At Home as a Hurricane

by Alex Schwartz

CORAL GABLES, Fla. – To understand what Alex Santos’ return to the University of Miami women’s tennis team means, all one has to do is look at the Instagram announcement.

When @CanesWTennis released the news on the first day of December that Santos was headed back to The U as the program’s associate head coach, the comments section was flooded. In a good way.

Numerous alumnae, some of whom never even played for Santos, chimed in to congratulate him and welcome him back to Coral Gables. The well wishes from those associated with the program extended to Twitter, Facebook and, without a doubt, directly to Santos’ cell phone.

Many of the comments welcomed Santos back home because, even as a native of Oeiras, Portugal, Miami is indeed like a home to Santos.

One of the players who included that in her remark was Lina Lileikite, a four-time All-ACC Academic Team member whom Santos coached for two years during his first stint at Miami. To Lileikite, Santos brings more to the table than just tennis acumen.

“It’s a lot of fun [playing for him] because he’s a very passionate guy and he truly cares about your results and your improvement,” Lileikite said. “When you have a person who … truly cares about you and invests their own time in you, you start really appreciating and respecting that person. Together, you can achieve great things.

“Alex is not just a tennis coach,” she added. “He’s basically your life coach and I really mean it. If you’re struggling with something or simply need help with anything, he’s a person who will give you 120 percent effort and commitment. What’s more amazing is he does it with true passion and care.”

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Paige Yaroshuk-Tews, now in her 20th season as Miami’s head coach, had no doubt she wanted Santos to rejoin her program.

During his prior four years with the Hurricanes, during which he worked his way up from volunteer assistant to graduate manager to assistant coach, Santos helped the program to numerous accomplishments.

Miami went 85-24 (36-8 ACC) from 2010-13, reached the NCAA Elite Eight year and finished in the ITA top 10 each season. However, to Yaroshuk-Tews, bringing him back was not simply about wins and losses.

“It really doesn’t even have anything to do with the success that we had. It just has to do with, I think, our alignment. We look at things kind of in the same manner,” she said. “We have similar coaching styles and I think we work very well together. I’ve never worked with anybody in all of my years that I think complements me as well as he does, in terms of providing our team with the most well-rounded coaching staff.”

Meanwhile, Santos also had no doubt he wanted to be back with the Hurricanes.

After six years as the head coach at Pittsburgh and one as the associate head coach at Baylor, Santos was ready to return to a place near and dear to his heart.

“Everything and anything,” Santos said of why he wanted to come back to Miami. “It’s the city I love, home away from home. It’s where I studied. It’s the school that I’m a fan of. One of the best tennis programs in the country. One of the best coaches in the country, with whom I’ve worked. I think she makes the best out of me and I think our journey was very successful. So, wanting to repeat that and even improve it. The ocean, the weather, being a tennis capital. And [I have] a lot of friends and former players still around, people that I truly love and want to spend time with.”

One of those people is, of course, Yaroshuk-Tews. The two have remained close over the years, even as Santos worked at other schools.

In hiring Santos back to Miami, the two-time ITA Southeast Region Coach of the Year is bringing in someone who is much more than just an accomplished tennis mind.

“He was a friend when he was here years ago. He was a friend when he left and went to Pittsburgh. He was a friend when he was at Baylor. He’s back and he’s still a friend,” Yaroshuk-Tews said. “The day he leaves Miami, he’ll still be a friend. He’s one of these guys that [I am close with]. I have a lot of acquaintances in this business; I have very few friends. There are very few people I would consider friends and he’s one of them.”

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Yaroshuk-Tews’ bond with Santos started in a particularly interesting way.

The latter was taking graduate school classes at Miami, working towards a PhD in exercise physiology. He knew of the esteemed women’s tennis program at the school and wanted to get involved.

After the chair of his department said she would “eventually” get him connected with Yaroshuk-Tews, he took matters into his own hands. First, he reached out to Yarsoshuk-Tews by phone and email, but did not hear back.

So, again, he took matters into his own hands.

“She was on the elliptical and I went there with my resume,” Santos recalled. “She was just there [in the weight room] working out and she was all going, and I just threw the papers at her and I said, ‘Hey, I can help you.’”

Yaroshuk-Tews has a similar memory of that meeting back in the fall of 2009. As odd as it may have been, she was intrigued.

“He walked away and I started reading his resume and his resume was pretty impressive and, quite honestly, I wanted somebody around my team that had that level of confidence, that could just walk up to somebody and basically guarantee that I could help your program,” Yaroshuk-Tews explained. “Who would say no to that? What did I have to lose? So, I brought him on as a volunteer and, honestly, from day one, his level of professionalism and his want to learn and to really just be involved in the game, it was exceptional. It was something that you really don’t see very often.”

The following winter, Yaroshuk-Tews’ assistant coach left and she promoted Santos to a full-time role.

