DURING HIS INTRODUCTORY news conference in April of 2000, Mike Small repeated a line that he’d told close friends and family for weeks, that he knew the administration wanted to hear, and that deep down he truly believed.
“We’re going to build a program here,” he declared, “not a team that’s good every three to four years.”
Anyone in his position would have trotted out the same coach speak. At the time, Illinois was ranked outside the top 100 in the country, locked in the Big Ten basement and stigmatized as a program that couldn’t compete because of its location. Small was a 34-year-old PGA Tour journeyman who returned to his alma mater because he had become too consumed by his own on-course failings.
But over the past 15 years, Small has become one of the most well-known PGA professionals in the country, appearing in 10 majors and 30-plus PGA Tour events, capturing three Professional National Championship titles and winning four Illinois Opens. He has played the best golf of his life after he left the Tour, and it’s coincided with Illinois’ gradual rise to a national superpower.
Earlier this year, the Illini became the first Northern school in history to be ranked No. 1 in the coaches’ poll, and with four team titles (and counting) and three returning All-Americans they are the favorites to win the NCAA title.
Yes, just as Small promised, he has created a winning culture at Illinois. A brand. A program.
And who said snow-packed schools couldn’t produce a champion?
Illinois' Demirijan Practice Facility (UI Athletic Dept.)
REACHING THIS PINNACLE required three key elements: top-notch facilities, tour recognition, and success and championships.
Step inside the team’s 16,000-square foot indoor practice area, and there is a realistic chipping and pitching area with five different types of grasses; six heated hitting bays, two of which are fully equipped with mirrors, gadgets, four-camera V1 video software, K Vest and TrackMan; a one-stop club repair room with loft-and-lie machines, re-gripping stations and grinders; a comfy team lounge with big-screen TVs and WiFi; and a woodsy locker room that stores backpacks, team bags and extra equipment.
“It’s a fun refuge,” Small says. “It’s Playland for golf.”
Coaches are restricted as to the number of hours they can meet with their team during the offseason, but the Demirijan Practice Facility is open to players 365 days a year, from 5:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. During the winter months they can hit 10-foot putts or 300-yard drives, for as little as a half hour or as much as an afternoon.
“That’s the time to improve your golf swing,” says PGA Tour player Luke Guthrie, who starred at Illinois from 2008-12. “When you come out of the spring, yeah, it took a few weeks to knock off the scoring-skills rust, but once we got going I think we were fundamentally a little bit more sound than other teams.”
The immaculate indoor facility is the best-case scenario for a school occasionally socked by snowfall, but an offseason spent indoors is nothing new to many Illinois players.
Junior All-American Charlie Danielson grew up in northern Wisconsin, about an hour away from an indoor dome. “I’ve learned to make do,” he says.
Freshman Nick Hardy bounced all over northeastern Illinois to find heated bays, and when the temperature cracked 30 degrees and there was no snow on the ground, he’d play nine on the frozen fairways. “It gave me that tough edge,” he says.
And then there is Irvine, Calif., native Brian Campbell, the 15th-ranked amateur in the world, who intentionally sought out Illinois’ adversity because he thought it would make him a better player. He worried about burnout in a warmer climate. “I could have been that person to take the easy way out, gone local and stayed in my comfort zone,” the senior said. “But a little part of me wanted to try something different.”
Opening this fall is Illinois’ new 24-acre, state-of-the-art outdoor facility (pictured right), which will feature, among other things, a par-3 target range, 360-degree tee boxes, 50,000 square feet of USGA-spec greens, and all types of bunkers, elevation changes and practice areas with trees so players can work on their shot shape. Longtime college golf observers say the facility is unrivaled.
In all, the two projects cost about $11 million. Located in the heart of the athletic complex, it’ll be common for a player to work on his bunker game while hearing the ping! of an aluminum bat at a home baseball game, or the pop! of a starter’s gun at a track meet.
Facilities such as these are more prevalent than ever before in the Big Ten, as schools have realized the need to stay both relevant in a competitive recruiting landscape and sharp during the longer offseason.
Despite Big Ten athletic directors pouring more money into the men’s and women’s golf programs, returns have been slow. As of Feb. 10, Illinois was the only men’s team ranked inside the top 25. There were only two others in the top 50 (Ohio State and Iowa), and eight overall in the top 100.
That has only fueled the perception that cold-weather schools can’t consistently compete, that in recruiting, elite players need only look south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Zach Guthrie, Luke’s brother, was an assistant coach under Small for 6 1/2 years and vividly recalls dealing with that perception problem.
