Steve Wilkinson's recipe for success with his tennis players at Gustavus Adolphus College was to have a positive attitude, focus on their efforts and treat others with respect. It was a formula that made many of his players champions on and off the court, and gave the legendary coach more wins than anybody in the history of men's collegiate tennis.
Wilkinson won 929 matches during his 39 years as the school's head coach, including two NCAA Division III National Championships and 35 Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conferences titles. He was named the Intercollegiate Tennis Association's (ITA) Division III Coach of the Year three times and the NAIA National Coach of the Year twice.
His players won six national doubles titles and four national singles titles, and 46 players earned All American honors. Some played on the pro tour.
He died Jan. 21 at his home in St. Peter, Minn., of kidney cancer. He was 73.
Born in Sioux City, Iowa, Wilkinson excelled in tennis and played No. 1 singles at the University of Iowa, where he earned three degrees. After college, he earned the No. 1 ranking among U.S. players in the 45-, 50-, 55- and 60-and-over divisions. He represented the United States in the Dubler Cup, Perry Cup and Austria Cup tournaments. He won the world championship in 1989. He was inducted into United States Professional Tennis Association, the ITA and the Gustavus halls of fame.
Wilkinson brought his passion for tennis to Gustavus in 1971, but winning was not his primary goal. Teaching life lessons was, those who knew him said.
"I looked at tennis as a boxing match separated by a net," said Tim Butorac, a former Gustavus player who now runs the Rochester Tennis Connection.
"He told me it didn't have to be that way, that you can show great respect and share the experience whether you win or lose. It was not 'win at all costs.' He taught good sportsmanship and have a good attitude and let the chips fall where they may."
Wilkinson taught the same lessons at the Tennis and Life Camps that he started. The camps, held at Gustavus since 1977, combine drills with music, skits and traditional camp activities.
"He used many mediums to get the point across, and that was teaching them [campers] what they did well and to make them better," said Neal Hagberg, part of the musical duo of Neal & Leandra and a Gustavus graduate who is now camp director. "He wanted to make an impact on them. He had the same effect on his Gustavus players."
Former Minneapolis Washburn star Todd Bowlby chose Gustavus after attending a Tennis and Life Camp.
"He was a mentor to me. His philosophy was not just on the court, but it carried off the court," said the 1998 Gustavus graduate, who won four MIAC singles championships.
Bowlby said he taught tennis after college and used many of the lessons he learned from Wilkinson. "He left a lasting impression on my life. He touched my life in so many different ways. I have a lot to be thankful for because of Coach."
Wilkinson recently published a memoir called "Let Love Serve," a celebration of tennis and life.
He is survived by his wife of 48 years, Barbara; two daughters, Stephanie and Deborah; a sister, Ann, two brothers, Mike and John, and four grandchildren.
Services have been held.