Head tennis coach to retire after three decades at Berry

Bradynn Belcher, Campus Carrier staff writer

Latifa Madesko, Campus Carrier staff writer

Clay Hightower, head coach of the Vikings’
men’s and women’s tennis teams for a total
of 32 years, will retire at the end of the
tennis season. During that time, Hightower
accumulated a winning record of 644-422.
In his retirement, Hightower plans to stay
involved in the Berry community. Kristin Tucker | Campus Carrier

The average American stays on the job for slightly over four years, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. Only 20% of U.S. employees are passionate about their job.

But Clay Hightower is not the average American.

After dedicating 32 years of his life as head coach of Berry’s dual-gender tennis program, Hightower will be retiring at the end of the tennis season. 

Hightower was originally hired in 1984 for a two-year period a year after he graduated as a student athlete from Shorter University, leaving to pursue a master’s degree from the University of Georgia as well as work as an athletic trainer for three years. However, Hightower could not forget his brief stint at Berry. He knew that he had experienced something special, and if he was given the opportunity, he would not pass up a chance to come back.

“I realized that I am not going to find a job as fun and that I enjoy as much,” Hightower said. “Maybe I don’t make as much money, but I like the lifestyle and all that came with it. That was the key. It’s something that I love.”

In 1992, he received the opportunity to come back for the long-term and has been leading the men’s and women’s tennis teams every since, impacting the lives of his colleagues and players.

Head Cross Country Coach Paul Deaton has been on staff since the fall of 1991. Another long-term coach, Deaton and Hightower have become close colleagues over the past 31 years, and Deaton says that he will miss Hightower’s passion and how he makes those around him feel. 

“I think Clay is very true to himself,” Deaton said. “He makes me laugh a lot. He will stand up and speak his mind and enjoy life. I will miss him very much. I enjoy just hanging out and listening to Clay Hightower. He’s got a lot of passion for life, sports, and winning. But also, he’s got an interest for people.”

In his three decades as head coach, Hightower has had the ability to pour his passion into his athletes, aiding in their development on and off the court. 

Kathryn Barker (20C), current graduate assistant tennis coach, played on the women’s team for five years before joining Hightower in leading the teams this season. Barker jumped at the opportunity to coach with Hightower due to his established character and high standards he sets for those around him.

“I really wanted to coach under someone who had good character and would be a positive influence on me and on the team,” Barker said. “I think that is something that stood out to me about him. He holds us to a really high standard, with our sportsmanship, our honesty, making good calls, setting good examples.” 

As of Wednesday, Hightower has accumulated a winning record of 644-422 during his 32 seasons as head coach. Hightower is one of the few current coaches at Berry that endured the departmental switch from the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). 

Without the ability to offer athletes scholarship money, Hightower had to drastically change his recruiting strategy, since he previously heavily recruited international students.

“It was a couple of years of a learning period for me to have to put more time into recruiting and sell different aspects about Berry,” Hightower said. “The beautiful campus isn’t enough to get them on campus, but all the other aspects about campus life and what they do on the weekends and the academics and the relationships you build with your professors. It took a lot of work and I had to cast a much larger net recruiting in Division III.”

Men’s tennis team captain Connor Murphy said that Hightower is such a successful coach due to his caring and lighthearted personality.

“I think he’s such an effective coach because he is so caring,” Murphey said. “He has a fantastic sense of humor and that can come off a little goofy and quirky, but when it comes down to it, he is truly one of the most caring people I know and always strives to always do what is best for his athletes and ensures they are doing well and tries to provide them with what they need.”

Hightower said that in his retirement, he will most miss building relationships with his players.

“The best part about it is that I still have relationships with many of my past players,” Hightower said. “I would call them friends. I like seeing what my former players are doing and how successful they are and how they enjoy life.”

During retirement, Hightower plans to do volunteer work and remain active in the Berry community. No matter what he does, Deaton said that Hightower will give it his all.

“I can’t imagine him any other way but 100% in anything he does, and he does new things all the time,” Deaton said. “100%.”  

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