Few words were spoken, at least initially, when Robi Nord fielded a phone call from her husband around dinnertime last Sunday.
Kris Nord had a good-sized lump in his throat. This 56-year-old man, who has spent much of his life at the University of Montana, could hardly be expected to hold his emotions.
Nord’s team had just recorded the most significant win in the history of Grizzly tennis – a 4-0 dual triumph over Weber State in the Big Sky Conference men’s tournament final, propelling Montana into the NCAA tourney for the first time.
So many thoughts were running through his head – all the former players who had fallen short, all the long hours on practice courts. Yet this was about more than tennis, just as Nord is more than just a Grizzly coach.
This was about a living legacy who cultivates all that is good in Grizzly sports, athletically and academically, basking in the glow of his adopted sons. A tale of a fiercely loyal man who literally grew up at UM – he still remembers carefree days in the campus nursery back in ’62 – receiving just reward for 32 years of diligence.
Sure, that first phone call from the Big Sky tournament in California was earmarked for Robi, and rightfully so. But oh how nice it would have been to talk to Dad.
Ron Nord coached three sports at Montana in the 1960s and 70s – he was head men’s basketball and golf coach and assistant football coach – and then watched proudly as his son, Kris, equaled the feat in men’s and women’s tennis and women’s golf.
“He was our greatest fan,” said Kris, with emotion in his voice. “He would come and sit through every match of ours out here. If he wasn’t on the bleachers, he’d go sit in his car and wait until the very end. He was typically the guy who would call me first after big wins.
“He died three years ago and I thought about how much he would have appreciated this. But I called my wife and kids and blubbered to them for a couple of minutes.”
No, this championship didn’t get the same kind of hype it might had the players been wearing helmets and shoulder pads. But considering what the UM men’s tennis team is up against every spring, winning the Big Sky on hardcourts was a moment for the ages.
“What Kris has done here has been remarkable to me,” said his friend and colleague, Montana women’s basketball coach Robin Selvig. “They won a regular season (title) two years ago and they win the tournament this year ...
“They really are a little bit behind the 8-ball with everybody else. Everybody else has their own indoor facility. They’ve practiced at ungodly hours. Kris is obviously very good at what he does and a lot of fun to have around here. I think we’re fortunate he’s kept doing it.”
To understand how and why the 2014 Grizzlies broke the door down, it helps to know a thing or two about Nord’s coaching philosophy. First and foremost, the Big Sky’s Tennis Coach of the Year believes his team is an extension of his family and treats his players accordingly.
They become so familiar with his home and family that knocking on the front door is optional.
“They all call me Nord, and my dad used to look at me like, ‘Why don’t they call you Coach?’ ” Kris said. “I’d say, ‘I don’t feel comfortable with that. You’re Coach to me.’ I look for my dad when I hear that word.
“I feel really blessed with this group. We’re really close. We do a lot of stuff together and it’s pretty special.”
The feeling is mutual. Whether it’s merely horsing around, watching something together on the tube or playing card games, Nord is more than just Coach to his players.
“I’m the best poker player for sure,” joked Ethan Vaughn, Montana’s No. 5 singles player. “Nah, Kris is the best. But he loses a lot. He’s under a little bit of pressure I think, knowing he should beat us.
“It’s just fun. We go over there and have some good food and he usually makes us a dessert. Those times are special.”
It’s not suprising Nord and Selvig hit it off. Both love to compete, whether it be sitting at a card table or cycling in the mountains around Missoula.
Both love to win even more.
“Kris is a little bit younger than me and used to be in great shape,” Selvig said playfully, retelling a story that has become legendary in the UM athletic department. “I remember when I was just getting started in mountain biking. Of course he’d take me up the Rattlesnake and I couldn’t keep up. I’d get to the top of the hill and he’d be up there doing push-ups.
“The difference now is last time we rode, he hasn’t been working out as much and it was almost the opposite. I told him getting older is a little tougher than you think. But he was the young stud when we started.”
Nord looks for a certain type of individual when putting together his tennis team.
“When I’m recruiting kids we talk about how they join the family,” he said. “It’s a tennis team, but our guys get along. We have to get along. We spend too much time together riding back and forth to the Peak (Racquet Club), the early mornings in the weight room and on the football field, the amount of travel we do.
“If I’ve got a kid who’s talented but he’s not a good mix for us, I usually don’t go after him. I think the No. 1 positive of our team is chemistry.”
Nord is adept at attracting accomplished student athletes from foreign countries, but he also believes strongly in giving local players a chance. In the past five years alone he’s had athletes from all three Missoula Class AA schools and Class A Corvallis.
