ORLANDO, Fla. – The new head coach at Baylor was back to his old self here at Lake Nona Country Club. He had a yardage book and reading glasses in his left hand. A pen in his right. And over the course of five hours, he crouched behind putts and scribbled talking points and whispered little words of encouragement to his players during the Tavistock Collegiate Invitational.
Of course, the full Mike McGraw Experience was only just beginning. After a brief lunch, he and senior Filippo Zucchetti moved to the clubhouse veranda for a half-hour chat. Listening to a coach who is always more professorial than pom-pom cheerleader, you almost expected the kid to start taking notes on a napkin.
Hired June 16, McGraw guided the Baylor Bears to a victory in their first start of the season, on Sept. 8. That’s notable because they didn’t win all of last year, even with a team that was ranked as high as 15th nationally. And though Greg Priest – the 11th-year coach who resigned last summer to become an athletic director in Tyler, Texas – left behind a roster brimming with talent and experience, it’s clear that Baylor is only now starting to maximize its immense potential.
“Mike has this newfound level of excitement that I don’t think any coach in the country has, and the kids are just feeding off of it,” Baylor assistant coach Ryan Blagg said. “These guys needed a kick-start and Mike is doing that.”
With top-3 finishes in four of their five fall events, the Bears are ranked No. 5 in the country. This year was supposed to represent a fresh start and clean slate for McGraw, but the learning curve has been accelerated. Now, his team is a strong bet to secure its first NCAA Championship berth since 2010 and could even be considered a dark-horse contender for match play.
McGraw would love nothing more than to win a fourth NCAA title. But after a few lost years, that is no longer what drives him.
WHEN LAST WE SAW Mike McGraw, he was the most accomplished assistant coach in college golf. Jay Seawell’s right-hand man at Alabama, McGraw developed senior Trey Mullinax into an All-American, schooled the underclassmen and helped the Crimson Tide capture back-to-back national titles.
That NCAA final was particularly juicy, with Alabama facing off against Oklahoma State, the school that dumped McGraw at the end of the 2012 season despite him leading the Cowboys to six Big 12 titles, being named Big 12 Coach of the Year five times in eight years, winning two national titles (2000 as an assistant, 2006 as head coach), recording 30 tournament wins and recruiting such players as Rickie Fowler, Hunter Mahan, Charles Howell III, Peter Uihlein and Morgan Hoffmann.
The revenge factor was obvious, but McGraw maintained that the victory at Prairie Dunes was no more satisfying because it came against his former employer. Instead, he fought back tears after saying he was grateful for the opportunity to coach wonderful kids, for the chance to reignite his passion for coaching.
He had arrived in Tuscaloosa with a bruised ego but no bitterness. He knew he had lost his way as a coach, that he was mentally drained by the pressure to always field the most competitive team in the country. For 11 months Seawell proved the perfect antidote, his high-energy, Roll-Tiding package of pure, unadulterated joy for coaching rubbing off on McGraw.
“That time pumped enthusiasm into me for a year and reminded me that’s why you coach,” McGraw says now. “Why would you coach under a blanket of duress or stress? Why would you do that? It makes no sense. I was putting too much pressure on myself. I wasn’t enjoying it nearly as much.
“What we are doing is important – I truly believe that – but if the result becomes so important that it handicaps and constricts you, then you’re not doing it right. As coaches, we tend to go to that dark place that we have to have a great result or else. Or else what? You lose a job? That’s not fun, trust me, but you’re just coaching. You’re just trying to help these kids develop. My whole perspective was way out of bounds.”
COLLEGE GOLF COACHES can’t dial up a blitz to stop the opposition. They can’t design plays to get the ball to their star in the post. They can’t make an eighth-inning substitution with the game on the line.
Though a few college golf coaches have the skills to demonstrate a point – Illinois’ Mike Small certainly comes to mind – most have to rely on the power of their words. Few, if any, do it better than McGraw, who has long believed that perhaps his biggest impact can be psychological.
