By Chris McManes
WASHINGTON, D.C. - How long has Marty Dowd been head men’s tennis coach at Catholic University? The man who hired him, Eddie LaFond, is better known as the Cardinals’ boxing coach, a sport not seen on campus since 1954.
After graduating from Washington’s Mackin Catholic High School a year later, Dowd enrolled at CUA and is this season concluding his 53rd year as head coach.
Dowd, who has coached more than 900 matches and over 500 players, has announced his retirement after serving as the Cardinals’ leader since 1962. Ranking among the longest-tenured coaches in NCAA history, he will coach his final regular-season match Saturday at home against the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. Play begins at 11 a.m.
It will also be his 78th birthday.
“For over 50 years, Coach Dowd has positively contributed to CUA athletics in immeasurable ways,” CUA Director of Athletics Sean Sullivan said. “Though we can immediately picture him as a graduate and fantastic former Cardinal student-athlete, and relish how he is one of our very own, it’s his thoughtful mentorship of countless Catholic University tennis players that truly stands out.”
Dowd enters Saturday’s home finale with a career record of 550-366 (.600). He has produced 44 winning seasons and was in January 2014 inducted into the CUA Hall of Fame. Last spring, he led his team to the Landmark Conference championship and first NCAA Tournament appearance.
A fierce competitor with a remarkably witty sense of humor, Dowd admits that aging has finally caught up with him. “I’m getting more forgetful and other things,” he said. “So I think it’s time for me to head in another direction.”
Dowd also says some of the long road trips his team takes is also wearing on him.
“After we arrive, the first thing I have to know is where the men’s room is,” he quips. “Once I know that, everything’s OK. We’re ready to play.”
One of the things Dowd will never forget is when he guided the Cardinals to a 1979 conference championship final victory over powerhouse George Washington. CUA, an NCAA Division III school since 1981, was competing in Division I at the time. Cardinal Hall of Famer Doug Eby ’81 punctuated the triumph over the Colonials by winning at No. 1 singles.
“We had one [athletic] scholarship, GW had five,” Dowd recalled. “Howard had five, George Mason had four, and I think American had four. They were scholarship-heavy teams, and we just weren’t expected to win.”
Dowd ranks last year’s conference title right up there with the victory over GW, calling them “my two greatest moments.” The Cards were not expected to win at league stalwart Juniata, which entered with a record of 17-1.
“This conference championship, I felt the same way,” he said. “When I walked on the court to coach in the critical time [of the match], I didn’t have any feeling in my legs. I’m walking out there to give them advice, and I’m thinking, ‘I wish I could feel my legs … and don’t fall on your face.’”
Coaching & Talent: A Winning Combination
The 2013-14 Cardinals won their final six Landmark matches to head into the four-team league tournament as the No. 2 seed. They dispatched Scranton 5-1, setting up what was supposed to be a coronation for top-seeded Juniata in Huntingdon, Pa. The Eagles had defeated the Cards 6-3 in the regular season.
“They were celebrating on the court before the match even started,” Dowd said. “I told my boys to let ’em know we’re going to give them some competition. It came down to the final match at No. 1 singles.”
Tied at 4, the decisive match pitted Dean Polisena against CUA’s top player, freshman Juan Lorido. Polisena had rallied to beat the Miami resident, 2-6, 6-4, 7-6, on the Cardinals’ home courts March 15. It was a different story when they met again 12 days later.
Dowd tapped his prodigious knowledge of the sport he has lived and breathed nearly all his life by working extensively on Lorido’s overhead shot. He estimated that his talented rookie missed seven to eight overheads against Polisena, the Landmark Rookie and Player of the Year.
“When you hit an overhead, it means you’re winning the point because it’s gotten to where your opponent throws up a lob,” Dowd said. “For you to lose seven points when you’ve literally won the point is mentally crushing. But he didn’t miss a single shot [in the final.]
“We practiced it every day. I told him, ‘we have to practice it so you don’t think about it, and then you’re going to hit them all to the same spot rather than hit them all over the court.’ He hit hundreds of them.”
Lorido got stronger as the match wore on and won in straight sets, 7-6 (7-5), 6-0. When the contest ended, it was CUA that was celebrating and heading to the NCAA playoffs. Lorido, undefeated in singles and doubles in the tournament, was named Most Valuable Player.
“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.”
Painting a Family Portrait
Dowd’s successful affiliation with the CUA tennis program spans across seven decades. Beginning in 1956, he has been associated with the team every year except 1961 when he was serving in the United States Coast Guard. Dowd was an assistant coach in 1962 and took over the program the following year.
While playing tennis for CUA, Dowd led the squad to a 27-3 (.900) record his final two years, including an unbeaten 15-0 mark as a senior. Undefeated in doubles those two seasons, he sported an overall record of 48-5 (.906). He graduated from CUA in 1960 with a bachelor’s degree in art and worked for 38 years at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center as a medical illustrator.
Dowd and his wife, Jone (yo-nay), who coached the Cardinal women’s tennis team until 1995 and started the women’s athletic program at the university, live in Burtonsville, Md. Their three daughters – Dana, Jennifer and Tara – played for Jone, also a CUA Hall of Famer. Dana is now in her 16th year as the university’s women’s tennis coach.
Son Michael was a scholarship player at George Washington and head coach at the University of Pennsylvania for 12 years. In February, he was hired to lead the men’s team at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y.
Marty Dowd earned victory No. 500 on March 9, 2010 when the Cardinals defeated Defiance College 6-3 on CUA’s annual spring break trip in Hilton Head, S.C. Many of his former players join the team at the beach resort each year.
Dowd still keeps in touch with players from his first team and delights in seeing the hundreds he has mentored having become accomplished professionals, fathers and grandfathers. His most well-known former player is New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu ’82, who also played on the team that defeated GW.
“Marty has always represented, and expected from others, the finest of values – sportsmanship, kindness, compassion and selflessness,” Sullivan said. “Couple that with an unmatched dedication to our department and his student-athletes, and you have a recipe for not only competitive success but the building of better young people.”
Dowd’s positive influence on others extends beyond those who served-and-volleyed for him. Mike Lonergan ’84, a former Cardinal basketball player and coach who is now head coach at George Washington, has always enjoyed spending time with the dean of Redbird coaches.
“Marty Dowd is an institution at CUA,” Lonergan said. “I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent with him and Jone during my 16 years there as a student and coach. Marty has a great sense of humor, and I loved visiting with him in the tennis office.
“He touched a lot of lives and not just those fortunate enough to play for him.”
Dowd, who claims to still get the jitters before every match, says he will miss the player/coach relationship the most. His club has to win Saturday to qualify for the Landmark Conference Tournament.
“It’s been a great ride,” he said. “I have absolutely no complaints.”
Dowd appreciates that Sullivan told him he could coach the team as long as he wanted.
“I don’t think any of his student-athletes and professional colleagues can step away from their relationship with Marty and not feel as though they have deeply benefitted from his tutelage and friendship,” Sullivan said.
“He is a giant within our campus community, and for all the right reasons.”
Chris McManes has been writing about Marty Dowd and his family’s accomplishments since 1986 and considers him one of the finest people he has ever known. He still has the tennis shoes Marty gave him too many years ago to remember.