LIVINGSTON, NJ — A recent statewide ranking of New Jersey's greatest high school coaches of all time, across all boys and girls sports, placed Livingston High School boys and girls tennis coach Elliot Lovi at No. 17.
While the NJ.com "poll" was far from scientific, Lovi's legendary career is certainly one for the ages.
Lovi is in his ninth season as Livingston's girls tennis coach and has coached boys tennis for 47 years at both Livingston and Millburn High Schools. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, Lovi's victory total of 1,146 in boys tennis is No. 1 in the United States.
The ranking mentions that his overall record—entering the current 2019 girls tennis campaign—for coaching both boys and girls at both Essex County schools is 1,952-413, which includes 20 state championships, 56 conference crowns and six Tournament of Champions titles.
"I actually coached basketball as an assistant for a few years," said Lovi, who played baseball at Montclair State College. "Basketball was a big love of mine. I played tennis before it was popular. It became very popular in 1970s."
The meteoric rise in the popularity of tennis during the 1970s coincided with the start of Lovi's career as a coach in that spot.
"Tennis became very popular in the '70s," Lovi said. "It’s a lifetime game. It's a great sport. You can play it anytime; it’s an individual sport you can turn into a team sport."
Lovi, who spent 39 years teaching business education, coached at Millburn from 1984 to 2010. He coached at Livingston for 10 years prior to his time at Millburn, and has now been back at Livingston for the last nine years. The time Lovi has spent coaching tennis has given him a front-row seat to how radically the sport has changed from the mid-1970s to today.
"It's a very different sport now than it was in the '70s and 80s," Lovi said. "A large part of that is due to the equipment. It used to be more of a finesse game, and now it's more of a power game. I miss the finesse of serving and volleying. Technology and power have changed the sport. People are more athletic. Kids are training so much more, and they are intensely focused on that. They didn't have that years ago."
Lovi said he laments the decline of the multi-sport athlete in today's era of increased specialization.
"I think there are more players now who have turned it into a year-round sport," Lovi said. "The days of multi-sport athlete have diminished, and it’s a shame. It’s good to play other sports; it expands your skills and your talents."
Of all the coaches ranked on the all-time Top 99 list, there may not be another who has such an extensive level of experience coaching both girls and boys. Lovi talked about how he has learned to strike the right balance and distinguish between how he approaches coaching both genders.
"I find that boys may be are more intense and focused on winning and losing, and they hold on to it longer than the girls," Lovi said. "To be successful in tennis, you have to be very aggressive, especially when playing doubles. It's easy to get guys to play more aggressive in doubles. You need to be more tactful when you are coaching girls. You don't want to insult anybody with the way you critique them."
Lovi's perspective on the role of a coach is one that sublimates his own ego.
"It’s the kids’ show, it’s not my show and not the parents’ show," he said. "It's very important to keep in mind that we are just there for guidance. I tell the kids I am just making suggestions. If you don’t like (those suggestions), chuck ‘em.
"My coaching philosophy is, 'Play hard, play fair and treat your opponents with dignity and respect.' I think if that would be carried over in every person’s life the world would be a much better place. You’ve got to enjoy playing. Winning can be a reward for competing."
Lovi's parents arrived in the U.S. from Eastern Europe in 1939, just before the start of World War II and the advent of the Holocaust. From his father, who also was an athlete, Lovi said he learned the tenets of sportsmanship.
"At Livingston, we’re known for great sportsmanship, and I got a lot of that from my late father," he said, while reflecting on what he considers the most rewarding aspect of his nearly-half century of coaching tennis. "The best part for me is all the wonderful people you meet. It’s really fun. You meet people from all different cultures and backgrounds"
In addition to his interaction with the kids, Lovi said some of his greatest accomplishments have come from his involvement with the sport on the state and county level. In fact, he is currently running his 79th Essex County Tennis Tournament and has been a charter member of the State Tennis Committee since 1979.
"The influence I have had on high school tennis in the state, that is something I am proud of," he said.