Marty Dowd: Supreme Gentleman, Catholic University Treasure

Marty Dowd: Supreme Gentleman, Catholic University Treasure

By Chris McManes

Marty Dowd, for the better part of 60 years, was synonymous with men's tennis at Catholic University. He played here four seasons, was an assistant coach for one and head coach for 53. His coaching tenure is among the longest in NCAA history.

While directing the program from 1962-2015, Dowd won 60 percent of the more than 900 matches he coached. His 562 victories included 44 winning seasons. He retired a year after leading the Cardinals to the NCAA Tournament.

But to think of Dowd solely in terms of athletic accomplishments would leave the canvas of his life woefully incomplete.

"Looking back on my days playing for Marty, I've come to realize that he was really much more than a coach," said Doug Eby, a 1981 Catholic graduate and Hall of Famer. "His mentoring, which extended well off the court, made me a better person. I'll always be grateful to him."

Eby is among the more than 500 players Dowd coached.

"He taught me a lot of valuable life lessons and tips on how to treat people," said Juan Lorido, who played on Dowd's final two teams. "He definitely made me a better person and a better tennis player."

Dowd died in the early morning hours of Saturday March 2 at age 81. His life will be celebrated at the Church of the Resurrection in Burtonsville, Md., on March 26 at 10:30 a.m.

In speaking to people about Dowd, a portrait emerges of a funny, witty, caring man who loved his family and loved tennis. He was highly creative, knew how to bring out the best in others and made people feel good about themselves.

"Every time I was lucky enough to spend some time with Marty," Catholic baseball coach Ross Natoli said, "I walked away feeling like a million bucks."

The young men Dowd mentored aren't the only ones who benefitted from interacting with him. Coaches and staff alike were always welcome to pop into his DuFour Center office. And if you looked hard enough, you could even find a seat among the racquet stringing machine and tennis balls. Lots and lots of tennis balls.

No matter the unrest in the outside world, his advice was calm and reassuring.

"I loved visiting him in his office," said Mike Lonergan, who played and coached basketball for the Cardinals. "He had a great sense of humor and always made me laugh. He was a good man."

Natoli, in his 34th season heading the Catholic baseball program, said Dowd taught him a lot about coaching.

"He truly set a gold standard for how to coach, how to have a positive influence on players and how to keep those relationships for a lifetime," Natoli said. "He was always a positive influence on not just his teams and players, but on his fellow coaches. He was a big sounding board for a lot of us, especially the young coaches.

"He taught us how to be professional and to keep the best interests of your student-athletes at the forefront of everything you do."

Early Life

Martin M. Dowd was born in Washington, D.C., on April 18, 1937, the second of Michael and Margaret Dowd's five children. His younger brother, Kevin, recalls him as "an early mentor and hero for me growing up."

Kevin said Marty was "a superb natural athlete" who taught him how to play football, baseball, basketball and tennis.

"He also taught me the Latin responses when I became an altar boy," Kevin wrote in an email.

Perhaps more importantly to a teenage boy, Marty advised Kevin what to say on a first date: "Be sure to ask the mother what time she wanted her daughter brought home. That didn't work out too well when the mother replied, '9:30 would be good.'"

Former Catholic University Athletic Director Bob Talbot became friends with Dowd when they were in grade school. Talbot had a cousin who was classmates with Dowd at Nativity in Northwest Washington. She would invite Dowd to parties at her house on Kansas Ave.

"That really goes back, but I can still sit here and think about the parties," Talbot said. "My cousin had a little basement, and she would invite her friends. I got invited, of course, and that's where Marty and I met. We were in about the seventh or eighth grade."

Talbot pointed out one of the "connecting links" between him and Dowd and a few of their mutual friends, including former Cardinal women's basketball coach Jack Sullivan: "We were all sons of Irish cops."

Dowd went to high school at Mackin Catholic, while Talbot attended St. John's. They graduated in 1955. Their friendship really began to blossom as students at Catholic.

"We hooked up again as freshmen," said Talbot, who transferred to the university after a semester at St. Francis (Pa.). "We were friends pretty regularly from that point on."

While playing tennis for the Cardinals under Hall of Fame coach Bill Dorasavage, Dowd was a two-time captain and four-year letter winner. He led the club to a 27-3 (.900) record his final two years (1958-60), including an unbeaten 15-0 mark as a senior. Undefeated in doubles those two seasons, Dowd sported an overall record of 48-5 (.906). 

