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40 years on the job: ASU women's tennis coach Sheila McInerney

McInerney has been mentor, mother figure to players through four decades


Woman posing on tennis court with ball and racket

ASU women's tennis coach Sheila McInerney. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News.

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January 08, 2024

A smile crosses Sheila McInerney’s face as she tells her visitor, “I probably shouldn’t say this.”

But she says it, anyway.

It was early in McInerney’s tenure as Arizona State University’s women’s tennis coach. She’s not sure of the year. Maybe the late 1980s.

The Sun Devils had traveled to Tucson and beaten the Arizona Wildcats in a dual match. McInerney, driving the team van back up I-10 toward the Valley, thought she should treat her players. She exited the interstate, stopped at a Circle K and bought them beer.

“I didn’t drink at all because I was driving,” McInerney says, her smile widening. “But that’s what people did back then. It was just different.”

McInerney is telling the story from inside a room at the Whiteman Tennis Center. She has spent the better part of 25 minutes laughing, crying, talking about Billie Jean King and cursive handwriting.

Her 66th birthday is on Feb. 22 and, this year, she’s celebrating her 40th coaching season at ASU.

Forty seasons.

At a job she thought would be a pit stop.

In honor of four decades of dedication to the women's tennis team, 40 drop shots about Sheila McInerney:

1. She played against Billie Jean King in the third round of the 1977 U.S. Open, losing in three sets.

2. “I think I was just happy to be there,” McInerney said. “The good ones are like, ‘I’m going to win this match.’ That’s probably why I’m coaching and didn’t make a million dollars.”

3. King couldn’t have been nicer to the amateur player from USC. “We were leaving the players locker room, and she was like, ‘Hey, how is it going? How is school going? That was neat,” McInerney recalled.

4. She is a Sun Devil, through and through. If the ASU football team has a bad day, so does McInerney.

5. “She would get so intense watching an ASU game,” said Reka Cseresnyes, who played for McInerney in the mid-1990s. “I’d be like, ‘What is she talking about? Why is she yelling at the TV?'”

6. “She’s up on all the sports,” said Linda Vollstedt, now a development director at ASU after 21 years coaching the Sun Devils’ women’s golf team. “She can rattle off all the teams in the Big 12, the Big 10, any conference. She’s very aware of what’s going on across the country.”

7. McInerney was a four-time All-American at USC, the Trojans won three national championships during her collegiate career, and she was a member of the 1977–80 USTA Junior Federation Cup Team. After graduating in 1980 and traveling the world to play professionally, she returned to USC to be a graduate assistant under her former coach, Dave Borelli.

8. It wasn’t a lucrative gig. She lived with her college roommate to help make ends meet.

9. “But I loved USC, I loved my teammates and I wanted to coach,” she said.

Woman hitting tennis ball over net
Coach Sheila McInerney poses on the Whiteman Tennis Center court on Friday, Jan. 5. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

10. After a year as a paid assistant, she heard the Arizona State job was open and, in the summer of 1984, drove to Tempe in her Ford Escort to interview with Mona Plummer, then an associate athletic director at ASU.

11. She was 25 years old.

12. “I didn’t know a soul here,” McInerney said. “So, that was a little tricky. Everything I owned was in the car. Somehow, we made it from Southern California through the desert.”

13. While waiting outside Plummer’s office for the interview to begin, McInerney picked up a copy of the State Press and began reading to pass the time. After a few minutes, Plummer’s receptionist suggested McInerney spend a few minutes in the bathroom washing her hands.

14. “I had ink from the newspaper all over me,” McInerney said. “It was pretty funny, actually.”

15. ASU has made 36 straight NCAA Tournament appearances under McInerney, she’s twice been named Pac-12 Coach of the Year, and her teams have never finished outside the top 40 nationally.

16. Her players call her Sheila instead of coach. But don’t let her find out they’re quite as casual with any other Sun Devil coach.

17. “One time I was in the elevator, I had a recruit with us, and Bruce Snyder, the football coach at the time, was in there too,” said Krista Walker, who played for McInerney from 1988 to 1992 and was a graduate assistant from 1993 to 1996. “I introduced the recruit by saying, ‘This is Bruce.’ Sheila was like, ‘What? I can’t believe you called him Bruce.’”

