Bellevue at 150: "Mr. Tennis" Roger Klein
Editor's note: Bellevue’s Sesquicentennial celebration has been postponed for a year because of COVID-19, but resident, attorney, and writer James Dady has written some articles to celebrate the river city in the meantime. This is one in a series.
Prominent in a long line of Bellevue athletic stars through the decades is the name of Roger Klein, an evangelist for fitness and for the personal development of young people through the gospel of the court game.
“Coach Klein” – nearly twenty years after his death his former players still extend to him the honor – raised the profile of Bellevue High School in tennis circles to the equal of any in Kentucky.
“Louisville and Bellevue” dominated the competition for state tennis laurels, recalls Hank Hamblen, one of Coach Klein’s stalwarts, and at 78 still playing the sport Mr. Klein taught him more than 60 years ago. That Bellevue, with a population never much greater than 8,000, could compete on equal footing with schools from Kentucky’s largest city is testament to Mr. Klein’s coaching acumen.
His Bellevue Tiger teams won 419 of 517 matches. His players won three states singles championships, four doubles championships, and 28 regional singles and doubles titles.
Bellevue competed with the best tennis programs in the metropolitan area including those at Walnut Hills, Withrow, Elder, and Indian Hill.
Coach Klein didn’t just coach the team. He coached the town. If a Bellevue youngster showed a spark of interest in the game, Mr. Klein would see to it that the child was outfitted with a decent racket and a pair of shoes. Older players helped the younger ones develop and embrace the game, recalls Rob Hardin. Mr. Hardin, who grew up on Washington Avenue, played on Mr. Klein’s last Bellevue squad, coached under him at NKU, and amassed a considerable head-coaching resume of his own, including 15 years at Notre Dame Academy.
“All because of Coach,” Mr. Hardin said.
“He was like the Pied Piper,” recalls retired Bellevue athletic director Mike Swauger. “Young people were just drawn to him.”
Mr. Hamblen recalls that star athletes from Bellevue’s football and basketball teams also came out for tennis for the chance to be coached by Mr. Klein.
Mr. Klein brought his players to clinics given by famous players, including one by Tony Trabert, a Cincinnati native and friend of Mr. Klein’s who in the mid-1950s was the top-rated player in the world. Coach Klein took his players to see touring pros at Cincinnati Gardens, said Mr. Hamblen, who grew up on Van Voast Avenue.
Tennis had long been a favored sport of the country club set. A 1933 graduate of the University of Kentucky where he was captain of the tennis team, Mr. Klein not only elevated Bellevue tennis, he helped the game gain recognition as a varsity sport in high schools across the commonwealth. The first seven Kentucky state high school tennis tournaments, from 1945 to 1951, were staged at the courts between Gilligan Stadium and Covert Run Creek at the end of Tiger Lane.
Bellevue’s courts are known among tennis devotees throughout the area and favored for their proximity to downtown Cincinnati. Mr. Hamblen for years could be seen blowing fallen leaves off the courts in early autumn and applying a squeegee to them after a rainfall. The complex may be regarded by Mr. Klein’s former players as hallowed ground. It is named in his honor.
After 31 years as head coach at Bellevue High School, where he also served as a driver’s ed teacher and as director of pupil personnel, Mr. Klein retired.
By then, like 85 percent of men past 50, Mr. Klein had experienced thinning hair, which he endeavored to conceal under a trademark fedora. This brings to mind a query of a character in one of novelist’s Scott Turow’s legal thrillers: Why draw attention to it with the snappy headgear?
Mr. Klein was born in Bellevue in 1911 to Albert F. and Edna Mueller Klein, and graduated from Bellevue High School in 1929. For a time during the Great Depression and into early 1940s before he was hired in Bellevue, Mr. Klein gave private lessons, and continued to play the game. He notched wins against professionals. He competed against the famous tennis hustler, Bobby Riggs, who may be recalled by the mature reader for his much-ballyhooed televised exhibition against Billie Jean King in the 1970s.
A year after his retirement in Bellevue, Mr. Klein was named both men’s and women’s tennis coach at what has become Northern Kentucky University. True to form, his teams won there, too. His men’s team were 114-102; the women 72-63 in his 14 years. The men’s team won the Great Lakes Valley Conference championship in 1987 and that year Mr. Klein was honored as the conference coach of the year.
Mr. Klein is a member of the Bellevue High School Athletic Hall of Fame. He was elected in 1984 as a charter member of the Northern Kentucky Athletic Directors Hall of Fame. In 2001, he was inducted into the NKU Athletic Hall of Fame.
In 2013, Mr. Klein was inducted posthumously into the Kentucky High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame – he had passed in 2002. A press release at the time of his induction called him, “One of the pioneers of Kentucky high school tennis.”