Dowd graduated in 1960 with a bachelor's degree in art, and like his older brother Michael, joined the United States Coast Guard. Marty served a year on active duty and then in the reserves. For 38 years, he worked as a medical illustrator at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

Dowd held veterans like Catholic Hall of Famers Stan Levy and Franny Murray in high regard: "All of the guys who fought in World War II are heroes," he said.

"Marty fits right in as a Tom Brokaw Greatest Generation-type [of] guy," Natoli said. "If he was a few years older, he would have been right there as a model of the Greatest Generation. He was special."

From Bachelor to Devoted Husband & Father

Dowd, after a year as an assistant, became Catholic's head tennis coach in 1962. Talbot was named baseball coach in the fall of 1963 and also coached freshman basketball. In 1963-64, they shared an apartment in nearby Chillum, Md.

As young bachelors, Talbot remembers them going to this "dumpy little place" on Connecticut Ave., on Tuesday nights because it had half-price beer. That wasn't the only attraction.

"The girls used to come because Tuesday was like girls night," Talbot said. "Martin and I would go down there and dance a little bit."

Talbot said through laughter that he and Dowd also enjoyed "checking out the freshmen coeds every year."

"He was such a big part of my early, premarital life," Talbot said. "It was fun because we both knew the same people from Catholic University. It was also fun meeting all the new coeds."

Once Dowd met a Catholic U. physical education teacher by the name of Jone Rastas, his days of living with Talbot were numbered.

"He started dating Jone in maybe '64 when we were still in the apartment," said Talbot before adding, "So, I think he was ready then to chuck me out. As a matter of fact, he used to give me a lecture about bringing anybody back to the apartment at night."

Jone (yo-nay) recalled how she and Marty met:

"One afternoon, I was going down to the tennis courts to hit with a colleague. Martin was there as well. Before I knew it, I was playing doubles with him. … We began to date soon after. He would give me tennis lessons, and in return I gave him dance lessons." 

The Dowds married in 1965. Years later, Natoli recalled them giving ballroom dance lessons to he and his wife (Nancy) in preparation for their wedding reception. Dana and Jennifer Dowd also assisted.

"Nancy and I took lessons from them to get ready for our first wedding dance," Natoli said. "Martin could trip the light fantastic with the best of them. He was a terrific dancer. When Jone was demonstrating, Martin was my dance partner. He would demonstrate with me or with my wife.

"It was really special."

Jone in the early 1960s established the women's athletics program at Catholic University. She was the first women's tennis and basketball coach, led the gymnastics team and directed the tennis program for 34 years She retired in 2008 as associate director of athletics and senior woman administrator.

Jone was inducted into the university's Athletics Hall of Fame in 1994, 20 years before her husband.

Jone and Marty were married for 53 years and raised four children: Dana, Michael, Jennifer and Tara. The girls played tennis at Catholic for their mom. Michael, a scholarship player at Division I George Washington, has coached in college and works as a tennis professional.

Dana is now in her 20th season coaching the Catholic women's tennis team her mom started. Collectively, Jone, Dana and Marty have coached tennis at Catholic over 105 years and amassed more than 1,000 victories. In 2015, the university christened the Jone and Martin Dowd Tennis Courts.

While most of us in the Athletics Department knew Marty as a friend and colleague, his children had a much closer relationship.

"I think of my dad as someone who was always there and ready to coach us through life all the time," Dana said. "And it was always simple, a piece of advice that wasn't judgmental."

Dana also remembers his "silent support."

"It took me a long time out of college to figure out what I wanted to do," she said. "I never, ever felt pressure from him to do anything in particular or that I was disappointing him. He was there to support me. When I think back, it was such a blessing."

Reunited at DuFour Center

Talbot and Dowd rekindled their professional relationship in 1992 when Talbot left as head of university admissions to become director of athletics. Talbot knew he could bounce ideas off Dowd and count on him for advice.

"It was good just to throw something at him and see what he thought," he said. "I always enjoyed that. He was pretty insightful, especially about the university and coaching."

Talbot also saw firsthand how Dowd treated people. 

"He was around long enough that he never dressed anybody down," he said. "He would just be as honest as he could, and most of the time he was positive. It was fun to have him there."

Dowd in 1992 was in his 30th year as tennis coach, all one-year contracts. One day, as a lark, he went in to talk to Talbot about getting a two-year deal. He said there was a long pause:

"Finally, Bob looked up and said, 'Sorry, we don't know you well enough.'"

