PAC-10 schools and I even considered transferring after my second year, but no. Hansen was like a mentor, tennis was second to that.”

One of Hansen’s strongest recruits was Matt Seeberger, the all-time tennis Division III Championships leader. He holds many tennis records for the Slugs, including winning back-to-back NCAA singles titles in his freshman and sophomore seasons. Seeberger also played on both teams that hoisted triple-crowns. He currently ranks 255th for doubles competitions in the world.

“College tennis had always been a dream of mine. Little did I know that playing for Bob Hansen would exceed all of my expectations,” Seeberger said. “He creates such an amazing team environment and puts everyone before himself.”

The legendary instructor now resides in Vermont, where he coaches the men’s tennis team at Middlebury College. Although he admits missing California’s sunny beaches, he’s happily settled in the Northeast.

While some list bringing UCSC its first athletic title or attaining the school’s first triple-crown as Hansen’s greatest achievements, it was his tenacity and spirit that his former players treasure.

“Whenever our teams stepped onto the court against an opponent, having Bob as our coach always gave us the feeling that we were ahead before we even started,” said former UCSC tennis player Ryan Witt, who played on Hansen’s 1995 NCAA National Championship team. “He has an unmatched ability to bring out the best in his players.”