Legendary Men’s Tennis Coach Steve Wilkinson Dies

Posted on January 21st, 2015 by

Steve Wilkinson

Steve Wilkinson

Steve Wilkinson, longtime men’s tennis coach at Gustavus Adolphus College and founder of Tennis and Life Camps, passed away on Wednesday, January 21 at the age of 73 after courageously living with cancer for nearly seven years. The memorial service for Steve at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 31 will be live streamed.

Wilkinson spent 39 years (1971-2009) at the helm of the Gustavus men’s tennis program. His teams compiled 929 wins overall, the most victories in the history of collegiate men’s tennis.

Wilkinson’s squads won two NCAA Division III titles (1980 and 1982) as well as 35 Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) titles. His teams compiled an overall record of 929-278 (.769) and an MIAC mark of 334-1 (.997). In addition, his players claimed six national doubles titles, and four national singles titles. He coached 46 players to 87 ITA All-America honors, 103 players to 226 All-Conference honors, and five CoSIDA Academic All-Americans. He was named NAIA National Coach of the Year twice (1974 and 1984) and Intercollegiate Tennis Association Division III Coach of the Year three times (1982, 2001, and 2003).

Along with his wife, Barbara, Wilkinson founded Tennis and Life Camps in 1977. For more than 35 years, the couple impacted generations of tennis enthusiasts by dedicating their lives to improving tennis performance of youth and adults and teaching life skills that can be used on and off the court. The Wilkinsons gifted Tennis and Life Camps to the College in 2010, ensuring that the camp’s legacy will be felt at Gustavus for decades to come. Steve and Barb also created an endowed position at Gustavus in sports ethics and men’s tennis, which is currently held by head men’s tennis coach Tommy Valentini.

Wilkinson also played a key role in the fundraising and construction of the Gustavus tennis facilities, which are considered to be among the finest in the nation.

Wilkinson was an outstanding player in his own right. He played No. 1 singles at the University of Iowa and was one of the best players in the Big Ten. After college, Wilkinson played competitive tennis for many years and was ranked No. 1 in the United States in the 45, 50, 55 and 60-and-over divisions. He represented the United States in the Dubler Cup, Perry Cup and Austria Cup competitions, winning the world championship in Montevideo, Uruguay in 1989 and finishing second in Berlin, Germany, in 1992.

Wilkinson was involved in numerous national tennis organizations, serving on the executive committees of the United States Professional Tennis Association (USPTA), the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA), and the United States Tennis Association (USTA). He was inducted into the U.S. Professional Tennis Association’s Hall of Fame, the Intercollegiate Tennis Association’s Hall of Fame, the Gustavus Athletics Hall of Fame, the USTA Missouri Valley Hall of Fame, the Northern Tennis Association Hall of Fame, and the Iowa Tennis Hall of Fame. He received the International Tennis Hall of Fame’s Tennis Educational Merit Award and The Lifetime Achievement Award from the University of Iowa.

Wilkinson is survived by his wife of 48 years, Barbara, two daughters, Stephanie and Deborah, sons-in-law Scott and Jon, four grandchildren, Caroline, Eloise, Stephen, and Audrey, and many relatives and friends. A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. on Saturday, January 31 in at Christ Chapel on the Gustavus campus with Pastor Alan Bray of First Lutheran Church of St. Peter officiating. That service will be live streamed. A luncheon will follow the service in the College’s Evelyn Young Dining Room. Visitation will take place from 4-7 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 30 at First Lutheran Church in St. Peter.

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Star Tribune Feature Obituary: Tennis Coach Wilkinson Served Up Wins and Lessons in Respect

KMSP-FOX 9: Legendary Gustavus Tennis Coach Steve Wilkinson Dies at 73

St. Paul Pioneer Press: Longtime Gustavus Tennis Coach Steve Wilkinson Dies

Star Tribune: Steve Wilkinson, Legendary Gustavus Tennis Coach, Dies at 73

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Mankato Free Press: Life Remembered: Legendary Gustavus Tennis Coach Dies

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Rochester Post-Bulletin: Former Gustavus Tennis Coach Wilkinson Succumbs to Cancer

Sioux City Journal: GSAA Hall of Famer Wilkinson Dies


Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin



  1. Susan Strandberg says:

    What an awesome human being. I was lucky enough to work with him towards a goal he wanted to achieve. He did achieve that goal and honored my dear friend Karen Gibbs. She loved him and they both learned from eachother. He was so good to so many. God blessed the world giving us Wilk- thanks God and thanks Wilk for all you did. Gibber and Wilkenson probably playing tennis right now… So sorry for his family and all touched by him, just so grateful for his life that touched many lives.

  2. Gregg Glader says:

    So sad to read this news. Steve was such a wonderful example of humility, discipline, faith, love & compassion. One of God’s finest works!
    I grew up knowing Karen Gibbs as tennis clinic beginners at Glen Lake school courts in Hopkins.
    At that time, admired Steve’s tennis as a fan. Only in the past few years, got to know Steve and talk with him about his experience with Karen, as well as about life and tennis and faith. So sad to hear this news today, but so grateful to have had the opportunity to really get to know this graceful and wonderful man, teacher & example.
    Wilk, you will be greatly missed and have made an awesome difference in this world, through your love & generosity, and you will be an inspiration that I feel blessed to have planted in my life.

