ELKHART -- "Love" typically means zero in tennis, but in Dave Whittaker's case, it's meant everything.
So said the unusually vulnerable Central High School coach earlier this week as he closed in on his 500th career varsity victory, a milestone Whittaker reached Thursday night with a 4-1 girls win at South Bend Adams.
In a conversation that also covered, among other things, how the Air Force changed him and when he will retire from coaching -- he says after the 2015 spring season -- Whittaker was most emphatic of all when talking about Debbi, his wife of 40 years come Aug. 7.
"If she wasn't supporting me ... this is hard," Whittaker said when asked about Debbi, before breathing a heavy sigh, pausing and choking back tears.
"If she wasn't supporting me," Whittaker said upon recovering his composure, "there's no way, I mean no way, I could've coached as long as I have. She's just always been there. When I come home late, there's always a meal -- win, lose, practice, whatever. She's always been supportive, just a great spouse."
For Whittaker, who turns 62 Saturday and is believed to be the winningest coach in Central's 39-year sports history at 467 dual-format victories (he also won 33 times at Memorial), there have been regrets along the way, but they are regrets that are at least softened by Debbi.
"I wasn't the most present father in the world, but she was always there for our kids," said Whittaker, who raised three children -- Kim, Sonny and Danny, each now in their 30s -- with his wife. "She's had a lot of responsibility thrust upon her by my coaching. Hindsight is 20-20, and I should've been there more, but when you talk about coaches' wives, she's been superior. I understand why coaches burn out, and I admire the ones who quit to spend more time with family."
So, anyway, just how many matches among Whittaker's more than 800 duals and invitationals has this remarkably supportive spouse attended?
Umm, that would be ... one. Ever.
While their children were "still little," Debbi brought them to one of her husband's first matches when he was coaching at Memorial in 1983.
"He just ignored me, so I never went back," Debbi explained nonchalantly this week. "When he got home, he said, 'I don't have time to visit.' Then he said, 'You can still come and say hello.' I said, 'That's OK,' and that's how it's been."
"She wanted to sit and talk, but I didn't have time," Whittaker said. "I turned around at one point and she had taken the kids and left."
The result is that "some (players) over the years haven't believed I really have a wife," Whittaker said. "They've never seen her and it's been a running joke."
What hasn't been a joke is Whittaker's level of commitment to each of his tasks, be it as West Side Middle School history teacher, as Central boys and girls tennis coach, or as director of the city's summer tennis program, which features 250 to 300 children annually. He began teaching at Elkhart Community Schools in 1977, the same year he became director of the summer tennis program.
Whittaker arrives at school each day around 5:30 a.m., and changes the message on his voicemail every one of those days to keep students' parents updated.
This from a man who was "not a good student" himself at one time.
A 1968 graduate of Elkhart High, where he lettered three years in tennis, Whittaker initially attended Indiana University in Bloomington, "but I didn't do very well and I knew my draft number would be coming up. Back then, you either got drafted or enlisted."
So Whittaker enlisted with the Air Force in 1970, winding up a flight attendant.
He admits that he joined the Air Force because "if I would've been drafted (into the Army), they would've made me a tunnel rat, being as short as I am, and I didn't see much life expectancy in that."
It was also in 1970, at an Andrews Air Force Base bowling alley in Maryland, that Whittaker met Debbi, the well-traveled daughter of a career military man. They married the next year.
"We dated a few months, and we just knew," Whittaker said. "It was something you just know."
Whittaker says "the military was a life-changing experience for me. It does miraculous things for you in (terms of) responsibility and discipline."
After completing his service in 1974, Whittaker moved with Debbi back to the Elkhart area and earned his degree from IUSB in 1976.
The next year, he was teaching tennis with the Elkhart parks department, resuming a sport that had been "a passion" since childhood growing up near the courts at McNaughton Park.
Whittaker's coaching style is regimented and can at times be enforceful, yet his players, who typically call him "Whitt," often see him as a pal anyway. Many end up visiting the courts regularly after graduation.
"Whitt's rapport with all the kids is so strong, and that's why they like coming back the way they do," said Ric Wiskotoni, Whittaker's lead and often sole assistant since 1992. "He's an awesome guy, a great coach and a great man, and he has sure put in the time in something we sure don't do for the cash. He loves the game and loves the kids."
Over the course of that love, the Blazer girls have won 12 sectional titles, seven regionals and a semistate while compiling a 263-119 record in 24 seasons, and the Blazer boys have won eight sectional titles and three regionals while registering a 204-126 mark in 19 seasons.
Whittaker says he's been blessed with quality assistants, particularly citing Wiskotoni's knowledge and ability to communicate with players, and blessed with "good kids who care about the program and want to do well."
"He has really enjoyed the kids," Debbi said. "We can't go anywhere, and I'm not kidding, where somebody doesn't recognize him as their teacher or coach and is happy to see him."
Debbi, who has been active in her church and worked outside the home at times as well, has grown accustomed to sharing her husband with students, to doing the bulk of the work at home, and to never taking a summer vacation due to the summer tennis program, but she says she's going to "hold him" to his retirement plan.
She grants that "maybe" she'll come to his last match, too, sort of sandwiching her attendance all those years ago at one of the first ones.
Chances are, Dave Whittaker won't ignore his wife again.
WHITT'S FITS AMONG CENTRAL COACHES
When Dave Whittaker earned his 500th varsity coaching victory Thursday evening, it was also his 467th at Central, adding to an unofficial school record.
The Central High athletic office does not keep readily available records detailing all coaches' won-loss marks, but Whittaker is 263-119 in his 24th season as Blue Blazer girls tennis coach and is 204-126 in 19 seasons as boys coach, based on Truth compilations. He also went 33-47 in five seasons as Memorial boys coach for an overall mark of 500-292.
While Whittaker is believed to be the leading Central coach in wins, the honor in total varsity seasons goes to Tom Kurth, while the honor in winning percentage goes to the late Karen Leeth.
Kurth coached 53 varsity seasons at Central (186-111 in 30 football seasons, 177-26 in 23 boys track seasons) before retiring. He also went 50-9 as football coach at Elkhart High before the city split to two schools in 1972, and his totals do not include the many invitationals and postseason track meets his teams won.
Leeth, meanwhile, remains on an island by herself in terms of winning percentage for a sustained tenure. She went 377-25-1 (.937) over 25 seasons at Central, primarily as girls swimming coach, in addition to capturing 22 sectional team titles that do not figure into her wins total.