Even as a mathematics professor, Joe Cabri finds the numbers hard to believe. Those numbers are the ones he put in the record books for Lander during his 31 years as the men’s tennis coach.
After announcing his retirement in April 2006, he reflected on the 12 national championships, three hall of fame designations, 10 national coach of the year awards, and 56 All-American titles that he and his teams have earned.
"When I was winning the championships, it was like riding down the road at 60 or 70 miles per hour and you see trees and poles go by," said Cabri. "Now, when you are done you have time to look back and then it becomes more amazing that it happened."
Saluting Cabri’s accomplishments, former Lander Athletics director Jeff May said, "Coach Cabri has had a hall of fame coaching career. In fact, he is already a member of the NAIA Hall of Fame, the South Carolina Tennis Hall of Fame and the Lander Athletics Hall of Fame."
"Few coaches," said May, "have experienced or will ever experience the success Coach Cabri has achieved. His record of 12 national championships and 23 consecutive league championships might never be equaled in college sports."
Cabri, with his 31 years of service, is the longest serving coach in Lander Athletics history, followed by men’s basketball coach emeritus Finis Horne, who served as coach for 29 years and Athletics director for 26 years.
Cabri’s greatest run was from 1991-2000 when Lander was national champion for 10 straight years. Two of those titles were in the NAIA followed by eight in Lander’s first eight years in NCAA Division II, when Lander broke the record for consecutive championships in the NCAA.
When news of Cabri’s retirement hit the newspapers, TV stations and the Lander web site, the response from former players and coaching colleagues was immediate.
"Most of them couldn’t believe it," Cabri said of reaction to his retirement from former players and his peers. "I guess they thought I would die in the saddle. A lot of my old players just expressed appreciation for what they had at Lander, the memories and the degrees. It was very satisfying. I got e-mails and letters from coaches that we used to have head-to-head battles with and I was overwhelmed by the nice things they said."
A mathematics professor at Lander since 1972, Cabri began coaching in 1974. In a twist of fate, he had turned down a teaching position at a military school in 1972 because he would have also been coaching a sport. At Lander, then athletic director Finis Horne, then school president Larry Jackson and tennis player Jack Sizemore were instrumental in getting Cabri into coaching.
"When Lander became a state-supported institution in 1973, more money was available for athletic scholarships," Cabri said. "So Finis decided that the tennis program needed a coach instead of just a player-coach to deal with the money. That’s how I got involved, and I am deeply grateful to Larry and Finis for providing me an opportunity that became such a meaningful part of my life."
Cabri will be the first to admit that he was no tennis expert when he began coaching, but he wasn’t just along for the ride. The Long Island native began learning the art of coaching by reading books and attending Van Der Meer clinics. But the professor-coach says he learned the most from NCAA Division I coaches Chuck Kriese of Clemson University, Kent DeMars of the University of South Carolina and Dan Magill of the University of Georgia. Those coaches gave the Lander players an opportunity to pit their skills against the some of the best teams ever fielded by Clemson, Carolina and Georgia, and in the process, Cabri’s players improved the caliber of their play.
On learning of Cabri’s retirement, Clemson’s Kriese said, "I think Joe is a great example of what consistent excellence is all about. To win one championship is an incredible feat. Even to be in a final four is an incredible feat. He won 12. I think that when people are around such excellence, they maybe become complacent or numbed by it, but it will be a long time in any university’s history where one sport will win 12 championships.
"Joe has done an incredible job for his university and for the state of South Carolina. He should be commended to the utmost. His legacy will be great. I don’t think people really realize how hard it is to accomplish what he has accomplished."
There’s obvious pride in Cabri’s voice when he talks about his 1985 team which was the first to win a national championship for Lander, and which prompted Bill Phillips, Lander’s honorary coach at the national NAIA tournament in Kansas City, to arrange for a message congratulating Lander to flash on the screen that night during a Kansas City Royals baseball game. Phillips also had a plane fly a "Congratulations Lander" banner over Rockhill Country Club where the championship trophy was presented to Lander.
Respect for Lander’s tennis program was also enhanced when the team scored upset wins over top 10 Clemson and over Georgia, the defending Division I champs.
Cabri says the biggest boost to the Lander tennis program was getting new courts in 1981. "Prior to that, we had three courts on top of a hill facing the sun in the afternoons, just when we were practicing or playing matches," said Cabri.
It was in 1981 that Lander, with the help of three talented Florida players, Chris Meyer, Ron Romaine and John Virgin, won it first NAIA District 6 title. A dark horse at nationals, the question, as Cabri’s players knocked off opponent after opponent, was "Where’s Lander?" When the tournament was over, with Lander capturing fourth place, everyone knew that Lander was the team from Greenwood, S.C.
The dynasty had begun. Four years later, Lander won its first national championship.
"The first year that we won nationals," said Cabri, "I had three of the top-ranked juniors from Florida and a top-10 Swedish player, Patrick Ronneke. He brought another Swede with him in 1986, and soon other good players were knocking on Lander’s door."
With more success, recruiting became easier.