  3. Steve Rajewsky says:

    I’m saddened to hear of Wilk’s passing, yet am not surprised by his courageous fight these past years! What a blessing he and Barb have been to tennis players and students at GAC, the greater tennis community and thousands of tennis players who have came through TLC, young and old. I enjoyed by 2 years at TLC, and appreciated his support for Blue Earth tennis, and the lessons we learned from Wilk and our former coach, St Peter native and TLC instructor David Aasen. I hope they are enjoyed their reuniting beyond the sky! Thanks Wilk and Barb for all you’ve done for so many. Rest in peace, Wilk!

  4. Todd and Kim Garves says:

    Steve is an inspiration. He taught us to continually “practice” the 3 Crowns (positive attitude, full effort, sportsmanship/Golden rule), as he understood we are all human and we will never perfect these goals. But we can always be better by trying.

    Steve will be missed, but always remembered. I am thankful that he touched our lives. A wonderful person !

    Let Love Serve.

  5. Jay and Dena Morgan says:

    It is a sad day to know that we have lost Steve Wilkinson. We knew Steve as a college tennis coach for our son Adam and his years at Gustavus were the best learning experience ever! Steve taught us by his example and there wasn’t any better example to learn from. We will always remember his great smile and wonderful personality. Our thoughts and prayers are with Barb and his family.

  6. Bob Haddorff says:

    Ginger and I are proud and grateful that Steve Wilkinson coached our two boys, Ryan and Ben, from 1991 through 1998. His philosophy of maximum effort, positive attitude, and good sportsmanship are relevant for both tennis and life. We are saddened with his passing, however, we celebrate a great life that helped so many people for so many years.

  7. Kathi Robinson says:

    I am saddened to hear of Steve Wilkinson’s passing. Last summer I had the pleasure of meeting Steve, Barb and the staff of TLC at my first summer tennis camp. As a first time camper at age 57 and never before playing tennis, it was an amazing four days and I’ll never be able to express with proper gratitude what I learned and experienced during that time. Steve and Barb created something wonderful and I look forward to Steve’s continuing presence from above at this year’s camp.

    I too feel blessed to have known Steve Wilkinson, if even for such a short time.

  8. Samantha Rother says:

    While working at Swanson Tennis Center during my time at Gustavus I had the opportunity to see the positive impact Coach Wilkinson had on the lives of so many. A shining example of leaving the world a better place than you found it. I’ll miss the opportunity to chat with Steve when I return to campus each spring for Relay For Life. Our loss is heaven’s gain. Sending wishes of peace to Barb, the Gustavus community and everyone Steve touched.

  9. Tom Foss says:

    Steve was a great man! I was fortunate enough to have played for him in the 1987-1989 season and teach tennis for him at his tennis & life camps the summers of 1987 & 1988. Steve was also was kind enough to get me my 1st real job after I graduated in Arizona teaching tennis for his brother Mike at Arizona Country Club. As simple as it sounds, Steve taught me so much about life and tennis. His mentoring, coaching, and friendship played a major role in to who I am today! I enjoyed my time at Gustavus, those memories are some of the best I in my life all thanks to Steve. The trip to Hawaii for a month in 1987 was a trip of a lifetime for a kid from Fargo! My favorite times with Steve were here in AZ when years after my college playing days were over, when Steve and the team would travel to AZ for tennis matches he would take time out of his busy schedule to come over to Arizona Country Club and play me in some practice matches! I will not say who won, I will just let you wonder. Steve akso assisted me in getting over the early death of my mother in 1987.

    Steve touched so many people’s lives in so many great ways, I truly owe him my life and he will always have my respect. 🙂

  10. Kadie Davis says:

    While I did not play tennis or take any classes from Steve, I did have some contact with him through my work-study job. He was always smiling and always asking how my day was going. He was truly a gem of a man and will be missed by the campus, the St. Peter community and the world as a whole. I am sending prayers for comfort and peace to Barb, their family and all those grieving Steve’s passing.

  11. Nancy (Reko) Steinke says:

    My sympathy to the Wilkinson family and the greater GAC Community. A sad loss.

  12. Therese & Peter Waltz says:

    Steve was an exceptional human being. If only EVERYONE could’ve met him and spent time with him. My husband and I and our daughters have been to the Tennis & Life Camp over the years. Steve made such a huge impression on us and everyone that got to know him. I think of him so often and continually strive to conduct myself both on and off the court like he did and how he encouraged us all to be. He will be missed but will truly live on forever.

  13. Rebecca and Chanel (Tennis and Life Campers) says:

    What an honor to have meet Mr. Wilkinson and his wife Barbara. Such lovely, happy, gracious, positive people to be around. I was saddened to hear our world has lost such a inspirational, loving and dedicated man. My condolence to Barbara, family and the GAC Community.

