The Head Coach of Illinois Men’s Golf, Mr. Mike Small, joins us for episode #254 of the Worldwide Golf Shops Insider Podcast to talk about College Golf and how it has evolved over time.
In this episode, we discuss Mike’s career on the professional Tours, how he got started in coaching collegiate golf, the successes that Illinois has had, how college golf has evolved over the years, Mike’s relationship with Wilson Staff and much more.
Tom Brassell: Welcome to the Worldwide Golf Shops Insider podcast. Episode 254.
Hello everyone Tom Brassell here, thanks so much for joining us. If you’re a first-time listener, long time subscriber, or maybe you’re somewhere in the middle, it doesn’t matter, just glad that you joined us. Special day today as we get to go behind the curtain of somewhere we really haven’t been in a long, long time. That would be collegiate golf. Joining us is one of the nation’s top coaches. He’s built quite a program up at the University of Illinois. He joins us today, coach Mike Small. Mike, thanks so much for joining us, great to have you with us.
Mike Small: Well you’re welcome. It’s great to be with you and I’m looking forward to spending time here.
Tom Brassell: Tell our listeners a little bit Mike about your past before you came to Illinois and obviously your life in this great game that we all play.
Mike Small: The game has been great to me. I’ve been one of the luckiest guys in the world obviously to play this game and to have the ability and the chance to play it at a high level. I went to school in Illinois. I wasn’t a highly recruited golfer when I was younger. Back then, the junior golf days were different than they are now. You didn’t play a national schedule. You went to schools more regionally back in the early 80s. I was fortunate enough to be able to play golf at Illinois and had a decent career. Got better as time went on. I wasn’t a great college player at the beginning but Steve Stricker, a name that we’re all familiar with, came to play with me at Illinois, a year younger than me. His presence in our golf program really helped me to become a better player. I never would have played for PGA Tour if Steve Stricker hadn’t played at Illinois with me.
I finished up a good career, then turned professional there afterward. I played all the tours all over the world trying to get my game good enough to make the PGA Tour. My goal was to play the PGA Tour. I got it to a level where I did. I finally made it. I didn’t stay there very long, played a number of events on tour. I think seventy-some events in my career. One full year as an exempt member but probably enough tour events to satisfy another couple of years. I’ve played in 13 majors in my career and had a chance to play with the best players in the world and test my game and make a living at it. When I lost my card I had the opportunity to … I was back on the Web.com Tour at the time. I think it was the Nike Tour at the time but the Web.com Tour now as a past champion. I won twice out there prior to getting on tour. I was playing there and then the University of Illinois came back and wanted me to come back to my alma mater and build a golf program.
At that point in my career, I was kind of frustrated, fighting myself with my game. I just lost my card as I said and was willing to take that chance to come back and see what this was like. I didn’t know how long I’d be here to coach. I didn’t know really what to expect. I had no experience in coaching. Now, 17 years later I’m still here and we built a brand and something we’re very, very proud of in Champaigne.
Tom Brassell: You guys have had incredible success there and we’ll get into that in a bit. Mike, you mentioned going back in the past back when you and I played back in college years, and years, and years ago. Talk about the difference in the college player today. Not only on the mental side but the fitness side and just their readiness side. You know, ready to compete.
Mike Small: Yes. It is so different. Every aspect of the college golfer is so different than it was 25 to 30 years ago. It’s so different than it was 10 years ago. It just keeps evolving. The money, the effort, the importance of these universities to support their golf programs has changed so much and these kids have so much more support. They’re so much more advanced … The players. Yeah, the recruiting is different. Like you said, now it’s a big business. The facilities … I think 11 or 12 Big Ten programs have huge indoor practice areas. When the Big Ten spends money on golf you know it’s a serious endeavor to the alumni, to the administration.
Our goal is to be on par with the so-called Southern Schools, which has always had a more of a positive outlook I guess when it comes to golf and recruiting because of the weather. We dispelled that over the years with our effort and things. We recruit players that in the past probably would have gone to some powerhouses in the South. But now, they’re coming to a powerhouse in the North because of the way we approach it and the way we expect our players to evolve, and the opportunity we give them through facilities, and through strength training like you said, and through obviously the academics. We have a great academic institution as a lot of programs have. That satisfied probably the same as it was 30 years ago but the support when it comes to athletics is so much different.
Tom Brassell: Yeah I look back in the day and I can count probably three players that we played in tournaments with. “These guys will make it to the next level.” Now you guys see it every week. In any school right?