However, before he was able to get to that point, he learned a great deal from Yaroshuk-Tews in a variety of different ways. He picked up knowledge on the collegiate tennis system, from the team element to the conferences to NCAA Team Championship qualification.

Beyond all that, Santos learned about some of the less quantifiable aspects of what it takes to be a successful collegiate coach such as how to foster a team culture and work with players from an emotional standpoint, two things he says Yaroshuk-Tews excels at.

“Obviously, I came to this country with the intention to coach and to have the possibility of being part of college tennis,” Santos shared. “She was the one believing in me and she was the one putting her money where her words were. She was an incredible mentor. Looking back now, I understand even more how fortunate I was for her to believe in me and giving me the amazing opportunity.”

Between the lessons he picked up from Yaroshuk-Tews and the immense value he provided the program, evidenced by his 2013 ITA National Assistant Coach of the Year accolade, Santos was soon presented with another amazing opportunity: to be a head coach.

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After four years with the Hurricanes, Santos departed in 2013 to take over the program at Pittsburgh, which recently joined the ACC.

“It was the right moment for me to be a head coach. Obviously, I wanted to be a head coach. I think part of being good in this job is eventually having that position,” Santos said. “…It was, of course, very hard because the group at UM was extremely special … [so therefore] it wasn’t an easy decision, but I think in life a sacrifice needs to be made in order to get to where you want to be. I think, also, it allowed me to have the perspective and be a little more wise and more mature and have more experience professionally.”

Santos led the Panthers to their first ranked win in their history and guided the program’s first ranked singles and a doubles players.

However, working at a school in a cold weather climate with no on-campus facility and competing in arguably the best league in the country, wins were difficult to come by.

Yaroshuk-Tews, coaching against Santos each season, saw the way his team progressed each year, regardless of whether the record reflected it. Nonetheless, Pittsburgh cut the women’s tennis program after the 2019 season and Santos’ time as its head coach was over.

“When you’ve been in this industry long enough, you get punched in the face a few times. When Alex left Miami, he was looking for that next thing,” Yaroshuk-Tews said. “He was an assistant coach that went on to be a head coach at a program in a very strong conference and he got punched in the face. Nobody wants to lose; everybody wants to have a successful program.

“So, for as tough as Alex was when he was departing Miami,” she added, “I think he’s even tougher coming back to Miami.”

Even with the difficult ending of having the program discontinued, Santos values his time in the Steel City. It taught him lessons that continue to help him to this day and that he feels make him a better coach.

So did his tenure as the associate head coach at Baylor, where he spent a year before returning to Coral Gables.

“I think I actually come back here with a lot more experience, with a lot more value. I was for six years a head coach of a Power Five school and I learned a lot, again, about the system and understanding that the top decision always comes to you and you have to make some pretty tough decisions on the spot,” Santos explained. “It was an amazing experience. I think now, understanding a little more what it is to be a head coach, I feel I can even better help Paige in her daily work. And then my last experience at Baylor. Again, an amazing experience. Truly thankful for that. I have never worked in a different conference. I think that was important to me, but eventually UM is the place where I want to be.”

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Santos is undoubtedly an excellent tennis coach in a variety of ways, but one in particular—it was even mentioned in those Instagram comments—is with preparing fitness regimens.

Unlike many people who go straight from playing into coaching, Santos pursued an advanced degree in between. What he learned during that time is now directly applicable to helping the teams he coaches.

“He has his exercise physiology background, which enables him to really bring that knowledge to our team, in terms of strength and conditioning. I think that our strength and conditioning program, when Alex is a part of our team, is probably one of the best in the country,” Yaroshuk-Tews said. “…There’s many facets to strength and conditioning. There’s the work you do on the track, there’s the work you do in the weight room, there’s the prehab work you do. Alex has a way of kind of bringing all that together in a way that makes sense for tennis players.”

Lileikite, who remains close with Santos to this day, also mentioned Santos’ work in the strength and conditioning realm as a way he will help the Hurricanes.

The Liepaja, Latvia, native knows firsthand just how beneficial Santos’ expertise in that area can be for a player.

“He improved or basically customized our fitness workout. He would sit down with [our strength coach] to design our fitness, specifically for tennis, not any other sport,” Lileikite said. “I think … fitness is a big key in tennis. So, he would invest his time in something important like fitness.”

Another way Santos will assuredly make an impact in his second go-around with the Hurricanes is with his recruiting chops. His passion for recruiting is evident when speaking to him and it is evidenced by the talented players he has signed from all over the world.

Santos hails from Portugal and worked in Spain, giving him vast connections throughout Europe, but his ties extend far beyond just that continent.

In fact, Yaroshuk-Tews calls his list of contacts “second to none” in the industry.

“He understands the types of kids that I want to talk to,” she said. “It’s not like he’s doing every facet of the recruiting, but he’s bringing the kids to me—five, six kids for, let’s say, two spots—and then I’m going to pick the kid that I think is the best personality fit for our program. But what he’s bringing me is really quality.”

