Jeff Northam, now in his 17th season as the men's tennis coach at Whitman College, has developed a dynasty amid the ranks of Pacific Northwest collegiate tennis.
His program's accomplishments continued to mount during the spring of 2010, when his squad reached the 20-win plateau and qualified for the NCAA Division III national championships for a fourth consecutive season.
His 2010 team won its third straight Northwest Conference post-season title, giving Whitman five conference crowns since April of 2000. Whitman players have netted NWC Player of the Year honors in six of the last 10 seasons.
Northam, a four-time NWC Coach of the Year, returns a strong roster for the 2011 spring season, when his team hopes to extend a winning streak that has reached 66 regular season dual match victories over conference opponents. Whitman's last loss to an NWC team during the regular season came in April of 2006.
While his teams have ruled the NWC spring seasons in recent years, their dominance has been more pronounced at annual Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) fall tournaments for NCAA DIII players in the Pacific Northwest. Whitman players have won the singles portion of the tournament for five straight years and copped the doubles crown in four of the last five years.
In many cases, the recent ITA fall tournaments have featured all-Whitman finals in both singles and doubles. That was the situation in September of 2010 when Whitman's Andrew La Cava downed teammate Conor Holton-Burke for the singles title. La Cava and Holton-Burke then joined the forces to get past two more Whitman players, Chris Bailey and Sam Sadeghi, for the doubles prize.
In one of its more dominant fall performances in 2007, Whitman advanced all 12 of its players to the Round of 16 at the fall tournament's singles bracket. Whitties advanced to fill seven of the eight quarterfinal spots and all four of the semifinal slots. The semifinals in the doubles bracket also featured three Whitman duos.
By winning an array of ITA regional titles, Whitman players have made regular appearances at the annual Small College National Championships, bringing home numerous ITA All-American honors in the process.
Northam, whose career dual meet victory total jumped past the 200-win plateau in 2009, has also guided his players to success off the court. Several of his players have earned Academic All-District and All-American honors since Whitman began submitting nominations for its student athletes in 2003.
Christoph Fuchs, who graduated in May of 2010, was voted to the Academic All-America First Team (sponsored by ESPN The Magazine) and is currently enrolled in the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas.
Justin Hayashi, a 2009 senior team captain who also netted district and national academic honors, says Northam is more than a great tennis coach.
"Jeff is a great life coach," Hayashi says. "As a Whitman alum, Jeff understands that Whitman students are scholars with diverse interests. While tennis requires a lot of commitment and time for both the players and coach, Jeff has never discouraged any of us from pursuing our interests or investing extra time in our academics. Due to his understanding, I was able to stay active throughout my collegiate years and achieve a successful academic track record.
"Jeff's primary duty is to coach tennis, but he understands that experiences and learning in other areas and disciplines are just as important," Hayashi adds. "He also understands that life has its trials and tribulations and he actively ensures that all of his players get through those tough times. He checks on his players by taking individuals out to dinner or calling them just to see how things are going."
Whitman's success on the courts is due in part to the Northam's ongoing efforts to create a "team in the truest sense of the word," Hayashi says. "He organizes team nights for board games or movies, just to keep the team bonded and morale high."
Finally, Hayashi says, "I wouldn't be same person I am today without Jeff's guidance and leadership. Through Jeff, I learned to be both a team player and a leader, and I learned the true value of what it means to be a student athlete. Jeff is a phenomenal influence."
Dean Snider, Whitman's athletics director, speaks about Northam in the same glowing terms.
"Whitman is extremely fortunate to have Jeff at the helm of our men's tennis program," Snider says.
"I have never encountered a better team builder. Combine that with his tremendous tennis skills and his ability to recruit outstanding students and tennis players and you have someone who could be Coach of the Year every season."
Snider, who racked up 200-plus victories of his own as a volleyball coach before moving into his administrative role, lauds Northam is a "wonderful person with a generous heart and tremendous depth of character. He is an excellent role model for our students. I am proud to call him a colleague and friend."
Northam, a 1988 Whitman graduate, shared in three NWC titles during his undergraduate playing days, when Whitman rose to as high as No. 2 in the NCAA DIII national rankings. He was part of a powerful 1987 squad that became the first Northwest college or university in 20 years to beat the University of Washington.
After majoring in economics at Whitman, Northam stayed on campus for three years as an admission officer. He also coached the men's tennis team in 1990, 1993 and 1994 before beginning work on a master's degree at Boise State. He worked as an assistant coach for the men's and women's tennis teams at Boise State while completing his degree in exercise and sports science.
"Not everyone realizes this, but Boise State has one of the strongest NCAA Division I tennis programs in the country," Northam says. "My time there gave me the opportunity to learn from one of the nation's best coaches, Greg Patton."
While Northam enjoyed his brief coaching stint at Boise State, the travel demands that come with an NCAA Division I tennis program were hard on family life.
"Between traveling with two teams and recruiting, I spent 30 to 35 weeks on the road," he says. "That is too much time away from home for someone who wants to raise a family."
Northam, who is married to Jennifer Dilworth Northam (Whitman Class of 1991), has family ties to eastern Washington. He is a 1984 graduate of Kamiakin High School in Kennewick, Wash., and his parents, Ted and Marci Northam, still live in nearby Finley, Wash. His sister, Patsy Northam, who teaches math at Pasco High School.
"Family considerations were important in my decision to return to Whitman," he says. "At the same time, I've always wanted to coach at an academic school like Whitman, where I played and went to school. The coaching position here also was attractive because Whitman has a great group of young coaches, and because we have one of the best indoor tennis facilities in the nation."
The $1.2 million Walter A. Bratton Tennis Center, which opened in early 1996, incorporates four indoor courts within a 28,000-square-foot frame. The courts have a cushioned surface, and the building features heating, locker rooms and a viewing area for spectators.
Whitman also has four competition-grade outdoor courts, located in the middle of the campus, that are used whenever weather allows.
Northam remains active in the Pacific Northwest chapter of the U.S. Professional Tennis Association (USPTA). He served as its treasurer from 1991 to 1995, and he was named USPTA Professional of the Year for the Pacific Northwest region in 1993 and again in 2001.
In 1995 Northam was an alternate for the Idaho Sneakers, one of the teams in the World Team Tennis organization founded by Billie Jean King. The league featured teams throughout the country and attracted such older stars as John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova as well as younger professionals on the rise.
Northam and spouse Jennifer have two children. Ben is 12 and Anna is eight.