Mike Small: Well that’s right. The depth is so much greater. Back when I graduated and back when you were playing, the learning curve to get on the PGA Tour after you graduated was probably five to seven years. That was a normal progression of somebody when you get the card. Not mentioning those top 1 or 2 or 3 guys like you said. There’s a learning curve into it because college golf didn’t prepare you, amateur golf didn’t prepare you to play at that level.
I’ve had five guys graduate from Illinois and get their PGA Tour card or European Tour card at 21 years old. There’s no fear there anymore. They’re learning things in college, they’re learning things in school that we used to have to learn on the mini-tours. We’re playing better golf courses. We’re playing harder golf courses. The coaching is better and is more experienced. Amateur golf is deeper. The players are so much more advanced at an earlier age than they ever were, and their expectations are increased. They feel like they should be on tour making money at 21 or 22 or 23 years old, except back when we played the PGA Tour was a mythical place. It wasn’t on TV every week. You never saw it, you just heard about it. It took you four, five, six years to build your game up and learn what you need to learn in order to compete at that level. The learning curve was definitely a lot steeper now.
Tom Brassell: Mike you talked about geography coming into play at Illinois versus the South. But talk about geography as opposed to going East or West over the oceans because this has gotten so international now you’re finding players all over the world.
Mike Small: That’s exactly right. You saw it in college athletics kind of enter tennis maybe 10 or 15 years ago where a lot of the tennis programs had a big international presence. I think women’s golf was probably ahead of men’s golf in international participation on the golf teams. Now it’s obviously, since using men’s side, there’s a lot of great players throughout the world. Golf is growing probably more internationally than anywhere. These young kids are playing and learning. Golf on TV has brought these golf countries closer together. So colleges have the ability to recruit better players that want to get a great education to come in and play. At Illinois, we’ve only had four international players in my 17 years. We’re under the curve I would say when it comes to the number of international players, but it’s picked up as of late. When you get players like Thomas Pieters and Thomas Detry to come play for us from Europe and then go on to have the careers they have here and then go on to play professional golf, that’s a good sign and that shows us that it can be done. We’re not as hesitant to go after international players as we would have been 10 years ago. These kids from other countries are more advanced, they’re worldly players, but they’re also really good mature young people that really appreciate the opportunity to come to the US and go to college.
Tom Brassell: Yeah you talk about mental toughness you can look up in the dictionary and see Thomas Pieters’ name Ryder Cupper right undershoot and one of those young guys.
Mike Small: Yeah he was never scared. He came to Illinois very raw. He hadn’t played a lot of golf. Growing up in Belgium you practice a lot, you develop your technique, but you don’t play a lot. There’s not an abundance of golf courses. When he got here he was very talented but raw. He learned the game. We played and competed at the highest level you can in amateur golf. We studied the game, he learned some things in our program, and obviously, now he’s the top 25 or 30 in the world and is a Ryder Cup hero for Europe. So, things are looking up for Tom.
Tom Brassell: Coach Mike Small joining us, University of Illinois. Mike if you could take us behind the curtain a little bit and tell our listeners how when you’re recruiting and how scholarships work, because some people are the imagination that there’s full rides for everybody and that’s really, really not the case.
Mike Small: No it’s not. Every program is different. I can’t speak for every golf program because everyone does it differently. But I know some of the great programs that we compete against with, and we’ve established ourself as a top five or top ten program over the last decade, attention comes to us more freely than it used to. A lot more players are reaching out to us, a lot stronger players. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, how you do it. You just try and find the best people, the best players you can to be a part of this program. Like you said, the scholarships aren’t as abundant in the men’s side as they are the women’s side. So you’re always looking for kids that want to come, see how good they can be, grow their games to where they may have a chance to play golf after college, but also achieve a great education. You can’t overlook that. We don’t really recruit kids that just want to come play golf. You are a student first at Illinois and then you’re a golfer second. Now the golfer second may be really, really, really, close to academics but it’s never going to supersede it.
Once we find those kids that want to be here, they want to be challenged in the classroom and on the golf course, but also want to play professional golf someday, you recruit them as hard as you can. You learn about them. Their personalities, their families, and how they fit into your program, and then hopefully the scholarship needs that they have match up with what you have available. Only four and a half scholarships on a team of nine or ten guys, that’s not a lot of aid. So, you’ve got to find guys … Some years you have more available than other years for recruiting certain classes. A lot of it’s luck, a lot of it’s timing, but you’ve got to find the people that you want to fit into your program. We talked earlier … There’s so many good young players out there it’s almost more confusing than it used to be.
