Longtime Laguna Beach tennis instructor Rick Conkey’s ambition lies outside the baseline: he aims to revive enthusiasm locally for the sport he turned into a career. And now he enjoys a chance to instill a lifelong love for the game with a younger generation by taking over as the new head tennis coach at Laguna Beach High School.
The team played its first pre-season match against higher ranked Beckman High in Irvine Thursday, Feb. 16. “We got crushed pretty good,” said Conkey, who sees the job as an opportunity “to develop the engines that will lead to tennis as a lifelong sport.”
Conkey coaches 29 boys on the varsity and junior varsity teams and 11 girls, who can join the team practice for physical education credit. The boys began league play this week and compete Tuesday, Feb. 28, against San Juan Hills at home. Next year, he will also coach the girls team, which recently concluded their season.
High school Vice Principal Bob Billinger and Athletic Director Lance Neal interviewed five candidates for the coaching position, according to former LBHS tennis coach Art Wahl, 79, who said he also sat in on the interviews.
While Wahl said he played no role in the hiring decision, he said Conkey’s knowledge of tennis and his community ties made him a strong candidate. He was impressed that Conkey sought him out before applying for the job that Wahl held for 21 of the 37 years he worked at the high school as a coach and guidance counselor.
“Hopefully Rick will bring back that pride in being a part of the Laguna Beach tennis program,” Wahl added. “We are excited to have him on board,” Neal added.
The head coaching job pays $3,846 per boys and girls season, according to the job posting on the internet. After six years as tennis coach, Don Davis resigned last December to take a coaching post elsewhere. The junior varsity coach also resigned shortly thereafter, citing administrative interference with team discipline.
Anecdotally, the high school coaching staff seems to experience higher turnover than its teaching staff.
When Wahl coached, certificated teachers were hired and coaching was part of their teaching job, he said. Today, it is harder to find a certificated teacher that will coach, too, he said, and none of the applicants interviewed for the tennis job held teaching credentials.
Conkey says his love for the game began in childhood while accompanying his parents to the public courts in Orange. His mother, a Tustin teacher, tutored after school to afford her son’s half-hour private tennis lesson each month. By 14, Conkey was giving lessons himself.
But when the family moved to Newport Beach, Conkey says he felt like an outsider. At 18, stealing a BMW seemed like a way to fit in. A three-month jail stint proved a different sort of lesson. Conkey said he realized “my bros were not my bros,” and set out to “change my stars by doing something extraordinary.”
After his release, Conkey enrolled more than full time in community college. At one time he said he carried 41 units, taking courses that sometimes overlapped by recording lectures with a sound activated tape recorder placed under desks.
His academic goal to finish college at UCLA was never realized due to a tennis opportunity too sweet to pass up. Conkey received an offer to help train the Swedish junior national team, which led to coaching teams in Germany, Austria, Spain and England for several years.
Conkey says he turned down another three-year coaching stint with the European teams to return to the U.S. in 1996 to coach at the Emerald Bay tennis courts.
Not long after, he met Constance Morthland, who was painting a curb red outside her Moss Point property, which included a dilapidated tennis court. Conkey offered to help restore the court if he could use them for private lessons, where he continues to teach today. It’s an exceptional perk in a town where use of public courts for private lessons is restricted.
“He’s very knowledgeable, a great instructor and a strong advocate for tennis,” said former Laguna Beach City Manager Ken Frank, 72, who has taken lessons from Conkey at Moss Point for 15 years. “I know he wants to get the community involved by getting boys and girls into it from an early age, too,” said Frank, who could recall when local courts were swamped by players, some of them top ranked pros.
Conkey, now 51, was ranked No. 1 in mixed doubles in Southern California in 2001. He continues to compete and won the national doubles title in the 50 and over age category with Pat Crow in Las Vegas last year.
Aside from teaching tennis privately for 20 years, Conkey has also pursued his other love, promoting music. He’s booked musicians for several local restaurants and founded the nonprofit, Blue Water Green Earth, which promotes music as a community enrichment.
“Over the years, I have organized countless community events to help raise awareness and funds needed in the community,” he said, including the 2011 benefit concert that raised nearly $20,000 for flood relief.
Conkey’s athletic ambition now is to elevate the level of play in Laguna and ultimately build an engaging and effective tennis program.
“My goal is simple. I want these boys to advance their tennis skills to whatever they want them to be, whether they want to play in college or just play tennis as a lifelong sport. I love the game. I want them to love it, too,” said Conkey.