DePaul Coach's Cheap Recruiting Trips: No Car, Long Walks, Canned Chicken

By Justin Breen on February 18, 2013 10:48am | Updated on February 18, 2013 11:56am

LINCOLN PARK — DePaul University women's tennis coach Mark Ardizzone calls himself the "underdog" for good reason.

Ardizzone, 46, learned to play the sport in his late teens, assembling rackets with used string from garbage cans.

He competed at the college level — at the College of DuPage and Northwest Missouri State — and was ranked nationally despite at times weighing 250 pounds.

And since taking over the Blue Demons in 1995, he's built a successful program, thanks in large part, to lengthy recruiting trips to Europe, where he sleeps in $9-a-day hotels, walks hours to tournaments and lives off canned chicken and Coke Zero.

"He always told us he was the kid who was a fighter who outworks people," said Dunja Antunovic, a former DePaul player and assistant coach who's now pursuing a doctorate in mass communications at Penn State.

"One thing I learned by being mentored by him is really being appreciative of what I have."

Solitary lifestyle suits him well

Ardizzone, who grew up in Beverly, said he always has been a loner.

He lives by himself in a small apartment in Portage Park, which he rents from DePaul softball coach Eugene Lenti. His prized possession is a 60-inch television, which he uses to watch countless hockey games on the NHL Center Ice package. He said his upstairs neighbors call him "the ghost".

Ardizzone rarely speaks to his mother and has no contact with his four sisters. He didn't talk to his father, Nick, for the eight years prior to his death in 1990.

He's never been married and has no children.

"My wife probably would have gotten rid of me after two weeks," Ardizzone said.

But the lonely lifestyle has served Ardizzone well when it comes to his career.

He's the Blue Demons' all-time winningest coach — this year they were 7-2 through Sunday — and led them to the 2010 NCAA tournament.

"His experiences have made him tougher," said Ardizzone's best friend since 1986, Lewis University tennis coach Brett Bridel. "He's just so wrapped up in wanting the team to do well and for his students to do well that his teams are very successful. I think that's the reason he's happy."

 DePaul women's tennis coach Mark Ardizzone led the Blue Demons to the NCAA tournament in 2010.
DePaul women's tennis coach Mark Ardizzone led the Blue Demons to the NCAA tournament in 2010.
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DePaul Athletics

Ardizzone credits much of the program's success to his visits to Europe. He takes three or four solo European trips a year for recruiting — some as long as 20 days.

"It's business to me," he said. "I wasn't going to recruit off videos. I want to meet the family."

His hotel rooms, many of which have closets that double as bathrooms, aren't exactly the Ritz Carlton. He described one shower in Serbia as a "hose in a crate".

He does not rent cars during the visits, instead he sometimes walks hours to tournaments, even in bad weather.

"He walked a few hours in a snowstorm to watch me play, and he didn't even get to meet me until the next day," said DePaul sophomore Jasmin Kling of Heilbronn, Germany — the Big East freshman of the year in 2012.

An office full of European flags

Ardizzone has been to almost every European country to seek out players. And it's paid off.

Even though Ardizzone speaks only English, he's signed players from Sweden, Romania, Estonia, Croatia, Serbia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Germany and Spain. He has a flag in his office from each of those countries as reminders of his success.

"He's just really respectful of all cultures," said Belgrade, Serbia native Katarina Milinkovic, a Logan Square resident who played at DePaul and is now a graduate assistant coach. "He really likes to get to know the country he's in."

Despite the language barrier and lack of transportation, Ardizzone said he's panicked only a few times while in Europe.

Once was five years ago while jogging with a backpack in Vinkovci, Croatia. Two police cars pulled up next to him, and officers pulled out their guns.

"I'm about to have a heart attack, and they said that someone had called them and said I looked l had stolen something. I didn't know that people didn't jog on the streets there," said Ardizzone, who added everyone started laughing when they realized he was an American just out for a run and not a thief. "I didn't jog anywhere the rest of the trip."

Another much less serious occasion Ardizzone became nervous was when he lost his can opener — an essential item considering he eats an 80-calorie can of Kirkland chicken almost daily when overseas.

Ardizzone consumes the chicken — and drinks all that Coke Zero (his "water" in Europe) — because it's cheap and because it's helped him drop large amounts of weight. He tipped the scales at more than 300 pounds as recently as 2005, but he currently weighs 195.

Even in college, Ardizzone wasn't exactly athletic. Bridel met Ardizzone when they played each other. Bridel wore his College of DuPage uniform, but Ardizzone, then playing for Moraine Valley Community College, donned an Edmonton Oilers jersey, ripped sweatpants and duct tape on his tennis shoes.

"I thought it was a joke at first," said Bridel, who beat Ardizzone and estimated he weighed 250-plus pounds. "But once we started playing, I could tell he could play."

Ardizzone continues to embraces that "underdog" mentality.

"I've worked hard, and I love college athletics," he said. "I'm glad I get a chance to coach a sport I love. I didn't know if I could do anything else in my life except be a coach."

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