Speak to his current and former pupils, and one hears a few repeated terms about James Hayes.
Phrases like “hard working” and “dedicated” come when talking about his coaching. Class and principles come up when discussing his work with kids, both in sports and as an educator.
Hayes, 55, retired a year ago as assistant principal of Meadowview Middle School, wrapping up a 33-year career in education that began at Patrick County High School and included 20 years at Mount Airy High.
“He was a true mentor to me as a tennis coach, but more importantly as a life coach,” wrote Luke Gravitte, a local dentist and former student who nominated Hayes for the Mount Airy Sports Hall of Fame this spring.
“I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to play on his team, starting in the late 1980s,” Gravitte wrote in his nomination letter.
“As a coach, he was very hard working and always willing to go the extra mile for his team,” stated Gravitte.
“Even though he was married and had two young children, he was always willing to stay late, practice on weekends or make other sacrifices to help his team and players be the best they could be – during tennis season and throughout the year.”
“His work ethic and excitement for the game made us all want to work and play that much harder,” agreed Derrick Slate, another former player who was named to the Hall of Fame himself last year.
Hayes learned that work ethic as a farm boy growing up in Pine Ridge.
“I used to prime tobacco for Jim Dunbar, George Beamer and Pete Smoot – local farmers in the Pine Ridge area – for $1.50 an hour,” Hayes said.
“I learned to play tennis at Harold Taylor’s tennis court on Pine Ridge Road,” he said. “I realize it was a little unusual to have a tennis court in Pine Ridge, but Harry was a an avid tennis player and built his own court.”
As an only child, the individual nature of the game appealed to the young Hayes, and on weekends he could be found at Harry’s place.
“We used to play doubles with Bill Tolson – one of the original tennis coaches in Mount Airy – and Sam Jordan on Saturdays and Sundays. That is sort of where I got my start.”
At North Surry, Hayes said he played baseball, but wasn’t that good. After graduating in 1974, he attended Surry Community College and discovered that it had a men’s tennis team under Dr. Jim Reeves.
He jumped at the chance to play for the college and regrets not trying to make the Appalachian State team as a walk-on.
Hayes said he played or practiced almost every day while at SCC and Appalachian State.
“Weather permitting, which sometimes was a challenge at ASU,” he said, speaking of the winter snow storms prevalent on the mountain.
Without any private lessons to assist him, Hayes instead turned to books and instructional videos to learn more about tennis.
When he graduated in 1978 with a bachelor’s degree in math, Hayes found himself in the midst of a job crunch for teachers.
A lot of school systems were going through a reduction in force, he recalled. He felt fortunate to land a job at Patrick County High.
The school immediately put him to work in coaching. He was named head tennis coach and freshman football coach. In his six years in Stuart, Va., he also was assistant varsity football coach and freshman and JV basketball coach.
His tennis teams went 52-20, and he was named tennis coach of the year in 1980 and 1982.
While at Patrick County, he met his future wife Mary Alice Byers.
She was working there, too, but Hayes watched her from afar, not daring to ask her out for two years. The two were married a couple of years after that and will celebrate 30 years of matrimony on Wednesday.
In 1984, he had a chance to return to Surry County with an opening at Mount Airy.
For the first two years, he didn’t coach, but still assisted as an athletic trainer.
Then he became an assistant coach for the women’s tennis team that won the state title in 1987.
The next year he took over coaching both the boys and girls tennis teams.
Inheriting a quality group of players, Hayes led the girls team to three straight conference and regional championships and five in seven years. The team repeated as state champs in 1988 and went 100-8 over his seven seasons.
He was named conference coach of the year four times in seven seasons, and doubles team Christie Sanders and Keri Whitehead won three straight state titles (1987-89).
“In every case, I took over a good program,” he said modestly. “It’s not like they were at the bottom. But I did want to get them to the next level.”
That certainly was the case with the boys team. Mount Airy had never won a state title in the sport when he took over, but the boys picked up four state singles titles and one doubles title in his 15 years.
The team also won 10 straight conference titles.
Hayes went 271-62 over his 15 years, but during that 10-year run the Bears put together an incredible 97-3 record in conference play. For his efforts, he was named coach of the year 10 times in 15 seasons.
He continued to coach the boys after turning over the girls team, but then picked up some other coaching work, too.
From 1997-99 he was the boys JV basketball coach, twice winning the conference championship.
From 2000-2003, he was the head coach for the girls basketball team and amassed a record of 89-21. He won three coach of the year honors after three straight conference championships.
The team also was the sectional champion in 2002, the same year that his son Bryan won a state title with the boys team as point guard.
When his daughter Ashlie showed an interest in volleyball as a child, he began researching that sport to learn all he could.
For the 2000-01 seasons, he was the head volleyball coach and led the team to the state playoffs in his second year.
And when he stepped down as tennis coach in March 2004, he didn’t leave the cupboard bare. William John won back-to-back singles titles immediately after Hayes accepted the assistant principal post at West Stokes.
Being an administrator put an end to his coaching career, but didn’t diminish his desire for it. While working as assistant principal at Cedar Ridge and Meadowview, he gave private tennis lessons on the side.
He said he works with Sarah Glasco, the top seed at North Surry, as well as six of the top 10 players on the Lady Bears team.
He bragged on his wife for keeping Mount Airy well stocked with young tennis talent.
Mary Alice is the tennis coach at Mount Airy Middle School and has an 86-match winning streak, he noted.
She also has taught multiple sports, including gymnastics, basketball and girls track, he added.
He gave another thanks to Polly Cox for teaching tennis lessons to the beginners at Cross Creek Country Club for many years.
“I still feel pretty fortunate to be able to stay in contact with tennis after three knee surgeries, elbow surgery and back surgery,” he said.
He said he believes that practice should always be harder than any game or match. Players should be drilled on every possible contingent so that nothing surprises them on the basketball court or tennis court.
One big difference between the two sports is that basketball requires teamwork to be successful. Singles tennis leaves a player out there alone.
He said he always stressed cohesion and camaraderie with his players.
He recalled once when the parent of an Elkin player sent a letter to the editor about how amazed she was at the way the Bears supported their teammates during matches.
One of the team-building activities he supported was an annual trip to Hilton Head, S.C., for a coaching workshop with tennis coaching legend Dennis Van de Meer.
Van de Meer has been running a tennis academy there since 1979 and is well respected in the sport, Hayes pointed out.
Many of the principles that Hayes used in practice were echoed at the academy, but Hayes believed it was a good idea to reinforce those ideals – especially coming from someone with a much bigger reputation, he laughed.
Slate spoke of his coach’s encouragement during his title match in 1994.
“I had lost the first set,” he recalled. “Coach Hayes came down to the fence and said, ‘Son, this may be the only chance you ever get to win this title. Wake up and win this match.’
“I proceeded to win the next couple of sets with a new-found energy. Coach Hayes always believed in the underdog and the fighter that lies within us all.”
“He is a person who exemplifies good character, has an outstanding reputation and always demonstrated class and good sportsmanship on and off the court,” added Gravitte.
With those reasons, it’s no surprise that about a dozen former players showed up to watch his acceptance speech to the Hall this spring.