    The greatness of a man is not in how much wealth he acquires, but in his integrity and his ability to affect those around him positively = Steve Wilkinson.

  14. Barbara Castille says:

    As a school counselor in Pennsylvania, I “discovered” Gustavus for our son, Rob, and he attended Gustavus, a school unknown to most Pennsylvanians, and was coached by Wilk in the mid-90’s. How fortunate Rob was to have had Wilk as a coach, mentor, and life-teacher. What an incredible man he was. He will be greatly missed and remembered by all who were blessed to have known him. His beliefs in and emphasis on the “three crowns” will continue to influence those who knew and worked with him. Rest in peace, Coach.

  15. sven thierhoff says:

    Steve is radiating love, wisdom and smiles all over the world…..for generations to come …..

  16. Tami Beehner says:

    My thoughts and prayers are with all of you during this difficult time. Steve touched so many lives with his energy and passion for life and tennis, thus the name for “Tennis and Life”. I’m sure everyone in heaven has a racquet in their hand and learning to play or practicing. I’m glad I got to reconnect with Steve through Stephanie and coming to his book signing this summer. Hugs and prayers!

  17. Brad Olson '95 says:

    Saddened by the death of my college tennis coach, mentor and friend, Steve Wilkinson. He was an amazing teacher of tennis and life. He served others with humility and a tireless attitude. He modeled gratitude and faith in all he did. He fought a courageous battle against cancer and defied the odds living much longer than predicted. Barb, Stephanie, Deb and family you are all in my thoughts and prayers. I am grateful that “Wilk’s” legacy can live on through so many of his players from Gustavus and Tennis & Life Camps. I am so glad he was able to share his life and wisdom in his recent book “Let Love Serve”. Order a copy of you get the chance! I trust Steve is dancing with Jesus tonight!!

  18. Mayank Capoor says:

    All my thoughts and all my prayers are with Steve’s family! A great man and a great Coach!

  19. Catherine Asta '75 says:

    I had Wilk as my freshman religion teacher. It was an amazing class. Several years ago, Wilk and I served on the same Gustavus 150 Commission committee, and worked together on the same subcommittee. He was determined to address concerns for students dealing with alcohol abuse and addiction issues. It was a joy to work with him. He continued to want to make things better for the students at Gustavus. I sent him an e-mail mid-December after I saw him featured on WCCO telling him how much I enjoyed the story, and he sent an update e-mail back to me. Always a class act. I will miss seeing him on campus when I return for events.

  20. Jay Soule '80' says:

    I was fortunate enough to be at Gustavus from 1976-1980. Unfortunately, I never had the privilege to have played for Wilk. I did have numerous friends who were on those teams and got to see him up close as he shared his wisdom with them. There are so many words that you could use to describe Wilk…coach, teacher, mentor, counselor and to some even a surrogate father-figure.
    One word I have come to realize what Wilk was to me…”GUSTAVUS!” Wilk embodied everything that is so incredible about our amazing school! The lessons he taught coaching tennis and he always reminded you, that these are “life-lessons!” Wilk made Gustavus more than just a school, Gustavus was (and is) a life-long experience. Wilk was with us in body for many years and now lives with us ALWAYS, in Spirit!!

  21. Kathleen Rowland says:

    Steve Wilkinson touched many people with his kindness, honesty and respect. I can’t imagine how his wife Barbara is feeling but know she was a steadfast and encouraging throughout their marriage and during his final battle. I’m sending thoughts and prayers to Barbara and their daughters, and the entire family. I pray for the peaceful repose of Steve Wilkinson’s soul.
    Sending caring and loving thoughts,

  22. Richard Lee says:

    Coach Wilkinson can rest in peace knowing he left a powerful, enduring legacy that reaches beyond Gustavus. Our son played tennis at a different school, but was coached as a junior player by Gustavus alums – Ryan Dussault and Todd Bowlby – who imparted much of Steve Wilkinson’s valuable tennis and life philosophy to him. Focus on what’s in your control. Stay positive. Respect your opponent. Do the best you can do today. We will honor Steve’s life work by living it and spreading it as best we can.

  23. Len Saputo says:

    Steve and I were competitors and partners for a number of years on the senior tennis circuit. I watched him win the highest quality match I saw over the years in any tournament when he gave Peter Pokorny a lesson in Senior Davis Cup competition. I also played with him when we lost the final match in Stevens Cup Competition in South America, losing in the final to Argentina.
    Winning was always important to Steve, but it was not what was most important. I know he got more pleasure from the joy of seeing how happy the winning team was and what it meant to them. Argentina had won its first Stevens Cup Championship and the US had lost its first.
    We celebrated with the Argentine team and fans until the wee hours of the morning. One of our rewards was being invited (for the first and only time in history of the event) to return the following year for a repeat match.
    I join with our many Argentine friends and everyone who knew Steve to celebrate his life and know we will all miss him immensely… Sending his family and friends much love.

  24. Jan Johnson USPTA (Because you inspired me to be) says:

    Such a great man who touched so many lives in his lifetime —and one of the greatest at teaching life lessons through the profession of “tennis”— Thank you Steve.