A Renaissance Man

Catholic University's senior awards banquets were pretty routine in the late 1990s, early 2000s. Each coach would get up and extol the virtues of his or her soon-to-be graduates. One by one, syllable by syllable, the event would drag on and on. But people tended to stay because Dowd was the last coach to speak.

He would talk about his seniors within a standup comedy routine that was as good as anything you'd pay to hear. He had impeccable timing and knew how to pause to build anticipation. Whether it was at Chevy Chase Country Club or the Pryz, the crowd would be laughing hysterically.

"He could have had a career as a deadpan, standup comic," Natoli said. "Marty had that articulate, smooth delivery. Sometimes you kind of wondered where his presentation was going, but when he wrapped it up at the end, it was always with a bang.

"It was really the highlight of those long, drawn-out banquets."

The joke I most remember is when he explained the derivation of the word 'politics.' Not a big fan of politicians on either side of the aisle, Dowd wanted out-of-town guests to know exactly what politicians were.

"Politics comes from the words poly and ticks," he said. "Poly means many. Ticks are blood suckers."

"He was one of the funniest guys you'd ever meet," Talbot said. "And he was funny without ever laughing himself at what he said."

No one was immune from Dowd's comedic jabs, including himself. Just before coaching his final match, he said the most important thing he had to know once his team arrived for a road match.

"The first thing I have to know is where the men's room is," he quipped. "Once I know that, everything's OK."

Dowd was happy to play second fiddle to Lonergan at the 2001 banquet. On St. Patrick's Day that year, Lonergan led the men's basketball team to the only national championship in school history.

Dowd thought it was great when a Catholic U. team won a conference title, but to win an NCAA championship, he told me, was "amazing. This is a whole different level."

Lonergan, like many of his fellow Cardinal coaches, turned to Dowd to design team T-shirts, including the one celebrating the national championship. Dowd also drew a picture for Lonergan to commemorate his pinnacle achievement.

Dowd's artistic talent extended to the theatre. He designed five opera sets for the Catholic School of Music, including La Boheme in 1972.

"Marty was an institution at Catholic University," Lonergan said. "He touched a lot of lives and not just those fortunate enough to play for him."

Major Victories

Dowd's "two greatest moments" coaching the Cardinals came 35 years apart. In the fall of 1979, his team won the Capital Collegiate Conference championship.

Catholic competing in Division I at the time, had one athletic scholarship to divide among several players. George Washington and Howard had five scholarships, George Mason four.

The tournament title came down to a match between Peter Henderson of host Georgetown and the Cardinals' Doug Eby at No. 1 singles. Eby, one of four Catholic tennis players to win the Harris Cup, defeated a GW player in the semifinals.

In the final, Eby won the third set, 6-3, to give the Cardinals the improbable victory.

"Marty believed we could do it, but truth be told, I think we truly shocked him," said Eby, the founder and CEO of Cambridge Science Corp., outside Boston. "I will never forget the look on his face. Irish eyes were smiling that day.

"Even though he downplayed it, Marty liked to win, and we were thrilled to deliver a really big victory for him that day."

Mitch Landrieu, who served two terms as mayor of New Orleans, was also on that team.

Fast forward to 2014, and 12-8 Catholic traveled to Pennsylvania to face Juniata for the Landmark Conference championship. The Eagles (17-1) had downed the Cards, 6-3, in Washington, D.C., during the regular season. It was Catholic's first trip to the conference final since the league's first spring season (2008).

The match whittled down to No. 1 singles, where Lorido faced Landmark Rookie and Player of the Year Dean Polisena. The Australian had earlier in the season defeated Lorido in three sets. It was his only loss of the year in either singles or doubles.

Noticing that Lorido lost several overhead shots that day, Dowd worked on the stroke with his prized freshman from Miami's Belen Jesuit High School for seven weeks.

"Marty was aware of what I needed to fix," Lorido said. "He knew that I was a better player [than Polisena], but there was some stuff that I needed to work on. One of those things was my overhead, especially."

After edging Polisena, 7-6 (7-5), in the first set, Lorido thoroughly dominated him, 6-0, and was named tournament MVP.

"It was beautiful because Juan didn't miss," Dowd said. "He was just crushing the ball, and he was hitting that same spot. When you have a guy who hits the overhead as hard as he does – 120 to 130 miles an hour – it's tough for your opponent to think and react."

The win gave the Cardinals their first Landmark Conference championship and launched them to their first NCAA Tournament.