“The most important thing is to remember that the kid has a beating heart, that he’s got dreams, that he’s a human being,” he said. “I’ve always had that, even at the end at Oklahoma State, but my self-imposed pressure was killing me, eating me up. It’s about finding who they are. If the kids can believe and trust and know that I care about them, then they’ll run through a wall for you.”
Developing that trust immediately is key, which is why McGraw agonized over his first impression with his new players. He decided to meet with each one individually over the summer in Waco, spelling out in detail his expectations, his plans and his hopes for the program in what he envisions will be his final stop as a coach.
Trouble was, his players had already formed a few ideas about McGraw. They had seen a picture of him on the Internet – an old man, yardage book in hand, frown on his face, photoshopped Baylor hat and shirt – and concluded that he just might be the meanest coach in the world.
“I wouldn’t have wanted to play for me, either,” McGraw said with a laugh.
But winning three NCAA titles in the past 15 years tends to create instantly credibility among 20-year-old college kids, and they’ve had little trouble buying into his system.
Look closely, and you can already see that his fingerprints are all over this roster.
This year, he has instituted a cellphone ban when the team is on the road. For 54 holes, at least, all of the outside noise – the “attaboys,” the prying parents, the girlfriend drama – is gone and the players are invested in each other.
“It’s a more team-friendly environment,” senior Kyle Jones says. “No one is completely shut off. We’re all engaged and having more fun.”
During a qualifying round at the team’s country club in Waco, McGraw followed his players from afar and jotted down what he saw. It wasn’t pretty – one-arm finishes, club slams, poor language.
At the end of the day, McGraw added up the scores and announced that the team had shot 18 under par. The low score prompted a few high-fives from the players.
“How do you think that makes a coach feel?” McGraw asked.
“Great!” one replied. “You LOVE low scores!”
“Actually,” he said, “I’m really upset right now,” and then proceeded to list the numerous mistakes that would make any coach cringe.
The lesson, of course, was that the score pales in comparison to how his team treats the game. That’s something McGraw learned from his dad and from Mike Holder and from Jay Seawell – a 2-year-old can throw a fit, but it takes a man to accept his poor shot as his own miscue and move on.
His players haven’t made the same immature mistakes since.
RECENT HISTORY SUGGESTS that Baylor became a perennial top-10 program the moment it hired McGraw, and will only get better once his own recruits arrive on campus.
This senior-laden group finished second four times a year ago but flamed out in regionals for the third consecutive year. The early returns in Year 1 have been even better than anticipated, and the marked improvement with largely the same group of players begs the question: How much of an impact can a new coach truly make?
“A lot,” Seawell said. “You have to have good players, and Baylor certainly does, but Mike is as good as it gets. You can already see his personality stamped on that team. I’m not even a little surprised that they’re doing so well so far.”
Said Blagg, the Baylor assistant: “We had the talent, no doubt, but honestly, I think it just might be as simple as Coach McGraw telling them that they are good, hearing it from him, a guy who has coached a lot of PGA Tour players. They’re like, If this guy thinks I’m good enough to do this, then maybe I really am. They start believing.”
McGraw, meanwhile, is focused only on what he can control. Simple concepts, like working with purpose, learning to pay attention to the surroundings, understanding how a player’s body reacts under pressure.
Even at age 54 and in his third decade as a coach, the learning never stops. His ideas about human nature and teaching and things he thinks can be found in a notebook that has now stretched to 400 handwritten pages. The most recent chapter, already about 75 pages, focuses on his fresh start and clean slate at Baylor.
McGraw is still trying to figure out who he is as a coach and how he can improve. He understands the competitive world – the winning, the losing, the finishes, the production – and that his livelihood likely depends on his record. But he has also learned, sometimes painfully, during his stops in Stillwater and then Tuscaloosa that he can’t define himself as a coach simply because he won or lost a tournament. He can’t be consumed by the lust for victory.
“That doesn’t matter, as long as the players can use it to get better,” he said. “It’s such a truth in life: When the result becomes more important than the process, you’ve got it all backward. Because these kids, they can sense it. They can look you in the eye and know what you think and how you feel. Now, these kids can tell that I’m truly enjoying it.”