Our guest this episode is the head golf coach at the University of Illinois, Mike Small. Mike has built the University of Illinois golf team into one of the elite programs in the country, and he was named National Golf Coach of the Year in 2015. Mike is also an elite player with 22 professional wins, including two on the Web.com Tour.
Mike was born in Aurora and grew up in Danville. He played college golf at the University of Illinois and was a member of the 1988 Big Ten Championship team, where he finished second behind teammate Steve Stricker.
Small is a member of the Illinois Golf Hall of Fame and is one of the most decorated players in Illinois golf history. He’s won the Illinois PGA Championship 12 times and Illinois Open four times.
He is a three-time PGA Professional Player of the Year (2006, 2007 and 2010). Mike was also recognized by the PGA of America as the 2017 OMEGA Senior PGA Professional Player of the Year.
In this interview with Mike, we learn:
- The challenges of playing professional golf for a living
- The strategy the University of Illinois used to recruit him to take over their golf program
- Why being a Division I college golf coach involves a lot more than teaching golf
- The secret to juggling a career as a player and a coach
- The one regret he has from his playing career
- How the University of Illinois consistently attracts elite players to a cold weather climate
- The most important quality he looks for when recruiting players
Interviewer: Walter Lis. Running Time: 22:36
Click here to download an MP3 file.
The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
CHICAGO GOLF REPORT: How did you initially find the game of golf?
MIKE SMALL: I began as a player back when I was younger. I played college golf at Illinois, but once I got to college I realized that there were a lot of great players out there, and this was back in the mid-80’s. I enjoyed college golf so much and I improved so much, that after four years of getting better and playing alongside players like Steve Stricker, who was my teammate, my game evolved to a level where I could feasibly see myself giving it a shot to play professional golf.
After college I played professional golf for the better part of eleven years all over the world, starting on the small tours and then working all the way up to the PGA Tour. Becoming a PGA Tour member, I had won twice on the Nike Tour, which is the Web.com Tour now.
I eventually made it to the PGA Tour for 10-11 years and made a decent living at it. But I had lost my card then in 1998 and was back on the Nationwide Tour (Web.com).
I was back playing there, and my kids were growing, and they were getting to kindergarten age and were not able to travel with me as much. My career came to a crossroads. Did I want to continue to play professional golf?
Like I said I was making a living at it. It wasn’t a bad living. I was doing well, it was just a lot of time and a lot of travelling and it becomes a narrow life when you’re playing professional golf. It’s just your golf game. It’s me, myself, and I, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Things were getting a little narrow and I was playing okay, but not like I had when I got on the PGA Tour. I had to decide whether to work my way back up to the Tour or do something else.
At that time, The University of Illinois had been calling me and kind of planting the seed of coming back and trying to grow a program that alumni could be proud of. The idea intrigued me because of the time I enjoy so much in college golf when I played.
I decided to take the job because of my personal life, my kids, since they couldn’t travel anymore, and my love for Illinois. Also, the University told me I could still play and wanted me to play. They saw the importance of being a player/coach and still being involved in tournament play.
That’s kind of how I got into the golf business. I then became a PGA member a year later and started playing PGA of America events and section events, along with PGA Tour events. Seventeen years later, here I am.
CHICAGO GOLF REPORT: Can you give an overview of what the job of a college golf coach is? Does a coach serve as an instructor as well? What is the role of the golf coach at the University of Illinois?
MIKE SMALL: The role of a golf coach at the University of Illinois is not different than probably any other golf coach nationwide at the level we aspire to be at except maybe we just do it a little differently. It’s personalized if you will to our school, to our location, our mission statement to what we want to accomplish and how we go about it.
My role of a golf coach is really all inclusive. Golf teams are small. They can be as small as six players. They can be as high as twelve or thirteen or fifteen.
We’ve always been a smaller team because I believe in having a relationship with the kids, and getting to know them very well, and playing a big part in their development as players and students.
If you want to get the really good players, having too many players on your team doesn’t those other guys a very good chance to play. So, I’ve always had smaller teams.
But the way I equate is if you are comparing it to an organization or a professional team, you have your General Manager, you have your owner, your salary cap guy. You have your equipment manager, you have your coaches, you have your facility guys. You have your recruiters, you have your scouts. You have everybody that helps the organization win.
With our small team that we have, I’ve got to do all those jobs. I’m like a Jack of all trades. I’m a fundraiser, I’m the CEO and I’m everything in between, and I’m even the equipment guy and the facility guy.
I have an assistant coach who assists me, but the buck stops with me. To be a successful college golf coach, I believe you should have your hand in all those roles. You should have complete ownership and I think all those jobs are important if you want to build an all-inclusive program that competes consistently at the national level.
You must be a marketer, a fundraiser, which is kind of the same thing. You must create an excitement between the community and your donors and supporters for the team. Now you also have the social media aspect.
The job evolves with time, but there are so many little facets of a golf coach that would take us a long time to explain all of them. But just the actual teaching golf and working on the golf swings and teaching the game and how to score and how to play at tournaments and practice rounds and how to manage your game on the golf course – that’s the essence of a golf coach.