18. McInerney used to write every player she recruited a handwritten note. She doesn’t do that anymore.

19. “First of all, it would take forever to get there,” McInerney said. “And I’m not sure they even know how to read cursive anymore. So, it’s email now.”

20. ASU’s tennis facilities early in McInerney’s coaching career weren’t exactly luxurious.

21. “We had a 40-year reunion in November, and the kids who played for me back then laughed because our storage room now, which has no air conditioning, used to be our team room,” she said. “We didn’t have bathrooms (at Whiteman), either. The kids would have to go to the bathroom at the track and change clothes in there, too. And you almost had to plug your nose when you were in there.”

22. Once, after ASU beat California, Walker ran over to the track to call her boyfriend on a pay phone. McInerney wasn’t having it.

23. “She was like, ‘What are you doing?’” Walker recalled. “'Who gives a crap about a boyfriend and all that stuff?’ I think being the coach here has really been her whole life.”

24. McInerney is just 5-foot-2, but within that small frame is a competitiveness that will match any Sun Devil athlete or coach. Pity the player who McInerney thinks isn’t working hard enough.

25. “She is very feisty about winning and wanting to win,” Vollstedt said. “Very feisty. She wants to be around teams that are winning, too.”

26. There is not just one side to McInerney, though. Some of her players call her a second mom. Others call her a mentor. They share a common sentiment: McInerney cared as much about the individual as the athlete.

27. “Whether it was during traveling or coaching or just daily happenings, she looked at the whole person,” Cseresnyes said. “She somehow just had this sixth sense of knowing what you needed at any given time. I think that’s probably why everyone on the teams I played on developed not just in tennis but overall as a human being.”

28. “I think what sets Sheila apart is that she really cares about her players,” Walker said. “She cares about their families. She cares about their grades. She cares if they graduate. A lot of coaches only care about if they win or beat Arizona. She really cares about that stuff, too. But she cares more about you as a person.”

29. “It’s funny,” Cseresnyes said. “One of my teammates and I were chatting not too long ago about how we’ve become mothers and life has new kinds of challenges and how much we miss having a coach who would help us and kind of guide us. She was almost like having a life coach.”

30. One example of McInerney’s compassion? Making sure her players were properly nourished on road trips.

31. “Back then, when you traveled for the weekend, you got very little money (for meals),” Walker said. “Sheila always made it a point that we were going to eat well. So, she would make sure we’d stay at a decent hotel where we could get a good breakfast.”

Group photo of ASU women's tennis team with coach
Sheila McInerney with her 2013 team. Photo courtesy ASU Athletics.

32. McInerney had opportunities to coach elsewhere. When she accepted the ASU job, Barbara Hedges (the associate athletic director in charge of women's sports at USC) told Plummer that ASU was “renting” McInerney until Borelli retired.

33. Sure enough, McInerney was offered the USC job. But she couldn’t leave Tempe.

34. “It was one of those really tough decisions,” said McInerney, who also turned down a chance to become Duke’s coach in 1997. “Because, in some ways, you think you have to be an idiot not to go back. But I’m pretty loyal. I just really liked it here, and I always was treated really well here."

35. “I think the team is probably more important to her than a lot of other things, like a better salary,” Cseresnyes said. “She’s so deeply attached to the whole Sun Devil spirit. I don’t think I could ever imagine her anywhere else.”

36. After 40 years, neither can McInerney. Her appreciation for ASU runs so deep that as she talks, tears well in her eyes.

37. “You see? I’m getting choked up,” she says. “Maybe I could have won more at those other places. But I’m super happy with my decision to stay here.”

38. Retirement? McInerney is thinking about it. But she still loves coaching and has hard time imagining life off the tennis court.

39. She never thought she’d be at ASU for 40 years.

40. “I remember when I got the job,” McInerney recalled. “I said, ‘If I’m here for 30 years, somebody shoot me.’ Forty years later, here I am. It’s been incredible.”

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