Ardizzone's European Odyssey Stretches the Imagination
July 6, 2012
CHICAGO - Mark Ardizzone arrived in Europe on Friday fortified with a case of canned chicken and a passionate resolve to discover some hidden gems for the DePaul women's tennis program.
This is far from your usual college recruiting odyssey.
Ardizzone will go to extremes that stretch the imagination during his 20-day journey through Germany, Spain, Holland, Turkey, Croatia and Serbia.
The aforementioned tin-can poultry will serve as supper on the days when the long walk back from a tournament extends beyond the dinner hour.
In an effort to maximize his travel budget, Ardizzone never rents a car or hails down a taxi. While scouting in the Ukraine one time, he walked to a tournament four miles each way for three days in a row.
On a visit to Germany last winter, Ardizzone walked nearly three hours in a snowstorm to reach his hotel after some wrong information about the hotel's proximity.
Describing the places where Ardizzone stays as "Spartan" would be an overstatement.
"I was a trailblazer coming to Europe for tennis talent," said Ardizzone who made his first overseas trip halfway through his 16-year career at DePaul. "A lot of coaches call me for advice. I recruit from everywhere, including the USA. Now, schools are sending assistant coaches to recruit in Europe.
"Anyone who thinks this is a glamorous trip is very wrong. I've spent four nights at a hotel in Prokuplje, Serbia and it cost me a total of $39. I barely fit on the bed. There was no air conditioning and no TV. The shower in the bathroom consisted on a hose and you stood in a big bucket."
Speaking of standing, check out another of Ardizzone's favorite tales.
"One time in the Ukraine, the woman in charge had to leave and locked up the hotel," Ardizzone said. "I was locked inside a 10-foot high front gate. I couldn't afford to be stuck there the entire day. So, I piled up chairs, climbed up carefully and jumped over.
"Another place I've stayed at in the Ukraine was more like a boarding house with four rooms to rent. Nobody spoke any English. The only thing I could pronounce correctly in their language was `chicken cordon bleu.' So that's what I ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner all four days."
But the beauty of Ardizzone's "European Vacation" is his appreciation of a foreign culture and its people. He often stays in the same places and gets to know their proprietors.
There is the hotel in Croatia where wireless only works at the front desk. It's customary for the woman-in-charge to leave at 5 p.m. and invite the Blue Demon coach to sit at the front desk. Ardizzone will go downstairs at 3 a.m. to watch a White Sox game via his Slingbox connection.
"I use my budget to spend as much time as I can watching kids compete," said Ardizzone whose team roster is full of standouts from Europe. "I'd rather spend an extra day to watch and eat canned chicken.
"You learn a lot about them by how they interact with other people. There are kids who get upset when they lose and throw their racket at mom and dad. That will never happen with me.
"I stay at hotels that other people would never book. I've been to 27 countries in the last seven years, and I use my long walks as my sightseeing. On those walks, I've found some hidden gems.
"There's a little place in Croatia where the lady always makes me eggs for breakfast."
The origin of these trips actually had nothing to do with recruiting. Ardizzone promised one of his former players---Barbara Huzesa---that he would attend her wedding in Budapest, Hungary. While there, the coach stumbled upon a tennis tournament unknown to college tennis coaches.
"While I was watching, this kid came up and started talking to me," Ardizzone said. "She was a little short kid who didn't look like a tennis player.
"After watching her play, I really wanted her to come to DePaul. Bea Csordas played for us for two years, and she was the best player to ever come out of our program at that point. I've been to that same tournament seven times.
"Since then, I realized the need to get over there and see the kids. Just recruiting on video was not enough."
Ardizzone has helped 16 girls from Hungary get college tennis scholarships. If they don't choose DePaul, he will help them land somewhere else.
Needless to say, he is quite popular in Hungarian tennis circles.
"There was a time when a coach from Arizona State wanted to recruit a Hungarian player and she told him `no English,'" Ardizzone said. "Five minutes later, I see her. `Mark, what's going on, how are you?' in perfect English. She ended up going to Tennessee.
"She was a great recruit and I felt bad about losing her. She went on to become an All-American at Tennessee. I still keep in touch with her.
"I always make sure to never burn any bridges. You never know when someone is going to help you and could be a benefit to you. I'm a little overmatched in this country when I'm going up against schools like Duke, Michigan and Northwestern.
"But in Budapest and in Hungary, it's a different situation."
Ardizzone has been to three overseas weddings of his former players---all of whom planned their nuptials around his annual trip.
"Since I started going to Europe, I've become a different person," Ardizzone said. "I have a better understanding of the world. I love living in the USA, but I've gained a whole new perspective and appreciation of Europe. This is an education you can't get in any class room or on any tennis court.
"I thank DePaul for this opportunity to become a worldly guy. I can understand my players way better. I understand where they come from and what their lives are like over there.
"Trying to communicate in a different language was so frustrating at first. I see what my players must go through. I've learned to speak a little in different languages. I know how to say `where's the bathroom' in every language."
One of the two biggest highlights of his career was qualifying in 2010 for the program's first NCAA Championship.
"When I took the job, Jeanne (current Athletic Director Jean Lenti Ponsetto) was showing me around Alumni Hall," Ardizzone said. "I saw the men's basketball Final Four banners and thought that I'd like to leave a legacy. I wanted a banner.
"After we made it to the NCAAs, Jeanne remembered that introductory tour and brought me a banner of my own that's hanging up in my house. What makes me take these Europe trips now is---I want another banner."
His other career highlight is the relationships he has formed with players and parents.
"On my trips, even if my former players are no longer around, the parents come to see me and take me to dinner," Ardizzone said. "This stuff is priceless.
"I'll play tennis with former players during my Europe trips. I'm playing with four ex-Blue Demons on this trip.
"I'll hit with them for life."