By Noah Allison–
The first time Rex Ecarma stepped on to Louisville’s campus he was a teenager. His older brother played for U of L’s tennis team, and Ecarma was nice enough and eager enough to contribute.
“At that time, they played at the park (Stansbury) across from the law school. There weren’t any water fountains, so when my brother and his teammates got thirsty at practice they’d just throw an empty tennis ball can over the fence,” Ecarma said.
“My job was to run and go get it. Cross that busy street (third street) as fast as I can. Go to the law school because they had a real cold water fountain, fill up that can, get back across that street and get that water to the players without spilling it. So that’s how I became associated with the Louisville tennis program. I don’t think I was elevated to team manager. I was just the water boy.”
Few could have guessed that some thirty-five years later that young water boy would be Louisville’s most tenured and winningest coach.
In his 25 years as head coach of the Louisville men’s tennis team, Ecarma has racked up over 400 wins. He has produced countless competitive teams and multiple conference championship teams. He’s been Conference Coach of the Year in the Big East and Conference USA. In 2007, he was inducted into the Kentucky Tennis Hall of Fame. He’s had top individual competitors and this past fall he helped senior Sebastian Stiefelmeyer win a national championship and earn the ranking of the nation’s top Division I singles player.
But long before Ecarma made his home in Louisville tennis, he had a home in the city of Louisville. His father moved to Louisville from the Philippines and at an early age introduced tennis to his children.
“I got tired of being left at home. When my dad and two older brothers went to play tennis I just said, ‘Hey I’m going to go with them and see what this is all about.’ And that’s how it all started with me. Just wanting to hang with my dad and brothers at the tennis court.”
While it began as a simple leisure activity for father and sons, the Ecarma boys started to take the game seriously. By the time they got to Doss High School they were some of the best young tennis players in the state.
“One brother, Roehl, he was my practice partner and Reggie practiced with me but also coached me. I kind of had my own team at home, so I was very advantaged with that,” Ecarma explained.
“My first year in high school, my brother Reggie won the singles regional championship to qualify for the state and me and another guy on the team won the doubles. So it was being at the state high school tournament as a freshman and regional champion that I first really started to think of tennis as more than a hobby.”
Rex followed his older brother Reggie to U of L to play tennis for the Cardinals. At that time there wasn’t the Yum! Center and there were no multi-million dollar complexes on campus. As a freshman at U of L in 1983, Ecarma was hardly afforded the luxuries his current freshman class has.
“From what we had, playing at a public park, our indoor practices were 9:00 pm to 11:00 pm every night at a local club. Could you imagine that, finishing practice at midnight every night, but those were the only courts they could spare for us. So we really over achieved in my opinion from what was invested in us,” said Ecarma.
“But we still really competed very hard and had a lot of pride about U of L even though we were kind of a fledgling program.”
Ecarma was one of the best players still to date that the U of L tennis team has ever had. To this day he is ranked second in the school’s career doubles wins list with 92. In his junior season he totaled 58 wins in singles and doubles play combined. A mark that is still the second highest win total in a single season at Louisville.
His success as a player launched him into coaching. And just two years after graduating from U of L, he was hired as U of L’s head coach. At 23, he was the youngest Division I head coach in the country.
“I graduated in ‘88 and worked, travelled, went into the mission field and in 1990 was hired as the head coach. I never even had any college assistant type position, so I went from player to coach very quickly.
“It was tough; I was only like a year older than my senior,” Ecarma described. “One thing that helped, though, was a lot of the kids were local. A lot of them saw me play in the higher age groups, so they kind of knew me from a distance. It wasn’t just bringing in some 23-year-old, they knew who I was, and that helped. But that only helped in the beginning, I had to earn their respect after that.”
After that, he has been earning the respect of a lot of people, including current athletic director Tom Jurich. Upon Jurich’s arrival to U of L in 1997, additions and changes have been made to every single athletic program. In other words, Jurich has hired the coach for every single team, except for men’s tennis. Ecarma is the only coach at U of L that predates the Jurich era.
In that pre-Jurich era, Ecarma played an instrumental role in the building of the award winning Bass-Rudd tennis complex.
“You have to think, imagine U of L with no sports complexes. We had like 20 sports; the first one that gets their facility is tennis,” Ecarma said.
“So I appreciate Sunny Bass, Mason Rudd and William Rothwell. They got behind a 23-year-old coach and just said ‘Hey, what are your dreams?’ I told them and those guys made the decision that they’re going to make it come true and they’re not going to wait. And tennis became the first sports facility on the campus of U of L.”
Since becoming head coach, Ecarma has grown up quite a bit. He has a full family and doesn’t draw a line between his family and his career. As large a role as his family played in his early tennis career, his current tennis career plays a large role in his family.
“My Dad, my brother, my kids, my wife, my nephews, nieces, they all come out to the matches and its great to have them there.
“My kids, my two boys, are serious tennis players now and they learn so much from these college guys. They’re friends with Sebastian and all those guys; it brings my family and my tennis family all in one. It’s a really good feeling, you know? Sometimes when my kids play tennis matches here at U of L for a tournament, the U of L players stop in and watch them play. So it’s really neat.”
You would think that after spending multiple decades at the helm of a program, Ecarma would seem worn down, but it’s the exact opposite. He is still enthusiastic, spry and from what you can tell, doesn’t need to dye his hair. But at this point of his long career he gets the surreal experience of seeing his former players as adults, with families and lives of their own.
“Its funny, my first senior that I was telling you about, when I was 23 and he was 22, his daughter and my son train together. She’s one of the top kids in the Midwest and she comes over from Southern Indiana to play practice matches with my son,” said Ecarma.
“I see so many of my players, and their families and their children. It’s pretty overwhelming just to see the growth of all those guys. I look back and I say one of my mission statements in life is to grow the next generation of leaders. I look around and there are so many of my players from the past, whether they are in sport, law, medicine or business, a lot of them are leaders. So I feel really good about kind of planting leadership seeds in them and hopefully role modeling good leadership traits in front of them when they were here.”
Back in March, Ecarma’s team defeated then tenth-ranked North Carolina. The win marked his 400th career victory as head coach at Louisville. With the program as good as its ever been with a permanent home in the ACC, the long time companion of Louisville tennis took a moment to take it all in.
“I just had a sense of appreciation for the players’ effort. Playing so hard for Louisville and so hard for me in such a dedicated way. I was reflecting on that,” Ecarma said.
“Really, outside of three or four semesters, I’ve been on this campus since 1983. I’ve been on this campus as a student, a student-athlete, or a coach since fall of 1983. It’s been an unbelievable experience, I couldn’t imagine coaching at any other place.”
Photo by Austin Lassell / The Louisville Cardinal