For three-plus decades, Tech’s tennis coaches have been inseparable—on the court and off
Over the past 12 years, Kenny Thorne, IE 89, and Bryan Shelton, IE 90, have coached Tech’s men’s and women’s tennis teams, respectively. They have built a tennis program into one of the best in the nation. The teams have claimed multiple ACC championships, and in 2007 Shelton led the women’s squad to an NCAA championship. Both coaches have been recognized as ITA coach of the year. But their bond stretches far beyond their coaching days.
It goes back farther than their time playing on the pro tour together, notching wins against the likes of Andre Agassi and Todd Martin. It goes back farther even than the duo’s four years together as Tech students, when both were All-American tennis players. It goes back to when they were both teenagers, to a tennis camp in Huntsville, Ala. It was there that a friendship formed and two lives unknowingly moved onto the same track.
Thorne and Shelton recently spoke with the Alumni Magazine about their friendship and work at Tech.
Thorne: We go way back, to the juniors when I was just turning 15. I lived in Florence, Ala., which was just more than an hour away from Huntsville, where Brian lived. He was taking lessons from this coach there who was very good. The coach invited me to come live with him. That’s where we first met.
Shelton: I recall I had seen him at a sectional tournament when we were younger and he was living in Hot Springs, Ark. He was playing doubles with this guy named Brad Everly. Was it Everly?
Thorne: Yeah, Everly. Bryan’s memory’s better than mine still.
Shelton: They were one of the best teams in the Southeast. So when he moved to Alabama, I vividly remember thinking, “All right, this is another guy who’s going to push me, and we’re going to push each other. It’s going to be a good thing.”
Thorne: You want to be the best, even at that age. Fortunately we had a coach that—it was more about surviving him, so we bonded. There was a rivalry. He wanted to beat me and I wanted to beat him. But we wanted to beat everybody else, too.
What was the worst thing the coach did?
Thorne: [Laughs.] That’s not legal to say.
Shelton: He was a perfectionist. He expected the most out of everybody every single day. If he came in that door and you were sitting down and weren’t doing something constructive, he would chew you out. He wasn’t shy about using whatever words to get the message across. He didn’t like mistakes. He didn’t like to tell you the same thing twice. It was a military compound.
Thorne: The tennis court was a library, he said. You were constantly studying and constantly working. Coach Bill Tym is his name. For two years, it was tennis and sleep. And not much sleep.
Shelton: It was sink or swim. You’re either going to survive and get tougher or you’re going to get out. We saw a lot of kids come into the program and fall out.
Do you keep in touch with Coach Tym?
Shelton: I do. He’s had a profound effect on our lives—somebody who’s kind of a father figure.
Thorne: His passion for tennis has stayed the same, and that’s something that coaches need. It’s something he instilled in us, a love for trying to understand the game—the frustrating parts, the exciting parts.
At that point, between you two, who was the better player?
Thorne: [Bryan] was.
Shelton: I remember playing a tournament in Huntsville, and we were playing in the 16-and-under division and 18 and under. We made the finals of the 16s and the 18s. In the morning we played the finals of the 16s and in the afternoon we came back and played the finals in the 18s. I won one and he won one.
Thorne: Have you seen the movie Brian’s Song? Brian Piccolo was the guy always trying to catch up to Gale Sayers. And I felt like Brian Piccolo. I would go out, early in the morning, and see him out there, already working on his serve. And I’d think, “OK, I need to get out there.”
Thorne: I moved when I was 16 up to Richmond, Va., for my junior, senior years. Bryan was still in Huntsville. We started to take recruiting trips together.
Shelton: Georgia Tech came up really late. I was contacted by the coach at the time, Gery Groslimond, and he went after both of us.
Thorne: I was looking to get into some type of engineering. Academically and tennis-wise [Tech] seemed like one of the better fits.
Shelton: The team at the time here was really weak. But we felt like great things could happen. Kenny and I, and there was Andre Simm from Miami—the three of us decided to come together. We thought we had a shot at not just developing as players but building something from the ground up.
When you came, was that still in the days of “Look to your right, look to your left”?
Thorne: That was our orientation speech, and we were sitting right next to each other. [We wondered,] “Which one of us isn’t still going to be here?” That first semester, the professors just tested you to see if they could break you down. We could’ve had better GPAs, but we worked through it.
Shelton: I remember our first class was calculus.
Thorne: Are you going to mention his name? Don’t do it.
Shelton: Oh, man, professor [Bill] Ames. He was head of the math department. We were in Calc One. We walked in that class for the first time, and after five minutes, we looked at each other and said, “We’re in the wrong class.” We walked out of the classroom.
Thorne: We left.
Shelton: We went to see our academic adviser.
Thorne: We definitely weren’t in the right class.
Shelton: You know how that ended. “Get right back in there, because that’s your class, and you’d better figure it out.” A couple of weeks later, we went in to talk to [professor Ames] about missing an exam and see when we could make it up. He gave us a lecture like something Bill Tym would say. He had to make up an exam for a couple of little freshmen? We just crawled out of his office.
When did you first see signs that you were going to have success here?
Thorne: I saw it in Bryan right away. His first year he came in and won the ACC tournament, which is extremely difficult to win [even] as a senior. His leadership on that team showed us, OK, it’s a team that’s going to be extremely dangerous.
Shelton: When you have a number one player who’s winning, it brings everyone up. You say, “I can do it too.”
Were there challenges for you in tennis?
