By Logan Lowery
STARKVILLE – Matt Roberts realized he wanted to become a tennis head coach in the Southeastern Conference someday while he was serving as an assistant at Michigan State.
In 2012, Roberts joined Per Nilsson’s staff at Mississippi State in a move he felt lwould better prepare him to reach his future goal.
Earlier this month, Nilsson left the MSU men’s team to take over the women’s tennis program at Pepperdine. That shift opened the door for Roberts to realize his dream becoming the Bulldogs’ 19th head coach on Saturday.
“I knew while I was at Michigan State that I had to make a move that would possibly set me up to be a head coach in the SEC,” Roberts said. “As soon as that happened, I knew I had to be patient and wait for my time. I felt like everything worked in the right direction.”
Roberts spent the past two seasons under Nilsson, guiding State to back-to-back appearances in the NCAA Championships, including a Sweet 16 finish in 2013.
This past year, five of the eight players on the Bulldogs’ roster were newcomers but still managed 19 total victories and finished the season ranked 19th nationally.
Roberts recruited and coached the SEC Freshman of the Year Florian Lakat en route to earning 2014 ITA Southern Region Assistant of the Year honors.
“I’ve talked to my players numerous times on Skype and they’re all really excited,” Roberts said. “When I talked about our schedule and what we have ahead of us in the fall, it pumped them up. They saw Per doing all the orders and scheduling, but to see me doing it gives them a lot of confidence. It’s definitely helped them be a little more at ease since they don’t have to get to know a new head coach.”
It was not long ago that Roberts was in their shoes. The 29-year old was a four-year letterwinner at Arkansas from 2003-06. Roberts captained the Razorbacks for three years while earning All-SEC honors in 2005 and 2006.
Roberts’ age or lack of head coaching experience did not deter MSU director of athletics Scott Stricklin from considering him for the position.
Roberts, Dan Mullen (football), Rick Ray (men’s basketball), Vann Studeman (softball) and Aaron Gordon (soccer) are all first-time collegiate head coaches that Stricklin had a hand in hiring.
“It’s easy to look at something that exists like head coaching experience and a record that you can go off of,” Stricklin said. “It’s easy to look at that and see that it makes sense. With this, you have to project a little bit more and we’ve done that a lot. What that experience tells us is you look for certain traits and the fact they don’t have a head coaching record doesn’t indicate future success.”