Editor’s Note: The following first appeared in the University of Iowa’s Hawk Talk Daily, an e-newsletter that offers a daily look at the Iowa Hawkeyes, delivered free each morning to thousands of fans of the Hawkeyes worldwide. To receive daily news from the Iowa Hawkeyes, sign up HERE.
By RICK BROWN
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Tyler Cleveland was a junior when he pulled off an unprecedented Big Ten double-dip in 2000.
The University of Iowa tennis standout became the first student-athlete in conference history to be named The Big Ten’s Sportsman of the Year and Athlete of the Year in the same season.
Those are two shining accomplishments on Cleveland’s loaded resume. He was also The Big Ten’s Player of the Year in 2000 and 2001, Freshman of the Year in 1998, the the singles champion in 2000 and ITA singles champion in 1999.
“The Sportsman of the Year was a big one for me,” Cleveland said. “Growing up, I had always had a problem with my on-court behavior and temperament and all that stuff. To win that was a sign that I had come a long way. I was happy about that.”
Cleveland, now an investment advisor representative in his hometown of Fairfield, Iowa, will be one of seven inductees into the National Iowa Varsity Club Hall of Fame on Sept. 2.
“I never thought it would happen,” Cleveland said. “I was happy and pleasantly surprised when they called and told me. It’s a huge honor. It solidifies my career. That career is only four years long, but being in the Hall of Fame will last forever.”
Cleveland has had a racquet in his hands since the age of six, and his family played a big influence in his passion for the sport. Especially his brother, Kyle, and his sister, Heidi.
“They would play with my parents, and I was like the little ball boy running around,” Cleveland said. “That motivated me to get on the court.”
Tyler played in his first tournament at seven years of age, and drew interest from college recruiters after winning three state prep titles playing for Maharishi School in Fairfield.
“I looked at a ton of schools, and had some decent offers,” Cleveland said. “But I liked Iowa, mostly because of coach (Steve) Houghton. I developed a relationship with him while I was being recruited and I felt like he was a good guy and I wanted to play for him.”
Houghton, who spent 47 seasons at Iowa as a student-athlete or coach, including 33 years as the head coach, retired in September, 2014. He is the winningest coach in school history.
“He had a pretty amazing career,” Cleveland said.
Cleveland still holds school records for career wins (103), career winning percentage (.797) and single-season victories (32 in 1999-2000). He was named the team’s most valuable player four times. Iowa’s MVP award is now named after Cleveland.
“I never thought it would happen. I was happy and pleasantly surprised when they called and told me. It’s a huge honor. It solidifies my career. That career is only four years long, but being in the Hall of Fame will last forever.” — Tyler Cleveland, UI Hall of Famer
He made an immediate impact by being named the Big Ten’s top freshman in 1998.
“Coming from Iowa, I didn’t play year-round tennis because I played basketball and other sports,” Cleveland said. “So it was a little bit unexpected in some ways to do that well that fast. To win Big Ten Freshman of the Year was an exciting time, because I was improving so fast and so much by being at Iowa, and playing with good players every day. My game kept getting better and better.”
By the time he reached his junior season, Cleveland took the court with a wealth of confidence.
“I had switched from a two-handed backhand to a one-handed backhand kind of late in my career (in high school),” Cleveland said. “It took me awhile to develop a lot of confidence on that side. By the time I was a junior I started to feel like I had control of my game.”
Cleveland never hit a plateau in college. He credits his multi-sport high school career for that.
“It motivated me to try harder, to practice harder, and to try and get in better shape because when I came in, I wasn’t burned out from tennis like a lot of junior players are,” Cleveland said “A lot of people had been doing this full-time since they were 12, 13, or 14-years-old, whereas I didn’t start until I was 18 so I had a lot of catching up to do.”
Cleveland made the NCAA Tournament as a sophomore and junior, but missed it as a senior after taking the fall semester off to compete in some professional tournaments.
“I think that got me down in the rankings, and I didn’t have the semester to build my ranking up,” Cleveland said. “That’s where you can be an All-American and all that stuff. I missed out on all that.”
Cleveland decided to go to work with his brother after completing his Iowa career instead of chasing professional tennis.
“I was a little burned out from tennis because I had taken the fall semester of my senior year off and had played in some professional tournaments,” Cleveland said. “I got a taste of what that would be like. At that point in my life it wasn’t what I wanted to do.”
Cleveland had a change of heart four years later. He had watched one of his former Iowa teammates, Stuart Waters, and saw he was having some success.
“I felt like it would be fun to go out and play and travel with him and see what I could do,” Cleveland said. “It was great for the first year, because I was moving up in the rankings fast, I was seeing a lot of progress and was playing better than I ever had in college.”
But Cleveland started to break down physically from the traveling and wear and tear of 35 tournaments a year. He played in his final professional tournament in 2007, then returned to Fairfield and the business world.
His Iowa tennis career remains the source of many fond memories.
“I look back on those years as some of the best years of my life,” Cleveland said. “I had great relationships with teammates and coaches and enjoyed being in Iowa City.
About the Author
Rick Brown is a native of Fort Dodge, Iowa, and a University of Iowa graduate. He covered Iowa athletics for the past four decades for the Des Moines Register prior to his retirement in December.