That’s the main point in there because it all comes back to how your players play. If you look at the golf coach’s responsibility and major Division I, I think the golf part is probably a 25% piece of the equation because the others support that in order to get the best players come into your school to use the best facilities at the best institution.
CHICAGO GOLF REPORT: With all those different roles, how do you juggle the responsibilities of running a major program like the University of Illinois and then still keeping your own personal golf game sharp?
MIKE SMALL: That’s a great question, and I’ve been asked that for a better part of fifteen years. The answer I give jokingly is I don’t really know. If I try to figure it out, I might mess this whole thing up.
So, it’s something that I don’t take for granted, and that I just keep looking forward and keep looking on to the next year. I do have an awesome assistant and operations person and Zach Barlow, my Assistant coach as well as Jackie Szymoniak is our Operations Director.
With the facilities we’ve built over the years here at Illinois, we have over $12 million in our golf facilities right on campus, just for the men’s and women’s teams we’ve built and designed from the ground floor. That’s a huge responsibility, and I’ve had some great help.
It takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of selfishness. I have a family at home that understands that. They’ve been great, because what we have done at this program for a better part of 15, 16 years and the success that I’ve had playing. I’ve played in 11+ majors and about almost forty PGA Tour events and a lot of the national club pro events and now the senior stuff. I play probably five or six times a year. When I have exemptions on the Tour I’ll play more.
But to do all that and to do the job, I need great staff and need a great family that understands the selfishness that goes into playing well. Sometimes when you get free time and you just kind of go home and work in the yard or visit with the neighbors. I don’t have a lot of time to do that.
I probably have to go hit some balls our work on part of my game when that time arises. Sometimes I have less to do, but you have to give up a lot of things in your life that other people take for granted.
There is no downtime in my life in order to do this, and it kind of fits my personality. I kind of believe that’s the way I’m wired. I have to be doing something all the time and so maybe that’s what helps it to.
When I was on the PGA Tour for those 10 or 11 years off and on and playing professional golf, I practiced hard. And I was at it every day, all day and I think some of that work that I did then still pays off dividends today. Maybe I don’t have to give as much time to it to still have success, but it can carry my game through.
CHICAGO GOLF REPORT: The perspective that you have is so unique, you were a student at the University of Illinois, then you become a touring professional golfer and then you become the coach. Do you think having all of that experience is why you’ve had success with the team?
MIKE SMALL: Yeah, I’d like to think so. I’d like to think that I was raised in a great atmosphere of a competitive family. A sports-orientated family, but to find things that you love to do, and to do them well. And if the job isn’t finished, it’s to finish it and not to take things for granted.
I believe I am a hard worker. I believe I’m a competitor, and I love that aspect of it. I think that is tangible and that’s been prevalent in all these areas of my life.
And did I ever win on the PGA Tour? No, I never did win on the PGA Tour and that’s something that I regret in my life. But all things happen for a reason and to make the PGA Tour was a goal of mine when I was a young man, and I accomplished it.
I just joked with people that I wish my goal was to win on the PGA Tour because I might have done that. Or I would have done that if it had been my goal that I programmed in my mind all those years.
But coming back to Illinois and having enjoyed college golf so much when I played, I think I subconsciously wanted this and have planned for this. When I do something, I want to do it well.
If I was to come back here and promise the athletic director at the time that if I was going to do this, I want the ability to go get the resources. If they were provided by the University or not, I still have the ability to get them myself, which we’ve done. And we’ve gone above and beyond, because the University has given me the freedom to go get it, and to go after it and go do it.
I really appreciate that. Who would have thought that the University of Illinois golf program would be number one in the country for two or three years, ten straight national championship appearances and finished in the top five in the country, 6 of the last 7 years.
I don’t think anybody would have imagined that, and that’s been kind of the fun to do things that nobody thought you can do. I think that competitiveness that I developed as a youngster, and then playing on Tour, along with the love for the University and having the freedom to do all that is all coupled together to let us just bust our butt and go get it.
CHICAGO GOLF REPORT: How do you recruit these top-level players to come to a Midwestern location, a cold weather location versus going to a warm climate.
MIKE SMALL: It’s not an easy recipe. It’s not an easy answer, it’s just something we do. And it’s just who we are, and what we do and there’s no excuses.
The weather is probably documented more by other people than us. I believe it’s more important than the weather that the people you surround yourself with, and the environment that you find yourself being a part of, is more important than the weather.
We’ve had two individual national champions in the last 6 or 7 years. And we’ve had a number of top five finishers and we’ve won 8 championships in 9 years.
It’s just something that perpetuates and grows. The people can see it can be done and want to be part of something special no matter where it is.
I think that’s something that we believe. I’d love to be able to go out in December and January and hit balls and play. That would be great but that’s just not the reality of it.