“Emailing kids or watching them play, we were getting muted responses,” he says. “It was frustrating, because you knew what was there, and you’re offering them an opportunity to do great things and they don’t realize what’s there and you wish you could just show them a little bit better. Now that success has come, word is getting out there.”
Added Small: “Is it more fun to walk to class in shorts than a coat? Yeah. But some kids want a culture where they can grow their games and still be competitive. If those kids want comfort and an easy life, this probably isn’t for them. We have some adversity here that others don’t, but it makes you better in the long run.”
In Champaign, Ill., there are no views of the ocean, no mountains, it’s not always sunny and the winters can be downright brutal, so in recruiting Small focuses on what his program can offer – a high-quality education, arguably the best training facilities in the country, and the type of unique learning experience that few can provide.
Mike Small (R) was the low PGA professional at the 2011 PGA Champ. (Getty)
WHEN ILLINOIS FIRST approached Small, in the 1990s, he rejected the school’s overtures because he was still chasing the dream.
Small had played for the Illini in the mid-’80s, when he helped the team win a Big Ten title alongside future star Steve Stricker. After turning pro in 1990, he bounced around the mini-tours for several years before a two-win season on the Nike Tour landed him a spot in the big leagues. It didn’t last. In 1998, his only full season on Tour, he recorded only one top-10 in 26 starts, finished 178th on the money list and was shipped back to the minors. By 2000, he was burned out.
“When I woke up and went to bed,” Small says, “all I could think about was my freakin’ game.”
His life was too narrow, his young kids were getting older, and it was time to make a change.
In his first year at the helm, the Illini finished next-to-last at the Big Ten tournament – an embarrassing result, especially since the event was held on their home course. Small still had past champion’s status on the Nike Tour, and so after he finished 11th in an event in Canada that summer, he was faced with a dilemma. After the reshuffle he had earned a spot in 20 more events, so he needed to decide whether he should chase the dream one final time, or reaffirm his commitment to Illinois. He ended up playing only one more event that year.
The next spring, Minnesota surprised everyone by becoming the first Northern school since Ohio State in 1979 to win the NCAA title. With Small’s first recruiting class in place, Illinois finished second in the Big Ten (the first of three consecutive years) and rocketed into the top 25. For his part in the program’s rise, he earned the conference’s Coach of the Year award.
Because of the changing landscape in coaching – the recruiting, the fundraising, the players expecting and demanding more of his time – Small competed only when it was convenient. He was the last coach in the Big Ten to hire an assistant, so for seven years he served as a full-time coach, player, recruiter, father and husband. Funny thing was, he had never played better.
With such a hectic schedule he rarely practiced or worked on his game, but he still had a chance to win the PGA Tour’s Western Open heading into the final day in 2004. (He was tied with a guy named Tiger Woods.) He won a few PGA Professional National Championships, and he captured several Illinois Opens and PGAs, and he represented the U.S. on five PGA Cup teams.
“I made more money after I started coaching than when I was playing,” says Small, now 48, “all because I had balance in my life. And I commanded more respect with recruits because of it. I lived it, experienced it and failed it.”
He has always coached more from a player’s perspective. He knows what his kids are experiencing, what they’re thinking, if they’re overconfident, if they’re about to lose their breakfast. Without that experience he’d be just another rah-rah cheerleader doling out clichés. That’s why he has an eye on Champions Tour Q-School this fall, because playing on the over-50 circuit would keep his competitiveness stoked and his coaching game sharp.
“I need to go back and lose and win so I can relate,” he says. “That’s a huge asset. If I don’t play this game for a while, you can forget how hard it is.”
Small’s experience as a player – and his high profile as a PGA pro – is what attracted many of his top prospects to come to Illinois.
When Luke Guthrie (pictured right) was deciding on schools, he attended the 2007 PGA at Southern Hills. Once he saw his future coach inside the ropes, in a major, Guthrie thought to himself, “Well, I guess he knows a few things about the game.” He was sold.
“As a player you just respect their opinion so much more,” Guthrie says, “because they’ve been there and done it, they know where you’re coming from, and the frustrations that can come along with golf that can make you go crazy sometimes.”
Danielson, currently ranked No. 4 in the country, settled on Illinois after charting how the majority of the players’ scoring averages improved each year under Small. “I knew that if I worked hard and put my time,” he says, “I could do the same.”