"I'd never seen Marty jump before, but I'm pretty sure he jumped up," said Lorido, who works as an account executive for Quirch Foods in South Florida. "It was pretty awesome, especially since he had been coaching for 50-plus years and had never been to the NCAA Tournament.

"Marty didn't show tons of emotion when we were playing, but after that win he was pretty darn happy."

A Coach for All Ages

One of the Dowd's hallmark coaching points was to maintain emotional control at all times. He believed his players should always perform on an even keel and not let frustration or anger get the best of them.

"That was his mantra. He taught us that from the beginning," Dana Dowd said. "He said being in control of your emotions is a part of tennis. The minute you see your opponent losing it, you know you're in control."

Dowd, twice named Capital Athletic Conference Coach of the Year, understood the mental aspect of tennis as well as anyone.

"When he saw I was having a bad day at practice, he would explain to me that negativity is not worth it. Especially in tennis, where it's a head game," Lorido said. "He taught me how to control my emotions, whether it's on a tennis court or not."

Talbot, who often played tennis with Dowd, never saw his lifelong friend lose his cool.

"His emotions stayed inside of him," he said. "He was super competitive, but he was one of those quiet, gentle guys. Sort of a quiet professional. You'd never see him have a temper tantrum like you sometimes see in tennis. If he missed a shot, he was quiet enough to figure out what he did wrong instead of yelling out.

"His personality was pretty much consistent throughout his life. He had the big picture in mind at all times."

Dowd was adept at instructing his players where to position themselves to counter specific shots. Talbot saw this firsthand when he played him, adding that Dowd did his best to help him become a better player.

"I think I was more athletic than Martin," said Talbot, who played basketball and baseball at Catholic, "but he analyzed the game enough that he was always where I hit the ball. He could just position himself [in the right spot to maximize his chance to win the point].

"He had that feel. It was very frustrating playing against him."

Eby remembers another one of Dowd's "favorite" coaching tenets: "Keep the ball in play." In other words, don't beat yourself.

"Most points in tennis are lost on unforced errors," Eby said. "Over the years, I have come to have great respect for that as a metaphor about so much in life."

Dowd was a firm believer that his players should always behave as gentlemen during play. No matter the score, exhibit good sportsmanship toward your opponent and accept the judgment of the official.

"He told all of his players, 'I expect you to act like gentlemen on the court,'" Dana said. "I don't want to look out there and know if you're winning or losing. I think they all respected that. It's one of the things they come back and say: 'He not only made me a great tennis player, he made me a great man.'"

Marty practiced what he preached.

"One thing I'm most proud of," he said just before retiring, "is that in 53 years, I've never used a four-letter word."

Natoli said the bar Dowd set "as a coach, as a teacher, as a mentor and a true gentleman" for the hundreds of young men he coached is nearly unattainable.

"I don't know if I've ever come close to the ultimate class guy he was," Natoli said. "He showed what a model coach is supposed to be about: Show your players that you care and that you want them to reach their full potential. And then mentor them to get there.

"He never changed. His qualities stood the test of time."

Game, Set, Match

Sometime during my tenure as Catholic's sports information director (1998-2001), I was working in my office one night when I heard Marty say, "Who's beautiful little girl is this?" A lot of staff members, then and now, bring their children to work, especially after business hours. So, I didn't know who he was talking about.

When I went out and saw that he was talking about my eldest daughter, Kasey, now 19, you can imagine how good it made me feel. As others have attested, Marty made you feel good about yourself.

"His heart was always in the right place," said Sean Sullivan, Catholic's director of athletics since November 2013. "I personally came away from any interaction with Marty feeling better, feeling happier. I imagine he did this for so many others as well."

When I asked Marty in 2015 how long he had been considering retirement, he said it just hit him that season. Coming off the Landmark championship, he was enthused to continue coaching.

"There were a lot of things, mostly dealing with aging," he said. "I'm getting more forgetful. So, I think it's time for me to head in another direction."

On March 2, 2019, Our Lord called Marty in the direction of heaven. Following the purging of his soul, he will be reunited with his parents and his brother, Michael. As sad as we may be now, he wants us to smile, to be happy, to love God, to care for our families, and to use our talents to make the world a kinder, gentler place.

Rest in peace, my friend.

Chris McManes (mick-maynz) is a sports researcher and consultant to the Catholic University Department of Athletics. He has been writing about Marty Dowd and his family for more than 30 years.