Fresh out of Indiana State in 1969, an enthusiastic 23-year old took his first high school tennis coaching job at West Side.
On his first day, two kids showed up.
"It was a reality check," he said. "I had to get right into the trenches and start recruiting."
From that inglorious start, the Cougars went 10-6, a sign of things to come for Gary Hayes. In 33 seasons at West Side, Wirt, Lake Station, Griffith and Portage — none of them country club schools — his teams won more than they lost 31 times, accumulating 407 victories.
"I was never scared of taking a job, putting my name on the line, because I was afraid of failure," Hayes said. "My tennis situations were always based on basketball and with their economic standards, they didn't have tennis. At Wirt, we played at Marquette Park. Lake Station only had four courts. Kids became players without having the background."
Typical Hayes teams were comprised of athletes from other sports, notably baseball, whom he developed with hard work and an unyielding emphasis on fundamentals. He's long had a knack for forging successful doubles teams. His current 16-2 Portage squad, is no exception.
"I'm a stickler," Hayes said. "People think of it as a soft sport, but you'd be surprised how you can push tennis kids. I don't coach high school tennis like it's a tennis club. I make it very simple. High-percentage shots, high percentage of first serves, hit the ball cross court, move the ball around. It's not rocket science."
Among all of Hayes' teams, the 1984 Lake Station squad that went 18-1 and won the prestigious Highland Doubles tournament stands out.
"I started there from stone scratch," he said. "Drop the ball and hit it."
The team, which didn't lose a regular-season match in '83 and '84, was led by the duo of Bill Fazekas and John Dube.
"I can tell you this about Gary Hayes — he turned boys into men," said Fazekas, also a basketball player for Hayes. "The biggest compliment I can pay him is he was like a second father to me."
A Gary police officer for 23 years, Fazekas remembers his first 'encounter' with Hayes as a freshman.
"I was a teacher's pet, one of the top kids in my class, so I could get away with little stuff," Fazekas said. "I 'tried' Gary and he put me in my place, physically. I went home and told my dad. He came to practice the next day, shook Gary's hand, and told him if he ever had a problem with me, do it again. A lot of guys who got out of high school after I did, they all said, if it wasn't for Gary, they wouldn't have turned out like they did."
Hayes also posted 134 victories as Lake Station's girls coach from 1984 to 1997, when he coached three sports.
"So many coaches and kids want to specialize now," he said. "When I came out of college, I assumed I'd coach multiple sports."
Save for 2000 at Griffith, Hayes was out of tennis between 1998 and 2008 while coaching basketball at Purdue Calumet. He returned in 2009 when then-Portage athletic director Jeff Smith called him. His decision to get back into basketball — the 66-year old is the boys coach at Griffith — and the 50-minute drive from St. John is prompting him to step aside from tennis.
"If this is my last year coaching tennis, I couldn't go out with a better group," said Hayes, who's been assisted by long-time area instructor Joe White and former L.S. star Tom Gibson. "I had no idea they'd be as good as they are."
Valpo is the only DAC team Portage hasn't beaten under Hayes, and it'll likely be the Vikings who send him into tennis retirement today. This much is sure. It won't be without a fight. Against a Hayes team, it never is.
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