HUTCHINSON, Kan. – Mere moments after Oklahoma State reserved its spot in the final match of the NCAA Championship, Alabama head coach Jay Seawell gathered his team in the clubhouse here at Prairie Dunes and offered a reminder:
“This event is about the players,” he said, “and players play.”
On Wednesday, on live television, top-ranked Alabama will face No. 2 Oklahoma State for the NCAA Championship, and all signs point to an epic duel:
• It is only the second time in the past six years of match play that the Nos. 1 and 2 teams will go head-to-head on the biggest stage in college golf.
• Oklahoma State is aiming for its 11th national title. Alabama, meanwhile, is vying to become just the second team in the past three decades to win back-to-back NCAAs.
• All 10 players are ranked inside the top 110 nationally.
But late Tuesday, Seawell felt compelled to issue a reminder, for one very obvious reason. There is an unavoidable subplot to this NCAA final, and it centers around the Tide’s 54-year-old assistant coach, a man who won’t hit a shot or – in all likelihood – play a major factor in the outcome.
Will this NCAA final be emotional? Intense? Awkward?
“I haven’t given that a thought this week, honestly,” Mike McGraw said. “It was simply about how can I get Alabama to play as well as it can and get the chance that we’re looking for?”
The only thing standing in the Crimson Tide’s way: the five-man Oklahoma State team that he recruited.
McGraw arrived in Stillwater in 1997 and became the men’s head coach in 2006. In his first year at the helm, the Cowboys won the national title. They fielded one of the best teams in the country over the next several years, including an NCAA runner-up appearance in 2010, but after two sub-par seasons he was relieved of his duties last June.
The decision stunned just about everyone associated with college golf, but Alabama made its pitch almost immediately. The move has proved beneficial for both parties. In McGraw the Tide got the best assistant coach in the country, a man with a wealth of knowledge, an insatiable desire to improve and two national titles. In the Tide McGraw rediscovered his love and passion for coaching college golf.
Yet ever since McGraw changed his greeting from “Go Pokes” to “Roll Tide,” there’s been a feeling of inevitability about this NCAA finals matchup.
The players and coaches confirmed as much Tuesday.
“We knew this was happening,” Seawell said.
“It’s too perfect of a situation,” Cowboys senior Talor Gooch said.
“There was no doubt,” Alabama’s Cory Whitsett said.
“It was fate,” OSU’s Wyndham Clark said.
There remains no animosity between McGraw and his former players, and why should there be? They didn’t fire him – in fact, many cried when they received the news that he had been let go.
After he signed on with Alabama, McGraw asked OSU coach Alan Bratton if he could still keep in touch with his guys. So, yes, even now McGraw will text them after a big win or strong performance. The two teams were grouped together during their season-opening tournament, one round in Las Vegas and all three rounds of stroke-play qualifying here.
“I really, really do pull for those guys every day,” said McGraw, which is why there is the potential for awkwardness Wednesday.
“As much as he might not say this now, he still bleeds orange and he still loves Oklahoma State,” Clark said. “He grew up loving the Pokes and coaching for so long and putting so much into that school.
“It’s gotta be hard for him, because I bet you he wants his team to win but he also wants us to win because he recruited all of us. He’s been like a father figure to us.”
There is no shortage of motivation for Alabama, of course, but Whitsett, one of the team’s three seniors, acknowledged that there’s even a “little bit more riding on it for us.”
“We don’t even have to talk about it,” he said. “It’s understood. It’s set up for a story of redemption.”
For McGraw, not these players. They have their own glory to chase, their own memories to make.
It’s like Seawell said: When they arrive on the first tee, it’s only about the players – head-to-head, for a national title.
Come Wednesday, they won’t need another reminder.