Roberts becomes the 19th head coach in Bulldog tennis history, replacing his boss Per Nilsson who accepted a comparable post at Pepperdine. The promotion was announced a week ago and Tuesday athletics director Scott Stricklin presented Roberts formally.
"I want to thank Scott for believing in me to take over and carry on what Per and I have done the last two years," Roberts said.
Two good years they were, too, as Mississippi State tennis extended a run of NCAA play to a full four seasons now. Nilsson's final Bulldog team went 19-11 overall, 7-5 in the SEC, and advanced to the round of 16 in the national championships. While giving the former Bulldog player-turned-successful head coach due credit, Stricklin recognized the role his assistant played in producing winning teams.
"I'm really excited we're in a position to reward Matt for his hard work and what he's done here in his time at Mississippi State," Stricklin said. "And, to be in a position where you have a program able to attain a level of consistency and success where you have options on your staff and don't have to go outside."
Roberts actually began as an outsider to State if not the SEC. An Arkansas alumnus and player from 2003-06, Roberts joined the Bulldog staff after three seasons at Michigan State. He has previously worked as a volunteer assistant at Arkansas-Little Rock in 2008, and been a club professional Maine and Arkansas. He played on the ATP circuit in both singles and doubles.
Though his years up north were crucial to his coaching development, Roberts said he always intended to return South. In fact, "I told the associate athletic director there (at Michigan State) I hoped to be head coach of a SEC school. We just have a higher drive for being good in all our sports." Fortunately the administrator didn't take Roberts' ambition badly.
And his short tenure so far in Starkville have been as intense as productive for a head-coach-in-waiting. "It's been a packed two years, to maintain that ranking. What I've learned in two years a lot of people don't learn in five or six." At the same time Roberts reminds that the SEC's standards of excellence has its challenges, which he certainly learned as a player at one league school and on staff at this one.
Of the six lettermen, and much of the incoming recruiting class, most were recruited by Roberts. Where at Michigan State he says the best American prospects could be courted and enough signed to compete, in this part of country a good team has to be built from beyond the borders. The nation's borders. That is just fact.
"This is a completely different ball game," Roberts said. "You have to recruit the international world." Fortunately Mississippi State has been able to build a name and make connections all around the globe in the last two decades under previous coaches. The other trick, said Roberts, is not only identifying players; but finding those that will fit in on this campus.
"You have to recruit talent that is good enough to win in the SEC. With that, we also look for the character, and that they're coming here for the right reasons."
This isn't any issue of course with the existing 2014-15 roster. Though they scattered after the spring semester and NCAA play, current and incoming Bulldogs know about the change. And Roberts said they approve.
"I've talked to them all on Skype, and they're all really excited. For them to hear me talking about our schedule and what we have ahead of us pumps them up."
Stricklin was pretty pumped himself to have such a smooth transition opportunity, avoiding a lengthy search process. His summary is why interrupt a program that is running well and has potential to keep improving further?
"Our mens tennis team has finished in the top twenty four-straight years, and made the round of 16 in that time. To be able to maintain that type of consistency speaks a lot to the work Per and Matt have done. Matt has the work ethic, he's competitive, and can figure things out. He's proven in a short period of time he has the ability to do those things."
Stricklin is also proud to note how Roberts continues his trend of hiring up-and-coming assistants as head coaches for State sports. Roberts certainly fits that mold, and is among the younger hires in fact; he turns 30 on July 9. "You have to be patient and wait your time, and I felt everything was working in the right direction."
"But I definitely feel like I'm ready, and the last week has been unbelievable how much support you have from everyone in the athletic department. I'm fully into it and it's great that I'm able to continue and keeping things in the right direction. I'm excited about what we have in place."