New England

A One-of-a-Kind Legacy Left Behind

James Maimonis, Communications and Engagement Coordinator  |  November 10, 2016

CRANSTON, RI- Richard “Dick” Ernst was an athlete. Dick Ernst was a coach. Dick Ernst was a jokester. Dick Ernst was a giver. His whole life he played tennis and hockey at a high level and coached at an equally impressive one. The Cranston, RI native achieved it all in coaching in Rhode Island, and leaves behind a legacy to prove it.


“Anyone who picked up a tennis racquet in Rhode Island and took the sport to any degree of seriousness, knew Dick or knew of him,” said Doug Chapman, USTA Rhode Island President and Somerset Berkley Regional High tennis coach.


Ernst coached well over 100 teams throughout his life, from youth up to the collegiate level, and it was his enthusiasm, unorthodox style and most importantly, the love he had for his players that made him so unforgettable. 


“He cared about every kid that he coached,” said his son Gordie. ADVERTISEMENT “Especially in hockey, he was very much about the team and even kids that didn’t play much. He loved getting those kids in the game and making them happy. He really got a kick out of the whole thing.”


The list of Ernst’s coaching accolades spans decades, from state and New England Championships to undefeated seasons to being elected to the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame (which exists to extol and publicize the achievements of Rhode Island men and women who have made significant contributions to their community, state, and/or nation).


Ernst did it all in a way that was unlike any other. He took risks. He pushed the envelope. He wanted to be different.


“He loved being unorthodox,” Gordie said. “One time he put two goalies in net at the same time to try and stop the other team. He also had me lie down against the boards so the other team wouldn’t see me.”


“You couldn’t have invented him, only he could only come up with this stuff himself,” Chapman added.


And he didn’t change one bit once he got off the ice or court.


His wife Rollice “Rollie” enrolled at Rhode Island College (RIC) during the early 90s at age 49 where she played tennis under her husband. During an end-of-season awards banquet with RIC athletes from all sports present, Ernst got up to speak.


He announced he was married to one of his players. Gasps immediately filled the room, but shortly after, the crowd realized what had been going on and it became a laughing matter.


Ernst was a sports enthusiast as well as a proud father and husband, and he did his best to combine his strongest passions. He turned tennis and hockey into a family affair, playing on the local courts or pond with his sons whenever he had a free moment.


He worked his children and pushed them to a high level. Sometimes difficult to understand, Gordie finally came to understand and appreciate the grind his father put him through.


“One afternoon in the mid 90s I was playing pond hockey with my father and a longtime friend, and my buddy reminded me that I was struggling to find a passion in life and I needed to realize I was more like my father than I thought,” Gordie recalled.


“As soon as he (Ernst) graduated college, he went right into coaching and I went a couple routes. The last thing I wanted to do was be like him. I was burnt out,” Gordie said. “But then it hit me that I was more like him, I love kids, and I should stick to something I love.”


So Gordie went on to pursue tennis full time. He currently coaches the Georgetown men’s and women’s teams and says without his father pushing his passion on him, he wouldn’t be doing something he loves today.


He made a career out of tennis just like his father. In 2015, he was inducted into the New England Tennis Hall of Fame, 10 years after his father was. For Ernst, seeing his son follow in his footsteps and be a part of the same class as the legends he played against throughout his life, gave him great satisfaction.  


“He loved New England tennis just as much as anything,” Gordie said. “He was talking about me being inducted months in advance, asking how my speech was going, because for me to go in behind him made him so proud.”


When Ernst wasn’t coaching, he was surely playing or organizing a tennis tournament somewhere. He was a New England ranked player for 50 years and made some of his best memories on the court.

In 2011, he was given USTA New England’s highest honor, the Gardner Ward Chase Memorial Award, which is given to an individual who has made outstanding lifetime contributions to tennis in New England.


“New England tourneys for him were like the holy grail. You read about these coaches, Red Auerbach, Bobby Knight, and they lived to coach, but he also lived to play. When he wasn’t coaching, he always wanted to play,” Gordie said.


Ernst made an impact on everyone he knew or that knew him, whether positive or unique. But whatever the impression, one thing’s for certain, it was definitely a memorable one.


Dick Ernst left us on September 18 at the age of 78. He left behind his wife, Rollie, sons Gordie, Bobby and previously deceased son Andy, along with countless family, friends and members of the local sports community who will never forget his spirit. 


“I was floored by kids and parents who came through the line at the wake telling me how Dick made such a difference in their life,” Rollie said. “I knew he was a good coach but I was unaware how much it affected them. It was great to hear posthumously and was really the best compliment I could get.”


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