Buried behind the dark sunglasses, the constant chatter and the relentless energy, Jay Seawell experienced a foreign emotion this summer.
Odd, because he is the coach of the two-time defending NCAA champion Alabama Crimson Tide, a title that seemed like a pipe dream in the mid-’90s when he was making $7,500 at a JUCO school in Anderson, S.C., living in a dorm room with his pregnant wife. But can you really blame the guy for feeling a bit glum? The most glorious period of his professional career had come to an end.
Gone is the trio of senior leaders who returned to school just to spend more time together and win another national title.
Gone is Seawell’s third assistant in as many years, an annoying byproduct of a thriving program.
Gone (or least no longer recognizable) is the team that reached three consecutive NCAA finals, that had 16 wins and four runners-up in the last three semesters, that didn’t finish outside the top 4 in an event in two years.
“You obviously understand it’s a four-year thing and then it’s over,” Seawell said recently, “but you get in the dirt and you grind it out and you live life every day with each other, and then all of a sudden it’s gone. It’s over. There’s a little bit of a void and a sadness.”
It wasn’t until Aug. 20 that Seawell snapped out of his summer swoon. The day marked the arrival of the team’s golf shirts, bags, shoes, balls and gloves, a college kid’s Christmas. It was time to get back to work.
Diminished, sure, but the Crimson Tide, No. 4 in Golf Channel’s preseason rankings, aren’t exactly starting from scratch. They still have one of college golf’s best players, sophomore Robby Shelton. They’ll finally get a chance to see 2013 GB&I Walker Cupper Gavin Moynihan, who played only sparingly a year ago because of a crowded lineup. This Alabama team is just “quieter and grittier,” one that can toil without the outsized expectations.
“Nobody knows if we’re gonna be any good or not,” Seawell said, “and I love that. It’s been a while. It’s re-energizing.”
Besides, he can take solace in knowing that he’s far from the only coach adjusting to his new reality this fall.
Nine of the top 10 teams in last year’s Golfstat rankings – nearly all of the powerhouse programs – lost at least two starters to graduation or the pros.
Cal tearfully said farewell to a group that captured the first two Pac-12 titles in school history, won 24 of its last 40 tournaments and finished outside the top 5 only twice.
Georgia Tech watched three top-120 starters accept their diplomas and join the play-for-pay ranks.
Stanford is missing not just its team leaders but also the top two players in the game last season, Patrick Rodgers and Cameron Wilson.
In all, five of Golfstat’s top-10 players have left campus, and half of the top 20. Indeed, when the NCAA Championship returns to the airwaves next spring, more than a few introductions will be in order.
“Just a huge amount of turnover,” said Seawell, which makes this season easily the most wide open of the match-play era.
Since 2009, the landscape has been flooded with star-studded teams – Oklahoma State (Rickie Fowler, Peter Uihlein, Morgan Hoffmann, Kevin Tway), Georgia (Russell Henley, Harris English, Brian Harman, Hudson Swafford), Alabama (Bud Cauley, Justin Thomas, Bobby Wyatt, Cory Whitsett) and Cal (Max Homa, Brandon Hagy, Michael Weaver).
This year, though, presents a new opportunity – and a new platform – for under-the-radar players, coaches and teams.
“There are newer, shinier parts,” Georgia Tech coach Bruce Heppler said. “Starting this year there’s going to be a lot of people enthused about their chance.
“Last year a lot of people were just accusing us of being van drivers, and the reality is there wasn’t a lot more work than that. The work was done in Years 1, 2 and 3, getting them to that point. Now, starting over, you better coach and teach these guys and get them back up to speed.”
No team is newer or shinier than Texas.
Ranked No. 2 on Golf Channel’s preseason list – behind only Oklahoma State, which returns three from last year’s NCAA finalist squad – the Longhorns could start as many as three freshmen this season. Granted, these aren’t your average 18-year-old newcomers: Scottie Scheffler won the 2013 U.S. Junior and made the cut at the Byron Nelson, Doug Ghim finished runner-up at this year’s U.S. Publinx, and Taylor Funk is the accomplished son of the nine-time Champions Tour winner.
Managing all of those young, ambitious talents is a delicate act, and coach John Fields’ biggest challenge will be getting all of those studs enough playing time. Keep in mind, too, that there is often a massive adjustment period in Year 1, from a freshman’s increased responsibilities to the temptation of a Friday night downtown. Each kid responds differently.
Just look at the development of Ollie Schniederjans.
He was a top-5 junior prospect when he arrived at Georgia Tech in fall 2011, but he struggled to keep pace with the fellow stars in his class. Schniederjans recorded only two top 10s (and posted the team’s sixth-best scoring average) while Jordan Spieth, Thomas and Rodgers collected titles and battled for Player of the Year honors. Three years later, Schniederjans is the No. 1-ranked amateur in the world, with exemptions into a pair of 2015 majors.
His stock was seemingly at an all-time high last May, after a five-win season and a playoff loss at the NCAA Championship. But instead of bolting for the pros and jockeying for sponsor exemptions, Schniederjans decided to stay for his senior season. One of the main reasons: He’ll be the favorite every time he plays, and only in that harsh environment can he learn how his body reacts to pressure, to stress, to expectation. After all, an important part of being a successful pro is summoning the goods when it’s needed most, whether that’s in the second stage of Q-School, or in a Monday qualifier, or on the back nine Sunday.
Schniederjans’ plan was executed flawlessly in the season opener – on the strength of a second-round 64, he won by two shots (over Shelton) at the Carpet Capital Collegiate.
“It’s a great opportunity to learn,” Heppler said. “If the goal is to eventually try and be like Rory or Tiger or Phil, to have that much pressure on you every time you play, then this is the route for him.
“If you want to be a pro, you have to treat it that way. There are very few guys who get it on easy street. The pros is a different profession, and the key is to teach them to want to go whip somebody.”
How many players Schniederjans whips this season is a major storyline to watch, and so are these:
Can Oklahoma State return to the finals without a senior starter?
Will Texas win prolifically, or will it be undone by freshman immaturity?
Can Illinois thrive when it (finally) is in the spotlight?
Will an upstart program like South Carolina or Vanderbilt crash the party?
Or what about this: Can a down-but-not-quite-rebuilding Alabama become the first team since the mid-1960s to win three national titles in a row?
At that prospect, Seawell perked up, his voice rising and more animated now, his summer sadness a distant memory.
“Oh, I wouldn’t sleep on us,” he said. “I wouldn’t bury us yet.”