Steve Wilkinson – A Visionary for Sportsmanship

Steve Wilkinson, Gustavus Adolphus College
Steve Wilkinson with the sculpture of Nicholas Legeros, dedicated to Wilkinson in 2004. (photo courtesy of Gustavus Adolphus College)

Walking around the Gustavus Tennis Complex and Swanson Tennis Center at Gustavus Adolphus College, you’ll immediately find a presence of history. 

In the winter, the outdoor courts are covered in snow, the windscreens removed, and a slight chill in the air. However, spring brings a whole new front. The tennis courts are vibrant, fans are present and you can feel the true college tennis atmosphere. 

One thing stands alone among the crowd – a bronze sculpture. It’s a sculpture of Nicholas Legeros, which was dedicated to Steve Wilkinson in 2004.

The sculpture shows a hurdling boy eclipsing the net and extending his arm to his opponent with a smile, a physical depiction of the sportsmanship, full effort and positive attitude that the Gustavus tennis program was built upon. The foreground of the statue is a Zen garden, a personification of the stillness of mind required to adhere to the three crowns.

“The sculpture begins with the three crowns, embodied in the essence of the boy,” Tommy Valentini, Gustavus Head Coach said. “The three crowns focus on things that are within our control.”

Now, turn and walk inside the Swanson Tennis Center. You’ll be immediately greeted by a plaque of a waving Steve Wilkinson. The teacher, coach, mentor, and visionary is defined by sportsmanship.

Beginning his coaching career in 1970, Steve Wilkinson coached the Gusties to 35 MIAC titles, 15 consecutive NCAA appearances, two NCAA Division III team titles and was honored as the national coach of the year five times. However, Wilkinson’s coaching success is defined by his refusal to focus on winning.

“It was a life changing experience to play for him,” said Valentini, a 2002 Gustavus graduate who played four years of varsity tennis. “When I played for him it was an incredibly freeing experience knowing that the players were not defined in terms of our results, but in terms of our pursuit of the three crowns.”

More impressive is the fact that Wilkinson is the all-time winningest coach in NCAA tennis history with 923 career wins, more than any coach in Division I, II or III. 

“He’s become the winningest coach in college tennis without having the primary goal being winning,” Valentini said.

Steve believed the Gustavus tennis complex could become a reality and, primarily through his efforts, it is one of the finest tennis facilities in the United States. He did not envision this just as a tennis facility, but a place where lives could be transformed through the sport of tennis and its life lessons.

As the governing body of collegiate tennis, the Intercollegiate Tennis Association knew it was right to dedicate a sportsmanship award to the memory of the legend. The award is presented to the team that has displayed exceptional sportsmanship, character, and ethical conduct in the true spirit of competition and college tennis during the ITA Division III National Men’s Team Indoor Championship each year. 2020 marks the sixth year for the Steve Wilkinson Team Sportsmanship Award.

The Gusties will take home the award for the second year in a row in 2020. 

The award is a true testament to the great work going on across Division III tennis. Coach Wilkinson was a true force of change to help the National Team Indoor Championship become one of the most prestigious and premier events in the sport. 

It is clear that the dream of the three crowns will live forever through the memory and dedication of Coach Wilkinson. The sportsmanship award is yet another inspiring source for student-athletes to continue that process.

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College Tennis Alumni Network


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