So, you have to find kids that understand that, that aren’t always looking backwards. You want to find kids that are looking forwards. They are not going to come out of school and say “wow this weather is bad. I wish I was somewhere else.”
You try to screen those kids early because you don’t want kids that look backwards. You want kids that are hungry and look forwards and want to be part of something special and want to be part of a good, fun, positive, optimistic environment.
Do we always recruit the best players at the time? No, but when it’s all said and done, we’ve had over 20 All-Americans, and like I said, national champions.
After four years they evolve into that role that people wished they recruited four years earlier. We take a lot of pride in the development part of it, but I think a lot of it is these kids don’t care about the weather. They see the facilities that we’ve built, and the commitment from the University and the coaching staff that we want to give them the best facilities possible.
Then we mold and groom them in a culture that is accountable and very positive, and it becomes addicting after a while. They want to be part of it and success breeds success, and success breeds happiness, and when you are playing well people want to be part of it.
I think that’s been a big part of it, the growth of the program, and the weather part. I think it amazes the warm weather people and the West Coast coaches more than it does ours, because we don’t know any different.
This is just who we are, but the warm weather coaches can’t figure out how we are doing it. But like I said, we’ve been among the top programs in the country and if you average out the eight national championships, we are number one in the country. And so that’s a kind of a neat thing to have even with our weather.
CHICAGO GOLF REPORT: Would you have any suggestions for amateur Chicago golfers to focus on during the cold weather months so that when March comes around they are ready to hit the ground running?
MIKE SMALL: That’s a tough thing to do. Everybody is different, but I think the physical aspect is huge. The mindset is very important to visualize. You have to be excited about it, you have to study the game.
You can find places now where you can hit inside and out. In fact, when I was growing up, you shut down entirely for golf in November until March. Now there are bays and hitting stations and ranges around the Midwest that you can actually hit balls inside to out, and there’s places that you can putt and chip inside. It’s not as restrictive as it used to be, but mentally you have to visualize things and stay positive and optimistic.
But physically, you can work on your body. You can work on your flexibility. You can work on your strength and on your balance. I think that’s huge when the springtime comes around.
The game has evolved so much over the years, that there’s trainers now and there’s the TPI (Titleist Performance Institute) stuff. And you can be in better shape come March than you were in November and be a better player with the full swing.
Now the short game is a whole different deal, but you can putt and chip inside, or you can visualize things. Or you can just stay positive because there isn’t much that you can do about it. But when the time does come to get outside, take advantage of it and use that time to improve.
CHICAGO GOLF REPORT: Can you give an example of one of your most memorable moments as a player and as a coach?
MIKE SMALL: I get these questions when I speak for when I go and talk to people from time to time. It’s weird for me because I’ve programmed myself for the last 30 years to not look backwards and always look forwards. I’m always on to the next obstacle or the next goal, or the next season or the next round or whatever it is.
I don’t sit back and reflect a lot, and I’ve started to do that a little more recently because people told me it’s healthy to do that and to realize what we have accomplished and kind of make that feel good.
I’m always on to the next shot, the next hole, the next day and I don’t reflect as much as I should. So, it’s hard for me to think about that.
Getting my PGA Tour card was a big deal for me, that’s when I finished in the top 15 in the Nike Tour and the Nike Championships, when Commissioner Finchem gives you your card, that was always a big deal to me.
That’s something that was a lifelong dream. Like I said, I wished I would have had that dream to win on the Tour and not just make the Tour, but I remember that vividly.
Winning the National PGA Professional Championship three times, each one of them got sweeter and sweeter, not just the first one. The first one I came from behind, but low and behold I won.
But the last couple I was in the heat of it and won, and that was a huge satisfaction to me to know that I won a national championship with so many exemptions, and so much perks and stuff and reputation in it. But I won it three different ways and that was always kind of nice.
And then as a coach, I’ve had two individual national champions. It was very important to me to see these kids catapult their career: Scott Langley and Thomas Pieters onto the PGA Tour and European Tour and it was huge being part of that.
But the consistency our team has sustained over a better part of a decade is kind of altogether with me, and not just one moment. To be able to come back and win in 8 out of 9 Big Ten Championships. The one that we lost, we finished second by three shots.
To bring it every year like that is important to me. That’s kind of the way that I’m wired. I just want to do it over and over and be consistent in what you do.
That just shows me that the kids are buying in and that we built a program. It wasn’t defining moment in coaching, it’s been as much as being a consistent run or stretch to make the championship finals 10 consecutive years, and then to make the match play 6 or 7, which is the most in the country.
And to finish the top five in the country for 6 or 7 years is something that really makes me proud because it shows consistency. It’s not a flash in the pan.
The one-year that we lost the National Championships to Alabama, we finished second. People asked me would I take that and take the other finishes and trade them, and no I wouldn’t because that’s just the way I’m wired. I love being in the fight.
I love being in the battle every year and the feeling of being nervous because you know, there is no guarantee that we will ever do that again. So, we’re going to try again this year but there’s no guarantee, and that’s why you’ve got to cherish that run that you’ve had.