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You Must Remember This: Myron McNamara...UCI tennis coach, bomber pilot 

By NANCY GARDNER

An anteater as a mascot? No football? What was this newly established branch of the University of California thinking? Zot! It was thinking it was going to be an amazing institution with schools and departments among the best in the world, and not just in academics. It might be eschewing football, but it wasn’t ignoring sports. In 1970, only five years after being established, UCI won the first of six men’s tennis NCAA Division II titles – 1970 through 1973, 1975 and 1977 with runner-up positions in 1974 and 1976 – all under one coach. Zot, zot! The man who led the team to this proud record was Myron McNamara, one of a number of outstanding athletic leaders in those early years. Like many coaches, Myron had been a player himself, playing in the Junior Davis Cup alongside Jack Kramer and for USC, always strong in the sport. An injury cut short his playing career, but not his enthusiasm which led him to coaching, and not just at the college level. He brought along a number of young players, most notably Keri Phebus, who was the top ranked junior girl while a student at CdM High and went on to become the first UCLA player to win the national singles title, winning the doubles that year as well. 

You Must remember UCI Anteater

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Courtesy of ucirvinesports.com

Peter the Anteater, UCI Irvine’s mascot...zot

Like all good coaches, Myron wasn’t just knowledgeable about the sport. He was a great motivator, and he coupled this with high standards, standards which were tested when he was lured from UCI to coach at Arizona, where he had the misfortune to have Brad Gilbert on the squad. If you follow tennis, you know Gilbert as someone who has coached some of the biggest names in the sport, including Andre Agassi and Andy Murray. You also know him as an astute and engaging television commentator. However, during his playing days he was probably the most disliked player at any level. John McEnroe was so disgusted during one match that he screamed, “You don’t belong on the same court as me!”  Admittedly, it didn’t take much to rile Johnny Mac, but Gilbert was known for both his gamesmanship and his bad calls. It was the latter that particularly upset Myron. During their very first match as player and coach, Gilbert called a ball out that was in by several inches. When Myron pointed out the mark, Gilbert refused to change the call. It was not the beginning of a happy relationship, fortunately for UCI. Myron ended up returning to his former school where he assisted a new generation of players to success. Although he is no longer with us, his contribution to the school is by no means forgotten. He was elected to UCI’s athletic hall of fame in 1997, and the Myron McNamara Memorial was established in his honor, providing undergraduate student support for the tennis team.

Myron’s life wasn’t just tennis. Like so many athletes of his generation, he served in WWII. I don’t know what particular military role tennis prepares you for, but my first guess wouldn’t be bomber pilot, and yet that was what he did, flying 31 missions over Germany and receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross.  Dealing with troublesome athletes must seem pretty minor after you’ve been through that.

I met Myron when he recruited me for the UCI women’s tennis team. I was not an obvious candidate. I had graduated from college, gotten married, had a child, gotten divorced. What to do? Go back to school, of course. Thanks to good grades as an undergraduate, despite the time away I was accepted at UCI’s graduate school of English. In signing up for my classes, I noticed the athletic department offered tennis which I had started to play a few years before, so I signed up. The first day of class, two women and a rather jaunty gentleman arrived. The gentleman was Myron. He addressed our recreational tennis class:  Would any of us like to play for the women’s tennis team? Not try out for. Play for. This suggested a level of desperation, like a school that needed some women’s sports to meet Title IX requirements, but it sounded like fun, so I raised my hand, and without anyone seeing me hit a stroke became part of the team.

The two women that had accompanied him were our actual coaches. Myron’s role ended with my recruitment. You might wonder how his recruit did. I was bounced from the team after one match – not because of poor play, I hasten to add. My partner and I won our rounds. It was because I was a graduate student. At least that was the official reason. I suspect it was the glass of wine I had at the first team dinner. Maybe not the example the coaches wanted for the rest of the team, who were not only undergraduate but under age. So, a short career, but still...thanks to Myron McNamara, I can say I was a college player, even if I don’t play like one. 

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Nancy Gardner, former Mayor of Newport Beach, longtime resident and daughter of Judge Robert Gardner, is a regular contributor to Stu News Newport.