When Bryan Shelton earned a scholarship to Tech in 1985, he could hardly have imagined his career would come full circle the way it has. He was an All-American in 1988 and was elected to the Tech Hall of Fame in 1993.
Despite his stellar career as a player, it is hard to overlook his coaching record at Tech. As the head coach of the women’s tennis team since July 1999, Shelton’s tenure has been filled with “firsts,” including the first team NCAA championship for Tech, which the women’s tennis team won in 2007.
Shelton’s impact on this program has been hard to measure. He has helped developed players that are hungry and want to get better.
Playing Career: Shelton’s career at Tech started in 1985 and immediately took off. Shelton was named All-ACC as a freshman and won the U.S. Amateur Championship in the same year. He also managed to win the 1985 ACC Championship in singles and followed that with doubles titles in 1986.
Shelton broke through on the professional scene in 1991 with a singles title at the Hall of Fame Championships in Newport, R.I. Shelton would follow that up with a successful defense of his title in 1992.
In 1994, Shelton would make the fourth round of Wimbledon before losing to Christian Bergstrom in five sets, losing 10-8 in the fifth. “I lost nine matches in a row … my tenth time out was at Wimbledon, and I ended up making it to the round of 16 and beat the No. 2 player in the world [Michael Stich]. I went from losing nine times in a row to all of a sudden being on top of the world,” said Shelton.
Shelton was fortunate enough to play at a time when American tennis was at its height. Pete Sampras and André Agassi dominated the game. Shelton was also fortunate enough to play against Sampras. “He was one of those guys that wouldn’t beat you really badly. He would let you stay in the match for a while and then, once you get down to the end of the set, he’d break you and then hold serve, and that was the set,” Shelton said.
Coaching Career: In 1999, Shelton would take over the reins at Tech from Sue Hutchinson. “This was my home base. It’s special to be able to be back here at Georgia Tech. I’d had such great memories coming through the first time as a student athlete, and then to be back now as the coach on the other side, I think it’s meaningful,” Shelton said.
With the same talent as the previous administration, Shelton was able to win more conference games and finish in the top 30 of the team rankings. That was good enough for the Jackets to make their first NCAA tournament.
Shelton’s third year, 2002, was a step forward for the program. “I think we realized that we weren’t going to win a championship our first two years, but we were going to work towards something and not sacrifice today for our future,” Shelton said.
Shelton was rewarded for his efforts in 2002 with an ACC Coach of the Year award, another first for Tech. Tech’s tennis performance was consistently good for the next two seasons, making the second round of the NCAA tournament each year.
Shelton’s Jackets bloomed in 2005 when he recruited Kristi Miller out of Michigan. Miller immediately made an impact on the program; she was named the 2005 ACC Rookie of the Year. She finished the year 42-11 in singles and 29-13 in doubles. That year, Tech would go to the ACC tournament and break through Florida State, North Carolina and Miami for their first of three straight conference titles. They would also finish that season ranked in the top 10 for the first time in history.
In 2007, the Jackets started the spring season at the ITA Indoor Nationals, where the Jackets ended Stanford’s 89-match winning streak to capture the 2007 Indoor National Championship. “Our whole focus when we went into that first match, when we played Stanford, was if we could get them to the point where the match is tight. They had been winning easily, [and] we felt that would be a lot of pressure for any one or two players to try and bear on their own,” Shelton said.
Later that season, the Jackets would make a run through the championship bracket, winning six straight matches for the championship, the first in school history. “I think everybody’s mind was right and thinking about things that we could control and we were able to go into each match with just an unbelievable attitude. I think it really helped us when we got into the finals against UCLA,” Shelton said.
The Jackets would repeat in the 2008 Indoor Championships by beating Northwestern, a team that beat them 6-1 the week before in Atlanta. “What was really special about the indoor title this past year was that just two weeks prior we took a thumping by Northwestern at home….For us to turn it around and get the opportunity to play them again…we were fired up,” Shelton said.
Unfortunately, the Jackets wound up losing in the NCAA tournament to a hot Florida team. “On any given day, when you’ve got two teams that are as talented and as well prepared as we were and Florida was last year, anything can happen.… We were still able to walk away with our heads held high, knowing that we lost to a team that had just played better than us on that day,” Shelton said.
Recruiting: Shelton’s success has paid dividends in recruiting as well. In 2004, Shelton’s class had two five-star recruits (Miller, Whitney McCray). Every year since, Shelton has been able to recruit at least one five-star. In 2005, Christy Striplin, 2008’s only senior, joined the program. “I contacted Coach Shelton when I saw that Tech had just entered the top 10 in the rankings. I wanted to be a part of a program that…had a chance to go somewhere and possibly win a national championship,” Striplin said.
Kirsten Flower, Amanda McDowell and Amanda Craddock (2006), Tech’s highest ranked recruiting class, followed the 2005 recruiting class. Noelle Hickey, Hillary Davis and Irina Falconi followed in 2007 and 2008.
Of course, being an alumnus has not hurt Shelton’s recruiting strategy. “I certainly sell the fact that I went to school at Tech and I went on to have a professional career in tennis….When they see a model of somebody who has done it before them, it is a little bit easier to imagine themselves doing it,” Shelton said.
Unfortunately for Tech, recruiting does not always work to the Jackets’ advantage. After their championship run in 2007, Craddock decided to go professional. Following the 2008 season, Kirsten Flower and Maya Johansson transferred to Ohio State and UCLA, respectively. “Through the recruiting process it’s important that you lay all of your cards on the table and hopefully they’ll do the same. And if you offer a scholarship and they accept, then hopefully you’re on the same page. And occasionally you’re not. You think you are, but you’re not,” Shelton said.
Old or new, Shelton knows the players in his program are only going to get better. At the same time, he knows how important teamwork is and how important hard work is. “Our team, the last couple of years, has been really deep. Our number-six player, in practice, can beat our number-one player. We’ve had to sacrifice a lot for the team,” Striplin said.
Lessons and Skills: Shelton came to Tech with a plan and has successfully enacted it. When he joined, the Jackets were a below-average team. Shelton started by making sure the team was physically fit, getting better each day and bought into his coaching philosophy. “When you win a title, it’s not one player that wins it. It’s not one or two players that get you over the hump. It’s a team effort, trying to encourage building that team philosophy and building the chemistry amongst the team,” Shelton said.
On the court, Shelton tries to encourage his players to use some of the same strategies that he did as a player. “The first thing is the work ethic: that’s the thing that I certainly want to pass on. As a player, I was someone that always put in the extra time and extra effort and did a lot of the things that other players weren’t willing to do,” Shelton said.
Shelton also knows how important the strengths of his game are, and how important they are going to be to the players on Tech’s team. “My serve was something that stood out in my game….Developing a server’s mentality on the tennis court is something I try to instill in our players and also develop their technique so that they can do different things when they’re serving,” Shelton said.
But if there was just one message that Shelton could get across to his players, it is the value of hard work and knowing how important that will be to their playing careers as well as their future. “If you continue to work hard and continue to do the right things, eventually good things will happen. I think that’s the message that I always want to get across to our young players,” Shelton said.