They called him “The Kamikaze Pilot.”
When Michael Center drove to the hoop for Manhattan High’s boys basketball team, opponents had to brace themselves. Center wouldn’t slow down. He wouldn’t avoid the defender, either.
That would defeat the purpose.
“At the beginning of every game, invariably, if a guy got in my way, I would run him over just to say, ‘Hey, if I come back here in the fourth quarter, you better be ready, because I’m going to go to the basket. I’m going to knock you down at the beginning of the game to make you think twice about standing there at the end of the game,’” Center said in a phone interview.
Hence the nickname, bestowed upon Center by his head coach, Mike Leahy. Mercury articles of the time — the early 1980s — referred to Center as such, too. One story from the 1982 season praised his leadership, noting his 11.4-points-per-game average, and the fact he had “the highest field goal percentage” among the Indians’ starting five.
Yet for all his talent on the hardwood, it’s another court where Center has made his mark, leaving a legacy in the Lone Star State that traces its roots to Manhattan.
Coaching the men’s tennis team at Texas’ flagship university since the turn of the new millennium, as Center has done, helps someone make their mark.
Even if earlier athletic achievements seemingly encapsulated him as a basketball player.
His nickname notwithstanding, Center didn’t grace The Mercury via prose alone.
Time and again, his photo found its way into pages of the paper — a source of great consternation for Center.
“They kept putting my picture in the paper and I was like, ‘This is getting embarrassing. They’ve got to get some other guys’ pictures in there,’” he said. “It’s because the strength of our team was that we probably had eight guys who averaged between eight and 12 points per game. We just had a balanced team.”
But his greatest athletic exploit at MHS came during his final season in the sport that’s been his livelihood the past 29 years.
By the time Center arrived at Manhattan High, Center had developed a close circle of friends. The same people he played with every day in his neighborhood went to Manhattan Junior High. That group eventually matriculated to the high school.
So whenever he took the floor for the Indians, there was a comfort level.
“A lot of those guys, I played all the way through junior high with,” he said. “You really had a lot of commonalities, a lot of good friends. Everybody kind of stuck together.”
Seeing his friends who didn’t play basketball sitting in the front row during games. Hearing the pep band play. Listening to the roar of the crowd.
The thrill, in Center’s mind, couldn’t be matched — even though he won an individual state title in tennis as a senior in 1982.
“I was fortunate enough to win the state title, which a was nice experience. Playing high school tennis was great,” he said. “But I have to admit probably the most exciting moment was playing high school basketball. ... There was nothing like the energy of coming out for a high school basketball game.”
Even so, Center was every bit as intense on the tennis court. And that, Center said, was arguably his greatest asset.
“I would fight you pretty hard and I had a pretty good serve,” he said. “The rest of my game, I would say, was average at best. But I served fairly big, and I would compete. That was probably my best weapon: I just didn’t like to lose.”
And he didn’t taste defeat even once during his senior campaign. Center went 31-0 en route to capturing the state title, capping it with a 6-2, 6-2 victory over Topeka High’s Doug Gleason in the championship match.
“I felt coming into my senior season I could win state, and that I had a good chance,” Center said. “Looking back on it, it was exciting and a great accomplishment. I’m happy and proud I was able to do it.”
Center isn’t greedy, either. After hearing MHS freshman Daniel Harkin finished fourth at the 6A state tournament last month — beginning the season 23-0 before losing his final two matches — Center hopes Harkin joins him in the school’s record books.
There’s room for both, after all.
“I didn’t realize I was the last state champion. That was 1982, so it’s been quite a few years,” he said, “but if someone can come along and win another state championship there, that would be fantastic. I would be very proud of them.”
‘The least-recruited player ever’
Though he loved basketball, Center was realistic.
He wasn’t all that quick. His 6-foot-1 stature was merely average by basketball’s gargantuan standards. And his leaping ability was lacking.
“So I knew I was a little limited,” he said.
Sure, he said, he probably could have played college basketball — somewhere. Perhaps a Division II school, or a Division I school in a smaller league. But Center’s aim was attending a large school. That’s why he pursued collegiate tennis.
Surprisingly, Center said his state championship didn’t garner much attention.
“I was probably the least-recruited player ever, because my junior tennis career was not that stellar,” he said. “I was really more of a regional player, a state player. This was before the Internet, so people didn’t know who (other) people were. I wasn’t really on the national scene. I was really more of an athlete playing tennis than a tennis player.”
All he cared about was latching on at a large school and working hard. He found both at Kansas. Though he had an offer from Kansas State — where his father taught biology — Center said the decision didn’t keep him up at night.