Lileikite, who would certainly know, calls Santos an “amazing recruiter” who seeks to land just the finest possible players.

It is one thing to identity those prospects, but it is another to actually land them, something Santos has had great success with. To the man himself, that ability comes from taking the time to connect with these players individually and get to know them.

“When one has the opportunity to travel to their home countries and their cities and to see them with their families and friends and how they interact with their colleagues at practice and all of that, I think that’s a huge advantage … because you kind of get to know them in their element,” Santos said. “A part of that, I think, is we are a lot more similar than what we think, sometimes. I feel that we just all want the best for ourselves and our families and we want to be healthy and happy, and do something we love. That’s pretty much it. Tennis connects us.”

When Santos was the head coach at Pittsburgh, he even flew to a small town in Latvia to see a recruit. The player was suggested to him by none other than Lileikite, as former players are also a part of his digital rolodex.

“He will do anything for this program,” she said. “When an opportunity presents, he takes it.”

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The victories and rankings speak for themselves when it comes to demonstrating the level of success Miami achieved from 2010-13 with Santos in the fold. Included on that list is the program’s first ACC Championship crown, which it claimed in 2013 after defeating rival Florida State in the final.

When Santos reflects on his first stop at Miami, he thinks less about the wins than about the people he shared them with.

One of the reasons those individuals he coached are so special to him is, however, actually showcased in a story about the team’s conference title.

“Honestly, those girls are family. I think when I coached them, they accepted more for who I was. They understood the type of person I was. They understood what I brought to the table, my qualities, my strengths, but also my weaknesses and they took it all in,” Santos said. “I think we truly respect and admire each other, not only as tennis players. I go back to the moment when we won ACCs and we had a lunch at the facility just to celebrate with the families and those girls were just enjoying spending time together. There wasn’t, for one moment, the need to be arrogant and say, ‘We are the best, we won an ACC title.’ No, they were just happy spending time together.

“That’s, a lot, the way I see life,” he continued. “You go hard on the tennis court, you leave your heart out there and as soon as you are out, you are a person and you enjoy life and you enjoy time with the people you love. So, they truly mean a lot to me.”

The same is true in reverse; Santos means a lot to those players. Lileikite still considers Santos a close friend and even went fishing with him recently.

She even owes him a debt of gratitude for being the person who drove her to the bank to help her set up her first checking account as a collegian. He is, as she said, not just a tennis coach.

That does not mean, however, that Santos did not enjoy racking up all those impressive on-court accomplishments during his first stint at Miami or that he does not want to log more.

“I think, quite obviously, I would sign up for this second tenure with Paige to have the same success that we had in the past,” Santos said, “but at the end of the day, we are competitors and we want to try to take it one step further.”

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Even though they have not worked together for seven years, Yaroshuk-Tews and Santos remain very much in lockstep.

Both know what the other one needs to help the program succeed and each is willing to do just that.

“I just think that Paige and Alex kind of like complete each other’s coaching abilities, I would say,” Lileikite shared. “Now, your team has more exposure to different coaching.”

That sentiment is one shared by Yaroshuk-Tews, a Miami native who has seen evidence of it in the past and has confidence it will continue in the future.

“Technically and strategically, he’s very good … but I would say the biggest thing is that, at the end of the day, he is the hardest-working person I’ve ever been around in college athletics, in terms of paying attention to details,” Yaroshuk-Tews said. “Just being there with me, I’ve been doing this so long that I, obviously, know what needs to occur. Having Alex around the team kind of allows me to handle more of the emotional side of the game with the girls.”

“I understand how hard it is to transition to college athletics. I understand how to motivate somebody to work so much harder than they’re working,” Yaroshuk-Tews continued. “…We have our defined roles, we know our roles and we’re really good at what we do.”

Yaroshuk-Tews has a vision for her program that has not wavered during her two decades leading it and her associate head coach has that same vision.

Santos learned it from her a decade ago and continues to follow it to this day. He knows exactly what it means to be part of this program and knows just where following that vision can take the Hurricanes.

“I think the way we believe and we see Miami tennis [is similar]. Obviously, she was able to communicate that to me in a very clear, very inspirational way,” Santos shared. “The way I see Miami tennis is it’s a program that is about hard work, is about commitment, is about sacrifice, is about understanding that one is just part of a bigger thing, is about understanding responsibility, is about positivity, is about a lot of things that are very special. I think that’s what we want to transmit to our fans, to our players, to our former players, that we do things maybe a little different, but we truly believe in the way we do things.

“If we do that and we fight every day to accomplish our dreams, results will take care of themselves,” he continued. “So, obviously, I want to be back into that top 10. I think that’s where UM tennis belongs, but most importantly, we want to perform in a certain way in terms of the philosophy of what Paige believes Miami tennis should be and that I truly believe in, as well.”

Two coaches with one belief at a place they both call home.

That is Miami women’s tennis with Alex Santos back alongside Paige Yaroshuk-Tews.