Thorne: I had numerous injuries. We were trying to figure out which match I was going to play or if it would be better for me to sit out and get healthy.
Shelton: My freshman year I had a lot of success. Well, my sophomore year and my junior year I didn’t have any success on the court. I lost my confidence. You feel like you’re on top of the world, and the next year you go to the cafeteria and you’re sitting by yourself. I’d come out early, I’d stay late. Fortunately, some of that paid off in my final year where I got back on track. I remember Kenny being hurt through a lot. But the most amazing thing was that he could miss practice for three weeks, and Coach would just put him out there even when he wasn’t 100 percent, and he’d go out and beat some of the best players in the country. To me, it said a lot about who he was as a person and as a player.
How did you get out of that hole?
Shelton: Through that time, God was just showing me that I couldn’t do it on my own, that I don’t deserve anything. But if you stick with something and you work hard, you will get the rewards. Looking back, I wouldn’t trade it. I love the fact that I struggled for two years. I tell my players, “It’s so cool to get to the good stuff after the struggle.”
Thorne: No one who’s had success hasn’t struggled. Look at what Bryan did, and it’s a testament. He still came out and worked every day for two years.
What was your best moment as players at Tech?
Shelton: I remember us beating Georgia in Athens our senior year.
Thorne: That’s what I was thinking. Absolutely.
Shelton: It had been 18 years since Georgia Tech had beaten Georgia.
Thorne: We both went on to the pro tour and won a lot of matches, but those times when you win as a team are just phenomenal. Instead of just you jumping around and maybe your mom and dad at home jumping around when you’re on the tour, it’s the whole team. To have that in tennis is not too common. The only chance you get is here in the college atmosphere.
Shelton: When you’re practicing together, you’re conditioning together, you’re going to classes together, traveling together, doing everything together, now you’re a team. That’s the great part of college tennis. Now the team is more important than you.
Did you stay close after graduating?
Shelton: Kenny got married shortly after graduation. He and his wife, Bridget, were living here in Atlanta. I was living in a condo nearby as well. We still played doubles together, trained together, hung out together. There weren’t too many gaps when we weren’t side by side, all these years. I’m 45. I’m a little older than he is.
Thorne: A lot older.
Shelton: I’ve got him by a month. Thirty-one of those years we’ve been pretty close. He stopped playing six months before I did. There was a little gap where he came back to work here and I was coaching for the USTA. And then he talked to me about coming in and interviewing for this position. We’ve been side by side ever since.
How did you both end up back at Tech?
Thorne: I came off the tour in 1997 and took an assistant coaching position. I was going to use my industrial engineering degree, and I’d started interviewing in that. The head coaching position came open right then, and until that happened, I had not even considered it. As soon as it did, it was like I opened my eyes. I could help these guys to do better than I did. And then it was one year later, they approached me and said, “The women’s coaching position is open, and do you have any suggestions?” I said, “Well, I’ve got one. And if you can make it happen, you’re going to have the best coach in all of women’s tennis by far.”
Shelton: I was looking at going into education. Kenny contacted me, and it had never been a thought that I’d be a collegiate tennis coach. I said, “What’s it going to hurt?” We met at the OK Cafe. Kenny was there and our athletic director at the time, Dave Braine. We sat and he talked about what he wanted to do to turn it into a top 20 program. They were super supportive of doing the things they needed to do to get the program to a higher level. So I accepted the offer. By the end of my first year, we lost our last match out at UCLA in the regional, and I told the team, “Now I know. This is exactly where I’m supposed to be.”
Thorne: I remember 2007, sitting in the stands, watching Bryan win the national title. It’s probably a little like him watching me be injured and come back and win and thinking, “Man, I wish I could do that.” I jumped down from the stands and gave him a hug. Just the sheer thrill of what had just happened was overwhelming. We both want another title. We want a title every year. At the same time, we want to make an impact on people. When we leave here, we want to have had the most positive impact on the players that came through here that we possibly can. That means not just taking care of tennis, but mentoring them as people. We watch them 10 years down the road. Are they good husbands? Are they good wives? Are they good parents to their kids?
Shelton: We’ve had the opportunity, because we’re so close, to feed off each other. I’ve often said that some of Kenny’s best coaching years, maybe results-wise, haven’t been his best years. But coaching-wise, I know it’s his best year ever. People get recognition when they’re winning. But 2007 for us was the culmination of the years leading up to 2007. I was with the team in the championship match and I was doing no coaching.
Thorne: That’s a great statement.
Shelton: I didn’t say much before the match started. I said nothing between the doubles matches and the singles matches. But as he was saying, there’s a consistency of commitment. When I come in at 6:30 in the morning, he’s down there hammering away. I’ve seen that for 12 years, but most people don’t get to see it. So this last year, he’s national coach of the year, and I’m like, “Yes! I know he is! I see it every day!” It’s like when he was seeing me at 16, out there hitting my serves. When I see him out there with his team, I’m like, “All right, I’ve got to get ready for practice!” That’s our lives together.
Thorne: We’ve gone through tough times at different times. We’ve been able to lift each other up. We absolutely know we have each other’s backs.
When was the last time you played each other?
Thorne: With his bum shoulder and my bum everything, not too much. When was the last time we did?
Shelton: I think we might have done that and I threw my back out.
Thorne: [Laughs.] You threw your back out.
Shelton: I was reaching back to put a little something on my serve, and next thing you know, I’m out.
Thorne: We still know how to do it, but our bodies aren’t quite letting us do it.