It’s an uphill climb for locals to crack the top six, but their presence is important.
“Ben DeMarois is a prime example,” Nord said. “He came in (from Sentinel) and didn’t get to play a lot his freshman year. He worked his tail off and he was in the lineup his senior year contributing and leading.
“He led in the classroom. He led in the weight room. And he led on the courts. I feel like the local kids really bring a better flavor to the team, a real bond to Missoula and the university.”
Each season Nord fetes his seniors during the final home meet. It’s pretty much a given he’s going to get emotional when he introduces them, and this year was no different.
Five seniors serve as the backbone for the 2014 Grizzlies, who will play the role of David on Saturday when they face Goliath (No. 2 seed Oklahoma) at 1 p.m. Mountain in Norman, Oklahoma. Those seniors are so good Nord scheduled what he calls “probably the toughest nonconference we’ve had since I’ve been here.”
It didn’t help the Grizzlies on April 5 when they dropped a 5-2 decision to Weber State in a regular-season dual. But boy did Montana avenge that one at the Big Sky tournament.
“I was absolutely stunned at first,” Nord said of last weekend’s shutout over a Wildcats team that went 10-0 in the Big Sky regular season. “My emotions were all over the place because we’ve come close three times before.
“I thought back to the players like Jan Steenekamp and Stu Wing back in 2006 when we came close to beating MSU. Just all the players that have helped build this, step by step.”
Interestingly, Montana’s brush with a Big Sky tourney title in women’s tennis last weekend may have helped put the men over the top. The women had match points in a No. 4 singles duel that decided the crown. But Sacramento State’s Olivia Boija rallied to beat Montana’s Laurence Pelchat in a third set tiebreaker, 7-5.
“We were watching the girls and, I don’t know, we’re not very emotional and we saw that match and it was really tough for the girls,” said Montana senior Andrew Warren, who on Thursday became the first Grizzly male to win Big Sky MVP honors.
“We saw lots of tears, and we care a lot about them because we’re pretty close. All of us just kind of sat down and reflected almost for a solid 10 minutes. We’re sitting there in silence. We’re just realizing this is our chance. There’s lots of seniors. We got out on the court and I think we all knew we had to play well and it happened.”
Long after Nord has coached his final tennis match at Montana, he will be remembered as a consummate gentleman with impressive fitness. Even in his mid-50s he can still spar with many of his players.
“I think all of us really respect him both on and off the court, which is huge,” Vaughn said. “If you’re not playing for a coach you respect, it’s going to be a long four years.
“Just knowing what he did in college, too, at Boise State and UNLV,” Vaughn added ,alluding to Nord’s college tennis résumé. “Most of us have our own personal tennis coaches. I think all of us do back home. Then we come here and you have to develop that trust to make changes to your game. With him you have that trust and it’s just so cool we could get him his first title after 30-plus years of coaching.”
Recruited to play Griz football as an all-stater at Missoula Sentinel, Nord’s days of playing sets with his top guns have diminished in recent years. But he still strives to keep his strokes sharp.
“To work on the things they have to work on, you’ve got to be able to place the ball and hit it where you want it, going at their weakness,” Nord offered. “I want to be an example for the guys, too. Show them I’m not just talking the talk but I’ll try to walk the walk.”
To that end, Nord has subtle ways of showing his players how much he cares about Grizzly tennis. In the early spring he can often be found shoveling snow off the courts at the Lindsay Tennis Center so his team can get in more practice. He also likes to hang wind screens himself, a time-consuming task that falls short on the fun meter.
When it comes to success, Nord likes to spread the accolades around. Not only is he proud of his players, he’s thankful for the support of first-year assistant coach Jason Brown, who bravely fought through cancer treatments before becoming an important cog.
“He’s been awesome in many ways,” Nord said of Brown, a Conrad product and former Grizzly player. “He’s travelled with us, helped with practices.
“He’s a real positive influence and these guys love him. When I get in my grumpy phase I’ve got Jason there to kind of smooth it over.”
Nord, Brown and the Grizzlies will definitely have their hands full against an Oklahoma team coached by Andy Roddick’s brother, John. Back in March, OU was ranked No. 1 in the country by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association.
The Sooners’ top six are all nationally ranked and their two best players are in the top six in the nation. They play in an impressive facility and they’re so popular that some meets are televised.
Nord will impress on his athletes the importance of playing within themselves and enjoying the moment. And just like always, they’ll take their leader’s words to heart.
“It’s great to have a coach like him,” Warren said. “But even more so as a person, I’ve learned so much from Kris.
“I’ll carry it through for the rest of my life.”