GREAT RIO VALLEY – Don Russel is one of the most decorated figures in the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s athletic history, and his career has influenced where the university stands today.
Russell played men’s tennis for the former institution Pan American College (PAC) from 1959 to 1962. He won seven NAIA National Championships as a student-athlete, including four consecutive NAIA doubles titles – three with John Sharp and one with Jerry Wortelboer. He led the Broncs to the school‘s first national title in 1961. They repeated in 1962 as team captain Russell led the effort with a national tournament sweep to win the singles championships, in doubles and team.
Russell returned to PAC to serve as men’s tennis head coach from 1964 to 1967. The Broncs went 29-9-3 under his leadership and won the 1965 NAIA National Championship. His eighth title put Russell in a small group of people who have won collegiate national championships as a player and coach, alongside legendary sports personalities Paul “Bear” Bryant and Jimmy Johnson. He is the only person in the history of the UTRGV with this distinction.
“I’ve been so blessed,” Russell said. “I worked really hard to be fit and strong. I would say the reason I was successful was that I hit the ball really hard so I was able to wear people down.”
Russell had never planned to go to college. Growing up in Melbourne, Australia at a time when the best players in the world were Australian, Russell’s whole life was tennis. He wanted to travel the world playing tennis like the members of the Australian Davis Cup team he looked up to.
But in the United States, at a small school called Edinburg Regional College, a man named Orville I. Cox had his own goal of using athletics to publicize the college statewide and, in turn, making it more affordable and accessible.
In 1958, the Pan American Tennis Patrons Association was formed to aid in this quest. The group approached Australian coach Harry Hopman to recruit players for the tennis program. Hopman recommended Russell, Australia’s No. 5 ranked junior player, and his doubles partner, Sharpe, and the PATPA sponsored their move to Edinburgh.
“I didn’t know such a thing existed, playing tennis and going to school, I didn’t know that at all. It was a complete surprise and something out of the blue happened,” he said. Russell said. “I had never been to the United States and it was very difficult to go from Melbourne, which is a big city and has some of the best tennis facilities in the world, to Edinburgh and to find that there was really no just a few old concrete tennis courts.. For a while we didn’t have real tennis courts to practice on.”
The challenges haven’t affected Russell’s success on the court. He has been described as the strongest net forward in head coach Harry Meng’s squad. He had a powerful serve, overspin forehand, flat backhand and “extraordinary” anticipation, all of which led to a plethora of wins.
Russell and the Broncs have won four straight Big State Conference championships and twice been runners-up at the NAIA National Tournament. He won two conference titles in singles and two in doubles. Russell has had numerous tournament victories and defeated three top 50 ranked players. He has faced some of the biggest names in tennis including Chuck McKinley in the year McKinley won Wimbledon and Cliff Drysdale.
Russell and Sharpe reached No. 10 in the U.S. doubles team rankings, helping the Broncs to No. 1 “small colleges” in 1961 and No. 4 overall in 1960. They were the team No. 1 junior doubles in Australia before playing for PAC. One of their biggest wins was for the Australian Hard Court Championship when they beat Rod Laver, whom Russell called “one of the best, if not the best, tennis players to ever live”.
“We trained as hard as we played tennis and we were very serious about it,” Russell said. “John was left-handed and I was right-handed and we were both particularly good at playing doubles. We happened to be good at it and won a lot of tournaments.”
During Russell’s playing days, there was no professional tennis and there wasn’t much money to be made as an amateur. His time at Pan American showed Russell the importance of education.
“The moment I became a senior, I realized that education was an important thing to focus on. I realized that education could give me more opportunities than tennis could at this then and my life would be better by having an advanced degree,” says Russel.
Russell received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Pan American and a master’s degree from Oklahoma. After grad school, he returned to PAC and taught school math while serving as the men’s tennis head coach for three years. The Broncs won a national championship in their first season and their 13e-right conference title. In 1966, the Broncs’ first year at the NCAA Division I level, Russell led them to a sixth-place finish in the NCAA championships.
His bountiful accomplishments earned Russell a spot in the inaugural class of the Athletics Hall of Fame inductees in 2007.
“It’s very flattering, but I don’t think of myself as anything extraordinary,” Russell said. “I have been fortunate to be surrounded by many people who have helped me move my life forward in so many ways.”
Cox, the former chairman of the Board of Regents after whom the UTRGV tennis center is named, is one of the people Russell has contributed to. Russell followed a similar path later in life, serving on the board of trustees of Claremont McKenna College and peripherally involved in various education initiatives.
The work Russell has done to help advance educational opportunities and as Chairman of Operon Group has resulted in another honor for his esteemed resume – the Distinguished Alumni Award, which is the highest honor an alumnus can receive. .
“It’s beyond anything I could have hoped for,” Russell said. “I have been blessed in my life to help people, whether at work or in tennis, by everything I say or do. It gives me the greatest joy to see people succeed.”
On his trip back to Edinburgh for the awards ceremony in April, Russell made time to visit the Vaqueros tennis teams.
“It was great for the guys to meet and talk with someone who has achieved greatness in his sporting and professional life like Mr. Russell,” the men’s coach said. Nathan Robinson said. “Listening to him talk about the history of the program and his insights into what creates success was an invaluable lesson for the team. We are lucky to have an alumnus like him.”
The experience was equally special for Russell, who helped start the trend of recruiting international student-athletes for the RGV. The success he and the Broncs had in the ’60s brought the school major recognition, helping it to thrive.
He’s proud of the incredible growth his alma mater has achieved over the past 60 years – growth he helped spark by taking the leap and chasing a stranger, traveling nearly 9,000 miles from home. to play tennis in deep south Texas.
“It’s really amazing what’s happened, becoming a really big university. It’s just amazing,” Russell said. “If you had seen him in the 1950s and 1960s, I don’t think anyone would have given him the chance to be where he is today. Physical facilities are one thing, but the quality of people is really amazing. You have student-athletes, tennis players, all of whom are awesome. Great young people from all over the world, and to see them achieving something with their lives at UTRGV is just as good as possible.”