AUBURN, Ala. – Mike McGraw was unemployed, officially, for less than a week.
Dumped by Oklahoma State after two subpar seasons, one of college golf’s winningest coaches, one of its most respected voices, hit the waiver wire last June. Within a day, he was listening to a pitch from his longtime friend, Alabama coach Jay Seawell.
Like so many of his own recruits, McGraw verbally committed almost instantly.
The team to beat at next week’s NCAA Championship is the same one that hoisted the hardware last year: No. 1 Alabama. It’s an embarrassment of riches, really.
They have the swagger of being the defending NCAA champions.
They have the steadiness of a rock-solid senior core.
They have an infusion of energy from adding the best freshman in the country.
And now, just to rub it in, they have an assistant coach with two national titles on his résumé (2000 as assistant, ’06 as head coach). Oh, and he’s also captured six Big 12 titles (three as a head coach) at Prairie Dunes, next week’s big-boy NCAA venue, a course McGraw figures he has seen about 60 times. Good luck to the rest of the 30-team field.
But the Mike McGraw who now dresses in crimson is nothing like the all-business, orange-clad leader who for eight seasons stalked the fairways in Stillwater. That man is gone, for good.
THIS NEVER WAS about job titles, status or egos. You don’t bring in a man with more experience, more national titles, more tournament wins and more clout if you’re worried about that nonsense. Jay Seawell? He wants to win, and win big, so acquiring McGraw’s services was a no-brainer.
Yes, Alabama needed an experienced coach for the older players, the guys who have sacrificed so much for the program. But Seawell also knew that McGraw could help groom the younger players, to build them into week-in, week-out contributors, to ensure the future is as bright as the present.
Since the beginning of this partnership, Seawell has never referred to McGraw as his “assistant” coach. He knows better. That’s Mike McGraw, one of our coaches, he’ll say. Basically, now, they’re co-head coaches. Egos? Please.
“It goes to show you that Coach Seawell will do whatever it takes to win,” Alabama junior Tom Lovelady said.
Seawell called McGraw 24 hours after he was fired. He was worried that his friend of 15-plus years might consider his offer demeaning.
“I’d love for you to come work with us and be a part of what we’re doing,” Seawell said.
“I can’t think of anything I’d rather do,” McGraw replied. “Roll Tide."
Seawell had one stipulation, though. He wanted – no, needed – McGraw to return to his roots, to be the patient seventh-grade social studies teacher, the enthusiastic high school golf coach, the passionate junior golf director he was years ago.
“That’s the guy I want,” Seawell told him.
And that part of McGraw had been lost, chipped away after years of intense recruiting and mounting expectations. By last summer, he was a shell of the man he once was, of who he wanted to be.
OKLAHOMA STATE WON the NCAA Championship in McGraw’s first season, in 2006, and was runner-up in ’10, and three other times finished the year as the No. 1-ranked team in the country. In that time McGraw recruited the likes of Rickie Fowler, Peter Uihlein and Morgan Hoffmann. The last few seasons weren’t as fruitful, however, as the Cowboys failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament in 2012 for the first time in 65 years, then finished 14th at the 2013 NCAAs.
When he was fired last June, it shocked just about everyone, the head coach included. Many in that position would have taken a year off, recalculated, readjusted. Not McGraw.
“I had no interest in sitting out,” he said. “Waiting for a phone call and doing nothing in Stillwater? No way. I had to get back to work.”
Alabama just so happened to be hiring, with assistant Rob Bradley on the verge of bolting for Purdue.
Within minutes of receiving the Bradley news, senior Cory Whitsett immediately called Seawell. “You know what you have to do,” he said.
The mystery, then, was how the two big-name coaches would blend together.
Seawell, 47, is fiery, raw, emotional. He knows exactly what to say, when to say it, how to say it. He oozes enthusiasm. He’s not afraid to cry. McGraw, 54, is a straight arrow, a CEO, a brilliant tactician with an insatiable desire to improve. Seawell is ADD, McGraw OCD.
They coach differently, head in separate directions, yet somehow, some way, they invariably meet in the same place. The result this season was an eight-win campaign and consensus No. 1 ranking. A dynasty.
But make no mistake, Day 1 McGraw – the guy hired just days after being let go – and the coach who helped guide the Tide to a 22-shot victory this weekend at NCAA regionals, well, they’re vastly different people. Being around this particular group of nine kids broke down the wall he had spent the past decade building.
“I remembered how to coach from the heart,” he says now. “Jay does it as well as anyone I’ve ever seen. You have to find out what’s in that kid’s heart. That’s any coach’s dilemma: This guy looked like something in junior golf, now he’s on my campus, and he’s fighting something.
“Everybody’s got something they’re dealing with, and once you’ve got that part of the equation, you can coach him.”
MCGRAW ALSO REDISCOVERED the value of enthusiasm, of being real and true to himself. Forget all of his success. Never did he earn more respect among the 20-year-old set than when they made their first post-round stop at Dairy Queen. McGraw – who has the lean physique of a distance runner – ordered two extra-large ice cream cones and wolfed them down in about 20 seconds. The Alabama players watched the destruction, mouths agape.
“He’s realized it’s OK to have free time and joke around,” Lovelady says. “He calls himself ‘the punching bag.’”
Hotshot freshman Robby Shelton prefers to call McGraw “Google," because if you need to know something, anything at all, you just ask him.
Whitsett marvels at McGraw’s vast knowledge of music, sports, current affairs, history. “He’s like a walking encyclopedia,” he says.
Seawell took it a step further: “He’s basically Dustin Hoffman in ‘Rain Man.'"
“For the past few years I was guarded, had a shield up,” McGraw says. “And people probably weren’t seeing who I really was.”
Said Seawell: “As coaches sometimes we can lose our way. It’s been a really good situation for him to get his direction, journey and heart back to where he wanted to be.”
They rarely talk about what happened in Stillwater, mostly because there isn’t much to discuss. That phase of his life is over. But not once was he bitter – not immediately afterward, not after months of reflecting, and certainly not now.
“For us, after winning (the national title) you can get a little complacent,” Seawell said. “His hunger has been a nice little energy that we needed.”
EVERYONE KNOWS this gig is short-lived. Mike McGraw is a head coach, a CEO, the face of a program. Schools called last year, and each time he turned them down. Schools called again this spring, and McGraw said those overtures will have to waituntil after the season. There’s no doubt he’s ready to lead again.
For the past 25 years, he has documented each stage of his coaching life. That notebook is an affirmation of what he thinks, feels, believes. It is now about 300 pages, all handwritten.
The last several pages are dedicated to his stint in Tuscaloosa. Whenever, wherever, he takes over a head-coaching position, he’ll be equipped with a new perspective.
Because over the past several months, he’s been reminded that it’s OK to have free time.
To occasionally serve as the team’s punching bag.
To open up and connect.
To once again be the seventh-grade social studies teacher, the high school golf coach and the junior golf director, the man who values enthusiasm and coaches from the heart.
Yes, that man is here, for good.