RICHMOND, Va. – Outside Paul Kostin’s office is a large display case that is home to more than two decades of VCU Tennis trophies – the ones that would fit, anyway. A couple of years ago, with no more room left in the display case or in Kostin’s office, new trophies started piling up on a table behind the receptionists’ desk.
It doesn’t appear as if this trophy-space issue will rectify itself anytime soon.
On Sunday, Kostin brought home another souvenir from Cincinnati, where the Rams won their first Atlantic 10 Conference Men’s Tennis Championship 4-3 over George Washington. The victory was the 1,000th of Kostin’s 32-year coaching career, a milestone reached previously by just three other Division I coaches.
“I feel lucky and very fortunate because I had so many good athletes, good tennis players, play for me, both men and women,” Kostin said. “Also, I’ve been having some good assistant coaches helping me. In this business and in any business, you don’t do things alone.”
While he hasn’t done it alone, Kostin, 1,000-316 overall at VCU and Arkansas-Little Rock, certainly has done it his way.
A native of Stockholm, Sweden, the 59-year-old Kostin is tough without being taxing. He cares deeply about his players, but he’s careful not to coddle them. He’s not afraid to say what’s on his mind, but he’s also usually the first person in line to provide a former player with a glowing reference.
“I don’t get mad when my wife says I’m screwing up something because that reminds me, don’t do this [stuff] again. Live and learn. Even at my age. We all have to learn,” Kostin said. “And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. When you tell somebody the truth, it’s not always going to be positive. It doesn’t work like that. The reason I like to say that kind of stuff is that I want to get them ready for it. I want them to better themselves because it’s not always going to be that easy.”
The 1,000 wins, the 22 conference titles, the 30-plus NCAA Appearances, the All-Americans, it all never meant that much, Kostin insists. It’s because he never saw the wins or the awards that came with them as the finish line. To Kostin, they’re checkpoints on the road of life.
“I never really messed with my record too much,” he says. “I felt like, when the new year starts, you forget a little bit about what happened and keep going. I don’t dwell on old stuff. That’s the way I am, and that’s the way I teach.”
In 1990, after nine successful seasons as head coach at Arkansas-Little Rock, where he also starred as a player, Kostin was tapped by then-VCU Athletic Director Dr. Richard Sander to infuse life into the school’s moribund men’s tennis program. In the two seasons prior to Kostin’s arrival, VCU finished a combined 6-34.
In Kostin’s first season, with a retooled roster of transfers from Arkansas-Little Rock and newcomers from Europe, the Rams finished 22-5. In 2002, Kostin also assumed the reigns of the women’s program. He has never posted a losing season with either. In 2000, the men’s team stormed to the NCAA Championship match before falling to Stanford, the closest any VCU program has come to winning a national championship.
For all the victories, Kostin is still happier talking about the success his players have had off the court, guys who arrived from Europe with spotty English and left four years later with 4.0 GPAs, or guys like Boris Kodjoe, a blossoming Hollywood star, or someone like Fredrik Eliasson, now the chief financial officer at CSX.
“I’m proud of that. I’m proud of the way most of my kids have turned out to be after college, moreso than wins and losses. If somebody asked me right now how many wins and losses of the players, I barely know how many wins Max [Wennakoski] has and he’s playing right now. I feel that you have to keep on getting better, and this is a game. This is not life-breaking stuff.”
Eliasson was Kostin’s first VCU recruit and recalled the coach’s direct, but substantive ideas for the program.
“He understood that there was more to life than what was on the court,” Eliasson, who won 99 singles matches at VCU, said. “I heard the right things about between playing tennis and school that were very important to me.”
From the day he signed Eliasson in 1990, Kostin raised the level of VCU’s recruiting to that of a top 25 program. With deep ties all over Europe, the VCU Coach is able to tap into any number of tennis hotbeds. But Kostin has resisted the thought of stocking his rosters with a bunch of mercenaries. He wants players who are as serious about school as they are the hardcourt.
“I’m not really recruiting those guys that want to be tennis professionals,” Kostin said. “From day one, I said if you’re going to just use the system and play tennis, you might as well stay and play at home. This is not the place for it. If they’re going to come here, I want to see them leave here with something to remember, something to help their future, a degree. Because at the end of the day, not many are going to make it out there [in professional tennis].”
That didn’t mean Kostin was a pushover on the court. You don’t win 1,000 times because just because you like spending your afternoons in the sun. Paul Kostin does not like to lose.
On the contrary, the VCU Coach sees tennis as a tool for teaching life lessons. If players can master the skills necessary to succeed in tennis, they can use those skills for the rest of their life.
“I think that individual accountability that comes to mind,” Eliasson said when asked which of Kostin’s teachings still resonate. “If you take care of what you need to take care of on and off the court you will succeed. That’s where it all starts. He’s certainly accountable to you. If you ask him to be somewhere for you, I don’t think I’ve ever heard him say no.”
Kostin, who can be both funny and fiery, says he’s mellowed over the years, but don’t expect him to slow down too much. Five years ago, he suffered a small heart attack while playing tennis that required two stents to unblock and artery. Afterwards, he found out he liked being coddled about as much as he likes coddling others.
“The worst thing about it was everybody was telling me to take it easy,” he said. “I felt like when I started to take it easy, I started feeling worse.”
While he remains active and watches his diet, there’s only so much VCU’s 1,000-win man can pump the brakes. It’s not in his DNA, which is why Kostin sounds like a man who plans on coaching for a long time.
“So far, I still like what I’m doing,” he said. “I feel I’m going to keep on doing it until I see, hey, I’ve had enough, or I cannot do a good job anymore, and I would like to finish on my own terms. When I started this job as a coach, I never thought in my wildest dreams I’d be hanging around 32 years later. I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve been able to do something I enjoy doing, and I’m loving what I’m doing.”