“Most kids want the coaches to coddle you, to tell you you’re the best or to treat you like a little kid,” Hardy says. “Coach will be straight-up honest with you. He knows what it takes to be on Tour. He knows what pros do better than us college players. He knows what it takes to get to the next level. You listen to that.”
There are a handful of players-turned-coaches in college golf, most notably Oregon’s Casey Martin and Wake Forest’s Jerry Haas, but Small doesn’t buy into the idea that they have a distinct advantage over the competition.
“I think we have unique traits, unique personalities, that we can relate to our players,” he says. “My history as a player, of failing as a player, is probably more important than my succeeding.
“How to handle your mind, how to prepare, how to handle fear, understanding your body, training … I didn’t have that knowledge when I played. I don’t want to let my kids fail. I don’t want to let them make the same mistakes.”
Scott Langley (L) with Small at the 2010 NCAA Championship (UI Athletic Dept.)
THE TURNING POINT in Small’s coaching career came in fall 2008, when the core of Scott Langley, Chris DeForest and Luke Guthrie first played together.
Things began to move quickly.
In 2008-09, Illinois won seven times and captured the first of five consecutive Big Ten titles.
In 2010, Langley, then a junior, became the program’s first NCAA individual champion.
Two years later, Thomas Pieters, then a sophomore, won his own NCAA title.
In 2013, Illinois knocked off top-ranked Cal – arguably the best college team of all time – and reached the NCAA Championship’s final match.
In 2014, the team reached the quarterfinals, staking its claim as of only four programs to advance to match play in three of the past four seasons.
And now this: The four wins. The only team with three returning All-Americans. The pair of freshmen who were top-20 recruits are further proof that the best juniors in the country are – finally – looking north. And the No. 1 ranking.
“Validation,” Small says.
When Minnesota won the NCAA title in ’02, the Gophers were ranked outside the top 20 and had rallied under the threat that their program might soon be eliminated.
An Illinois title this year would be a game-changer for college golf – a myth-shattering moment that would forever dispel the notion that northern schools can’t compete with the rest of the perennial powerhouses.
“Kids get too wrapped up in the name-dropping, the big-name schools,” says freshman Dylan Meyer. “You need to realize what school you’re going to be the best at, and what coach is going to produce players.”
Added Zach Guthrie: “I think that perception is already broken, honestly. Between other college coaches and golfers, they fear Illinois. They know what this school is capable of.”
Illinois' 2013 NCAA Championship runner-up team (UI Athletic Dept.)
MIKE SMALL PREACHES this mantra: We’re playing a white-collar sport with a bunch of blue-collar guys. The message is that they always have something to prove, that success isn’t guaranteed, that they must “grind for your meal.” He doesn’t feed into egos, because praise is just excess noise. It’s the Illinois Way.
That hard-nosed mentality is a significant reason why the program has not just produced PGA Tour-caliber players in their early 20s, but ones who stay out there, too.
Langley, 25, finished in the top 20 in the 2010 U.S. Open, earned his PGA Tour card in his first attempt in ’12, and last year reached the second leg of the FedEx Cup playoffs.
Guthrie, 25, won back-to-back events on the Web.com Tour only three months after graduating, held the 36- and 54-hole leads at the Honda Classic in his first full season on the big tour and again kept his card in ’14.
Pieters, 23, earned his European Tour card a few months after leaving school, posted two early top-10s this season and currently ranks inside the top 25 in the yearlong Race to Dubai.
“They’re ready and prepared – mentally and socially and emotionally – for that success,” Small says. “These guys, by how we train and operate ourselves, I don’t think they’re as scared as I was.”
Sure, down years are bound to happen – bad luck, injuries, big-time recruits don’t pan out, stars leave early for the pros. But for the past seven years, Illinois has largely avoided those potential pitfalls, with each season building on the previous campaign.
Now, Small can’t help but laugh when recalling how his first team finished 11th in the conference tournament on its home course, or how he could work a half day before the pressure to perform made being a head coach a full-time, around-the-clock, 365-day-a-year job.
What he wanted most that day in April 2000 was a chance to field a competitive team every year. He enjoys that now in Champaign, where there is a system in place, a structure for success, built on the top-notch facilities, the tour recognition and, yes, the championships.
“I think we’ve built a brand,” he says. “Nobody associated Illinois with a top-10 team in the country, but the last six to seven years we’ve created a program that commands respect. That’s something I’m very proud of.”