Lewison leads men’s tennis into final season

Erik Buchinger

Five years after his last match on the UW Oshkosh men’s tennis team as a player, James Lewison returned to his former school as the program’s new head coach. The UWO athletics website sent out a press release on Oct. 2 to announce Lewison replaced Daniel Bickett, who resigned in July and was hired as the UW-Green Bay men’s and women’s tennis coach in late August. “I took the job because I wanted to give back to the Oshkosh athletics,” Lewison said. “I played here for four years, and I still teach tennis in the summer. When it came along, I thought, ‘Why not? I have the time, and I have the motivation.’” Lewison played for Oshkosh from 2007-10 and compiled a 54-35 singles record and finished 31-30 in doubles play. Shortly after the athletic department announced Bickett’s resignation from UWO, Lewison sent an email to UW Oshkosh Director of Athletics Darryl Sims about the newly-open position. According to Lewison, the email was initially meant to be a joke. “I saw the article about Daniel Bickett leaving, and about two days after he resigned, I sent a bit of a sarcastic email to Darryl saying, ‘Oh, remember me? Maybe I can be the coach,’” Lewison said. “It was sort of meant to be funny, but he replied a day later saying, ‘How about you call me if you’re really interested.’” Lewison said he was not sure if he was qualified for the position with limited coaching experience. “I called and asked if he really thought I’m fit for the job because I’ve never coached a college team,” Lewison said. “I’ve only coached a high school team for a year.” After graduating from Oshkosh in 2010, in addition to coaching, Lewison began modeling and even auditioned for “America’s Next Top Model.” “After college, I had the opportunity to do some modeling, and I enjoyed it,” Lewison said. “Whenever someone asked, I would do it. I had the opportunity to audition for “America’s Next Top Model” and got really far in the process. It’s an interesting hobby that I didn’t really think I could do until someone asked. I’ve done that for a couple years but not much recently.” Lewison’s most recent coaching position came as an assistant at his alma mater, South Milwaukee High School. He also teaches private lessons to high school players in the summer. Lewison became the fourth head coach in the last four years for the UWO men’s tennis program. Junior tennis player Austin Laumb said the newest coaching transition has gone well so far. “It’s a little different because you have to keep adjusting to a new coach,” Laumb said. “Every coach has a different style in mind and different ways they want you to play. Each one has different strategies including how they run the practices and how they run the team. It takes a while to get used to that, but so far it seems to be going pretty well.” Laumb said he has enjoyed Lewison’s coaching style compared to his former coach so far. “Bickett would get upset a lot easier,” Laumb said. “He wasn’t really open to our opinions or anything like that. This coach is very open to us and willing to accommodate us as much as possible. He’s pretty cool. We have only had just one tournament with him, but so far he’s been pretty awesome. He’s a good player and knows what he’s talking about.” Lewison has had limited time with his new team, as he was hired a week before the ITA Midwest Regional, a preseason tournament in Minnesota on Oct. 2-4. “I was pleased,” Lewison said. “I actually expected them to do worse. I know that’s a horrible thing to say. For the first tournament, I think they’ve been working hard before I even got here. They’re doing their job in the fall to be prepared for the actual season.” Living in Milwaukee, Lewison drives back and forth to Oshkosh during the fall but will stay in Oshkosh from January until April for the regular season. Lewison’s former head coach at UWO, Steve Francour, said he was excited when he heard the news that his former player had been hired. “I think [Lewison] will do a really good job,” Francour said. “He was one of the best players I’ve had over the last 15 years. He knows the game, and he’ll be able to help the players get better. That’s what you’re looking for in a coach.” Lewison reached out to Francour with questions about the position through email. “[Francour] has been really helpful, and it’s great because I remember him being super helpful when I was a player, even though we didn’t talk much because I was a bit shy and reserved,” Lewison said. “I had some questions about how to really motivate the team knowing that it’s the final season.” Francour spent 23 years as the head coach of the UWO men’s and women’s tennis teams before taking the same position at Lawrence University in 2013. He offered his advice to coaching the UWO men’s tennis program, which is set to end following the academic year along with men’s soccer. “I told him to make sure to provide a really good experience for the players if this is the last season,” Francour said. “You want them, regardless of what is in the future, to have a good time playing and do the best they can.” Lewison said he will seek out opportunities to continue the men’s tennis program. “Obviously for me, the No. 1 priority is to try to think of ways to keep the tennis program going at Oshkosh and hopefully staying as the coach for more years even though it’s set to end at the end of this season,” Lewison said. Lewison said he wants to create a fun atmosphere in what could be the team’s final year. “I want the team to challenge each other and have a lot of fun,” Lewison said. “I’m already trying to think of things to do once it gets warmer and we have March matches at home, like grilling out and incorporating a lot of fun things like music.” Francour said he was proud to take over as the head coach of the tennis team that he played for, which Lewison is in the process of doing. “It’s an honor because as a player, you realize what it took to be good and now to have that ability to share your experience as a player and try to pass it on to those who are looking to play. It’s a great thing to be able to do,” Francour said. “I was very honored to take over for the coach that had coached me.” Lewison said he is still getting used to his role as a coach, not a player. “It’s weird in a way because as a player, I was really competitive and really quiet,” Lewison said. “I’d say I wasn’t really coachable. I stuck with my own routine, so to be on the opposite side of things watching everyone play, I actually feel more nervous than when I actually was playing because I just want everyone to do so well.” According to Lewison, he still looks at himself as a player and will not ease up when facing his new players during practices. “I’m still in that player mindset,” Lewison said. “Even when I came in, I said ‘If you guys want to hit with me, I want to make sure you know that I’m here to win. I’m not here to consider your feelings. I mean, I’ll offer some Kleenex when I beat you.’” Lewison said his hope is to make an impact on his players’ lives and continue their relationships for many years just like Francour did. “I’m hoping to make long-term bonds with the players and make sure they have the relationship that I have with Coach Francour,” Lewison said. “I never thought I would be still talking to him even though he’s an awesome person, but five years later, we still do. That’s how I hope the players view me when they leave college.” In order for that to happen, Lewison said he needs to do all that he can to keep the program going. “I know that it’s a very difficult situation, but I think there’s still an opportunity there for me as a coach to motivate the players to step up and say, ‘We don’t want the program to end,’” Lewison said. “We’re not going to riot or anything like that, but we’re going to fight for it and get the community involved and hopefully get some sort of change to happen.” Lewison said he wants to get the players more involved in trying to save the team. “I think it’s important for the players to step up because there’s a lot of players who have years that they can play, so we have to try to change the minds of the athletic department,” Lewison said. “I think being the coach, I can really help with that.” Lewison said he is unsure of his future if this is the final season of UWO men’s tennis. “I’m sort of a person that lives in the moment,” Lewison said. “I do have goals, and I hope that I can continue to coach and find work in sports, which I have been able to in the last few years. But I don’t really have any definite plans. I live day by day.”