Tom Brassell: Yeah. Jim Nantz was telling us several years ago, when he was in Houston, he said, “Even Freddy Couples wasn’t on a full ride back then.” They were all splitting them up, even back then.
Mike Small: That’s right.
Tom Brassell: Hey Mike, share with us a little bit about your team right now. Some of the players you have and who you’re looking to make contributions this year.
Mike Small: Well right now we’re coming off a mix of youthful potential and some veteran talent and accomplishment. We’ve got Dylan Meyer and Nick Hardy who are both I think maybe nine and twelve in the world amateur rankings now. I think Dylan peaked at number two or three this last summer in the world. Nick is just methodically moved up the rankings for four years. We have two seniors who have had very, very accomplished players in college and amateur golf that are going to be professionals someday. Those guys are going to be leaned on. We’ve got to lean on those for some heavy weight pulling this year.
We have a good nucleus of younger players. We have three sophomores. Giovanni Tadiotto from Belgium, Michael Feagles from Scottsdale, Arizona, and Bryan Baumgarten from California who are three good, talented sophomores. To get those guys from far reaches of the globe is what we have to do if we have to do it. You know, Nick and Dylan are Illinois and Indiana kids, good Midwestern kids. You bring those guys with three worldly sophomores, I think there’s some potential to be good. Then, we have two freshmen from the state of Illinois. Brendan O’Reilly and Varun Chopra who have potential, but young players that we’re still learning about and still getting to know them. We look for them to help and push us on to the springtime.
If our seniors play well and our sophomores continue to mature we’re trying to get back to the Final Four for the fourth straight year. We’ve been to three Final Fours and haven’t won the national championship, but we’ve been in contention. We’ve been to six Final Eights in the last seven years. So there’s been some consistency in our progress and in our results with different kids and different classes. We feel that the way we do things and the way we go about our business is proven. We’ve just got to get these new kids to understand it and to buy into it.
Tom Brassell: Mike before we let you go today, I want to ask you about your relationship with our good friends over at Wilson Golf and Wilson Staff. They brought you here today and that’s how we met back in January, back at the PGA Show. Share with us a little about that relationship if you can and what it means to you.
Mike Small: Well Wilson’s been great to me for a better part of a decade. Being an Illinois kid myself, growing up in the state, and still residing here after all these years … Wilson’s a Chicago company and when we grew up that was the club, that was the company that everybody played. It still has warm memories in my heart. Tim Clarke and the staff at Wilson have done things the last decade that impress me. They’re working their way back to the level that they had back in the 30, 40, 50, years ago where they established all those major championship wins. They’re very good people. They really care about the game and they’ve got dang good products. They really do. Their irons are fantastic. I’ve played their irons now for eight, nine years. Very very consistent, very solid, and I’m proud to play them and it’s just a part of who I am. What I like about it they have obviously a huge history, a great reputation, and good people. When you put those three together and a lot of hard work good things are going to happen.
Tom Brassell: Yeah. More major championships than any other iron going back, it’s really amazing. Mike, thanks so much for joining us. This has been great catching up with you. We’ll be pulling for you guys this year to make it back to the Final Four. Final words for our listeners here at Worldwide Golf Shops?
Mike Small: Thanks for the call. Thanks for what you do. Thanks for promoting the game and keeping people interested, and getting new people into the game, which is huge. What a better way to have something that you can entertain yourself and have some relaxation and enjoyment. But also, if you want to take it to another level and be able to really work at something hard, and put your passion into it to see how good you can become, and have a sport where you can be competitive at the same time. I’m in love with the game and have been for forty years. I’m just glad you guys are too.
Tom Brassell: Thank you so much, Mike. Great talking with you.
Mike Small: Thanks a lot. Take care.
Tom Brassell: Well that was nothing short of absolutely fantastic. Coach Mike Small who has built an absolutely incredible men’s golf program up at the University of Illinois, taking us behind the curtain a little bit into the competitive and the readiness of these young men playing college golf all around the country. Coach Mike Small brought to us by our great friends at Wilson Golf. Don’t forget to check out all the great products from Wilson Golf right here at WorldWideGolfShops.com.
Special thanks once again to Coach Small for joining us and to you our listeners. We’ll do it again next time when we have another episode of the Worldwide Golf Shops Insider podcast at WorldWideGolfShops.com
So long everyone.