AUBURN, Ala. – From the moment when last week’s NCAA men’s regional bids were announced until the final putt is holed Saturday, college coaches’ blood pressure remains a few ticks north of normal.
They fret. They pace. They experience live-scoring withdrawals. Over the past week, they have made travel arrangements, found a place to play the day before the practice round, learned the host course, studied the competition and rehearsed the game plan. Now, the only thing left to do is take … a … breath.
After all, only their entire season is riding on this three-day tournament.
“It’s the most paranoid week of the year,” Alabama coach Jay Seawell said. “There’s nothing like it.”
The make-or-break, 54-hole event begins Thursday at six sites around the country. The Auburn regional here features 14 teams, including the top-ranked Crimson Tide, and five individuals. The rest of the top 6 in Golfstat’s rankings – Oklahoma State, Stanford, California, Georgia Tech and Georgia – represent the No. 1 seeds at the Columbia (Mo.), Eugene (Ore.), Sugar Grove (Ill.), Raleigh (N.C.) and San Antonio regionals, respectively.
After three rounds, the low five teams and low individual on a non-qualifying team from each regional – a total of 30 teams and six individuals – will advance to next week’s NCAA Championship at Prairie Dunes.
The beauty of this event: For the next three days, a team’s national ranking guarantees nothing. If it doesn’t finish in the top 5 here, summer vacation starts early.
“When you’re a high seed, it’s everything to lose, nothing to gain,” said SMU coach Josh Gregory, who led Augusta State to back-to-back national titles in 2010-11.
And it’s true: The predominant feeling post-round is relief, not joy. The powerhouse programs are expected to win their regional and head to Kansas. If they barely advance, doubt creeps in. If they’re left out, it’s utter devastation. For the top teams so used to collecting titles all season, it’s really a no-win situation.
“For those of us who have lived it,” Cal coach Steve Desimone said, “I don’t care if we finish first or fifth. You just want to take that next step.”
If nothing else, this week offers fascinating insight into the mind of a leader.
Some coaches, like Texas A&M’s J.T. Higgins, prefer to simply step back and let their players perform. “I’m tougher on them and more intense during the regular season than regionals,” he said. “This is what we’ve worked for all year, and I want them to play free.”
Others, like Seawell, try to exude an air of calm and tranquility, if only so their players aren’t spooked, too. After all, ’Bama’s 12th-year coach learned his lesson back in 2006, when his team played in the Arizona regional. Late in the first round the Tide had stumbled, dropping out of the lead and into eighth place. There still were two rounds to go, plenty of time to regroup, but Seawell panicked.
“We talked too much about the situation and what happened instead of the fact that we’re playing really good,” he recalled. “We got caught up in the importance of qualifying and what qualifying might mean.”
Alabama didn’t advance that year. A long summer of second-guessing ensued.
Desimone’s wild ride came in 2004. His Golden Bears had enjoyed a strong fall, but late in the season his guys were banged up – every starter missed at least two events because of injury. By the time the spring ended, Cal was a borderline top-25 program, a postseason afterthought.
That year at regionals, Cal was 21st out of 27 teams after the opening round in Sunriver, Ore. “One of my assistants said to me, ‘Are you going to read them the riot act?’” Desimone recalled. “And I said, ‘That’s the least I’m going to do!’ But I thought about it for an hour, and I knew how much these guys cared, how hard they’d worked all year, how they were in a bad spot. They needed more hugs than me flogging them.”
The next day, second-round conditions were cold, windy, brutal. Cal shot 11 under on a day when only two other schools broke par. The Golden Bears rocketed up to sixth place, advanced to the NCAA finals, and then won the whole thing a few weeks later.
After Cal won the national title, then-Arizona State coach Randy Lein ran up to Desimone, grabbed him by the shoulders and said, “That second round at regionals was the best round in college golf all year!”
But that’s what can happen at this tournament that requires a steady hand as much as a polished game. Some players will rise to the occasion; others will falter under the pressure. Some coaches will breeze through the week like it’s a fall practice; others will burn through gum as quickly as their cellphone battery.
“The emotions of it are so pure, so demanding, and the stress level is at an all-time high,” said Gregory. “You’re always on edge, and you never really breathe or relax until the final three holes.”
As for Desimone, now 65, he says he has chilled only slightly over the years.
When asked to describe his mindset during regionals these days, he laughed and said, “Neurotic. Our behavior this week will be the most erratic of the entire 52 weeks of the year.”
Desimone didn’t sleep very well the night the regional assignments were announced, and he likely won’t again until the NCAA finals conclude later this month. Cal has been a top-5 program each of the past two years, coasting through regionals each time. This year, as the top seed in the Illinois regional, the Golden Bears will travel two time zones and play in the backyard of not only the second-seeded and 2013 NCAA finalist Illini, but also Kent State and Purdue. The latter two teams have nothing to lose, a terrifying prospect for a coach.
“Last year was the most comfortable I’ve ever been,” Desimone said. “I told my wife last week, ‘Regionals are hardly ever a time to get comfortable.’ Something tells me this year will be anything but.”
Which is why on Saturday, he and longtime assistant Walter Chun will hustle to watch every shot on the back nine, to utilize every location they’ve mapped out, to say a few more prayers coming home.
“All of us coaches are going to have blurry vision watching our damn phones,” said Desimone, who, to be safe, packs three pairs of reading glasses – you know, just in case he loses the other two.
At least then he’ll still be able to see what kind of madness is unfolding.