Second-year coach Gordie Ernst has found his true calling with the Penn men's tennis team. Call Penn men's tennis coach Gordie Ernst on the phone and you might be surprised at who answers on the other end. It just might be Isabella. Who is Isabella? His Himalayan. Give Ernst a chance -- after Isabella has meowed into the receiver that is -- and he just might launch into a monologue about the unconditional love his cat provides. "She doesn't hold a grudge, she isn't sensitive [and] she can handle loss," Ernst said. How does that make her special to Ernst? "She's not like any of my players." That's Ernst in a nutshell. Funny and irreverent, he always seems to be two steps ahead of you. And while these days he only jousts verbally, in his younger days he competed physically as well -- on both dry land and ice. He may be known for his tennis ability now, but as a senior at Cranston East High School in Rhode Island, Ernst was picked in the 10th round of the NHL draft by the Minnesota North Stars, who have since moved to Dallas. Choosing to pass up the uncertainty of life as a minor league hockey player, Ernst instead headed for Brown, where he played both tennis and hockey for the Bears. While playing two sports at the same time might seem like a difficult balance for most people, Ernst handled both with aplomb. At its peak, the Brown men's tennis team on which Ernst played reached a national ranking of No. 22. Deciding to close the books on his hockey career, Ernst chose to concentrate solely on tennis after graduation, turning pro and joining the satellite circuit. After three years trying to hack it on the pro tour, Ernst changed directions and made a career move many Ivy League graduates can identify with -- he moved to New York and took a job at Lehman Brothers. You can remove the man from sport, but you cannot, however, remove the sport from the man. In March 1997, Ernst left Wall Street to go work at Saddlebrook, a tennis club in Florida. After a brief stint as an assistant coach at Northwestern, he took the head job at Penn in June 1998. "Sports are part of who Gordie is and every day he was just getting more and more miserable just sitting at a desk," Ernst's wife Lisa said. "We had a lot of discussions about what he wanted to do and he decided that was coach." While the transition from the cutthroat world of Lehman Brothers to the more relaxed world of the Levy Tennis Pavilion may seem drastic, Ernst had the guiding examples of those around him -- specifically the Farrelly brothers of There's Something About Mary fame, with whom he grew up. "Bobby Farrelly is someone I used to think about a lot because I remember going and staying with him in L.A. and he was getting nowhere," Ernst recalled. "I remember questioning what he was doing and he said he was doing what he wanted and he was going to make it. "I knew that was how I needed to be. It just took me longer to figure out what I wanted." But, once he figured out what he wanted -- namely coaching -- he found his true calling. Ernst is loved as both a mentor and a friend by every one of his players. He has the rare ability to combine being a confidant with being a coach -- without losing any of the respect due him as an authority figure. "Gordie is a player's coach," former Penn assistant coach Whitney Springstead said. "He can relate to them but he also demands -- and receives -- their respect." As Ernst has done so often in the past, he quickly adjusted to life as a head coach. Less than two years into his tenure at Penn, Ernst and Lisa have made a home for themselves, and for their players, in Philadelphia. Ernst's father was his hockey coach growing up in Rhode Island and Ernst now brings that same familial approach to coaching at Penn. "Gordie makes everyone feel welcome," College sophomore Brian Barki said. "For instance with me, he'll talk to me in Chinese to make me feel more at home." On the occasions when Ernst isn't making the team feel more like family, Lisa is. The team's staunchest supporter, she can often be seen on the sidelines during practices and games wielding a batch of homemade cookies. "Lisa makes the the best cookies that I have ever had," Penn senior co-captain Brett Meringoff said. "She loves the team as much as anyone else and it's great to have her support -- and her cooking." That support is something the Quakers look forward to having for a very long time. "It's really a rare occurrence that you get both a great guy and a great coach," junior co-captain Eric Sobotka said. "I really can't think of any other coach that I would rather play for."Comments powered by Disqus
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