"Before the Internet, people heard about colleges from other people or from tennis magazines," said Cabri. "Especially in the ’90s, we got so much exposure in national publications that recruiting became easier. I would get 300 letters a year from recruits and even was able to recommend some of those recruits to other schools."
By building positive relationships with coaches from Division I schools as well as those in Division II and the NAIA, Cabri was able to develop a strong recruiting network.
Competing in NAIA nationals from 1981 through 1992, Lander won four national championships, finished second twice and never finished lower than seventh. During his NAIA years, Cabri won five national Coach of the Year awards and coached 28 All-Americans, seven Academic All-Americans, two national Arthur Ashe Award winners, a singles champion, two singles finalists and two doubles finalists.
Cabri’s 1991 team had an unprecedented six players named to the NAIA All-American team and one of those players, Niclas Nilsson, was named a Tennis Magazine All-Star Team member.
In 1993, Lander moved to NCAA Division II. The question was whether the small school of less than 3,000 students could continue to compete at a national level. That question was answered when Cabri’s team won the 1993 NCAA title. Lander continued to dominate NCAA Division II tennis winning a record-breaking eight straight titles.
Ironically, Cabri broke the record of seven straight titles that belonged to USC’s DeMars when DeMars was at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. Cabri says that even though DeMars’ record was on the line, the USC coach went out of his way to help Lander with its recruiting efforts, efforts that paid off in championship wins.
There is deep mutual respect between the two coaches, and DeMars, commenting on Cabri’s career, said, "Joe is one of the most successful coaches of all time in the collegiate ranks. He not only won annual coach of the year awards but he was a real gentleman who had a unique ability to manage players and get the most out of them. College tennis will definitely miss him."
In NCAA tournament competition, Lander has won an amazing 88 percent of its matches. Since 1993, the NCAA has lavished numerous honors on the coach from the little college in South Carolina. He has been named Coach of the Year five times and was honored as a Coach of the Decade in 2000.
Cabri, in 12 years in the NCAA, has coached a national doubles champion, a Dan Magill Award winner, 28 All-Americans, 24 academic All-Americans, three national Arthur Ashe Award winners, two Tennis Magazine All-Star Team members, and 60 All-Peach Belt Conference players, all while winning 11 straight PBC championships.
Cabri and his players have been honored numerous times by joint resolutions from the South Carolina House and Senate for the positive recognition they have brought to Lander and South Carolina. In 1998, Cabri was awarded the Order of the Palmetto, the highest honor a citizen of South Carolina can receive.
But during all his championship years, Cabri never lost sight that he is a teacher first.
"From my point of view, I guess I am a teacher-coach," said Cabri, who earned a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Alabama. "To me, the most important thing is for a student-athlete to develop not only as a player but as a student and a person. I spent a lot of time helping players with their studies and trying to motivate them to do well in both (tennis and school). I think the positive experience that the players who went through the program had was the greatest asset in recruiting other players."
Lander players have gone on to become bankers and businessmen, surgeons, college and middle school through high school teachers and, of course, tennis pros. They have earned master’s, medical and Ph.D. degrees. "I think the majority of them made the most of the opportunities offered them by Lander and the Greenwood community," said Cabri.
"To see the guys succeed beyond tennis and develop as people is important," Cabri says. "When they recognize you as a helping hand in that, it makes you feel good."
Sam Bradford, a 1977 psychology graduate who played two years for Cabri and who is now a labor relations specialist with SPAWAR in Charleston, had this to say about his former coach in the 2000 summer Lander Magazine: "While instilling a sense of responsibility for academics and athletics is part of Cabri’s formula for success, even he may not realized that there is another ingredient — he has an uncanny knack for imparting to his players that he really has their best interests at heart. But it’s more than that. Coach Cabri imparts a certain joie de vivre that is absolutely contagious. To be around him is to be around someone who truly enjoys life and what he is doing".
Now Cabri passes the baton to one of his former players Brett Simpson, who with Lee Holyoak won a national doubles champion title under Coach Cabri, along with three All-American titles and two Academic All-American titles. Simpson, who comes to Lander from a coaching position at Anderson College, will coach the Lander men’s team as well as the women’s team which joins the Lander sports roster in 2005-2006.
Cabri believes Simpson’s success as a player and his technical knowledge of the game are important in collegiate tennis today.
"I think Brett is going to be great for the program," said Cabri "Two or three years ago, they (the NCAA) really cut back on the kind of player you could recruit. If players have a lot of experience in tournaments after high school, they aren’t eligible. It’s important to have someone like Brett who can help with the technical aspects of the game and develop players. I was fortunate to have several developed players come in and help with freshmen and less polished players, but they are hard to recruit now."
Cabri will remain at Lander as a professor and head tennis coach emeritus. He will help with fund-raising and some of the recruiting efforts for the tennis program.
Lander Athletics director Jeff May added, " I now look forward to working with him (Cabri) as we seek private support for our tennis teams, and I hope that we will continue to benefit from the network of financial and athletic support he has built for Lander tennis."
And Cabri, who is confident about the future of Lander tennis, says he looks forward to watching more numbers being added to the university’s tennis record books.