He loved Manhattan.
He just wanted something new.
“Manhattan is a lovely, wonderful place, and I think K-State is a wonderful school,” Center said. “But I felt like I was ready to leave town. I don’t think it was ever really on the plate that I was battling back and forth.”
When he cast his lot with the Jayhawks, Center said there was “a little” controversy. Eschewing the hometown Wildcats rubbed some the wrong way.
But he doesn’t regret leaving for Lawrence.
He walked in the door at the same time as Scott Perelman, who became the head coach of both the men’s and women’s tennis teams at Kansas in 1982.
Seven years later, Perelman called Center in the middle of the night
“He said, ‘Hey, I want you to come back and be the head women’s coach,” Center recalls. “At that time, those jobs were not that desirable. You didn’t make any money, and there wasn’t that much competition for the job. But I thought about it and said, ‘Well, this would be a great way to get into college athletics. This is a way for me to get my foot in the door.’ So I ended up taking the job, and here I am 30 years later still coaching college tennis.”
‘The eyes of Texas are upon you’
When NCAA tennis picks up again this fall, Center will be in a familiar place: at the helm of Texas’ men’s team. Center has been the Longhorns’ head coach since July 2000, taking over the from Dave Snyder, who retired after 28 years in the position.
Since then, Center has helped the Longhorns maintain a spot among the most consistent programs in the sport.
Texas has made the NCAA Championship every season of Center’s 18-year tenure. He has won 72.7 percent (365-137) of his matches and taken the Longhorns to the Final Four three times. That includes a spot in the NCAA finals in 2008, where Texas fell to Georgia. In 2006, Center led the Longhorns to their best final national ranking — No. 3 — in the school’s history.
This past season, Center won the ITA Region Coach of the Year award for the fourth time — he also earned the honor in 2006, 2010 and 2016 — after guiding Texas to a 19-7 overall record and its first Big 12 Tournament title since 2010.
Though he also has head coaching stints at Kansas and TCU, he admits the environment in Austin is different.
Such are the heightened expectations at the largest athletics department in the nation.
“I felt it a little bit more here,” said Center, alluding to the pressure. “They say, ‘The eyes of Texas are upon you.’ I just told myself to work as hard as I could and do the best I could. That’s how I evaluate it at the end of the year. I always ask myself, ‘Did I do the best I could do this year?’ Hopefully I’ll keep saying ‘yes.’”
For all his accomplishments, Center says he doesn’t them much attention. Reflection, he said, won’t take place until his career is “all said and done.” Pry a bit more, though, and Center relents: putting together an NCAA Tournament-worthy team every year is satisfying.
“Whether you get coach of the year or your team wins,” he said, “I guess I just feel good we’ve been able to compete and have a good team year in and year out.”
Support on all sides
At 54 years old, Center says he’s “definitely closer to the end than the beginning.” But he doesn’t want to put a number on it, either.
He said he’ll know when the time is right.
“As long as I can enjoy it and as long as we’re doing OK and they’re happy with me here, I’m going to keep doing it,” he said. “I want to keep moving. I want to stay active.”
It helps to have support.
Since their marriage in 2000, Center’s wife, Allison, has been there every step of the way. A tennis player herself, Center said his wife understands the daily grind.
And she knows how to get him on track.
“I think it takes a special person to deal with a coach and the anxiety you feel during a season in getting ready for matches,” Center said. “I’m terrible. I lose my focus and I get thinking about the team and what we need to do at practice or ‘This guy is hurt’ or whatever it might be, and she’ll just reel me in and say, ‘Hey, get with it. You’ve got a family here that you need to pay attention to.’”
That family includes two sons, David and Benjamin. Though they don’t play tennis — basketball is their sport of choice — Center is happy with the opportunities his position entitles.
“It’s been really fun to take them to UT football games or UT basketball games or whatever it may be and let them be a part of the culture here as they’ve grown up,” Center said. “I’m lucky that I’ve got a great family.”
He’s every bit as thankful for Manhattan.
No, he said, he has hasn’t visited as much as he’d like — much to the chagrin of his parents, who still live in town.
Yet without the lessons he learned and the Manhattanites who shaped his life, Center says nothing he’s achieved would have been possible.
“The community of Manhattan gave me a lot,” he said. “People in town knew one another, and the parents knew you and supported you. It was a great place to grow up and develop as a person. It helped me a lot in my coaching and who I am as a person. I owe Manhattan and that town a lot for helping me get where I am today.”