Small: ‘coach first, player second’



By Kyle Betts

You wouldn’t know it by the d‚cor in his office, but Mike Small has had a very successful career as a professional golfer. Of all the trophies and plaques that he has collected over the years playing golf around the world at the highest level, Small doesn’t display any of his accomplishments. Instead, his walls are plain white and his desk is piled with papers and folders. The only thing he shows off are pictures of his wife, Ann, and his two sons, Will and Wyatt.

Most recently, Small was named the 2006 PGA Professional Player of the Year by PGA of America, but to him, his playing career is secondary to being the coach of the Illinois men’s golf team.

“I am a coach first and a player second,” Small said. “I’m not a player that coaches on the side. I’m a coach that plays on the side.”

While Small commits most of his time to studying recruiting information and reviewing statistics so he can bring the Illinois program to Big Ten dominance, there is no denying the success of his individual playing career and his passion for the game.

“He’s very competitive,” assistant coach David Pezzino said. “He wants to win so badly at everything he does. If you’re going to have a putting competition with him or play cards against him, then you better come ready to play, because he wants to beat you.”

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    Small fueled his competitive fire as a teenager while growing up in Danville, Ill., by playing all kinds of sports with his friends.

    “My buddies and I played all different kinds of sports and I played a bunch of different sports through high school,” Small said. “I finally settled on golf during my senior year.”

    Small’s commitment and desire to golf paid off as his hard work earned him a scholarship to the University of Illinois in 1984. Living in Danville and having a father who was a member of the Illini basketball team from 1961-63 made Small a lifetime Illini fan. It was his dream to play golf for the University.

    The summer before he came to the school, Small won the Junior Masters which only reinforced his desire to work at becoming a dominant golfer.

    “I didn’t play a lot of big national events on the junior circuit. It was the farthest I had traveled at the time,” Small said. “It was like the Super Bowl for me.”

    After his impressive win, Small enrolled at Illinois and began, what he called, the best four years of his life. That is, until he married Ann, he said.

    He was a letter winner from 1985-88 and was an important member of the 1988 Big Ten championship team. He then went on to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 1988.

    After college, Small wanted to get onto the PGA Tour, but didn’t have much success professionally. He then decided to give up golf and started working at a pharmaceutical company for the next eight months. Sometime during his business career though, Small realized he still had the desire to play golf and needed to get back on the course.

    “(Quitting golf) was probably the best thing I’ve done,” Small said. “It made me realize I missed it so much.”

    Small eventually got back into professional tournaments in 1990 and worked hard to make it to the PGA Tour in 1995.

    “Over the next seven to eight years I played in the US Open and got on the PGA Tour and saw everything in between,” Small said. “I went to tournaments overseas and Canada. I tell people I probably played every tour in the world except the LPGA Tour.”

    After playing for 10 years, Small decided it was time to leave the tour. He said the experience was amazing but he did have one regret.

    “As I tell my players, I wish my goal was to win the PGA Tour,” Small said. “Being from a small town from Illinois, my subconscious goal was to just play on the PGA Tour. My goal should have been to win and it was my subconscious fault for not making winning the tour my goal.”

    Leaving the Tour opened up the door for Small to become the Illinois men’s golf coach in 2000. Changing his focus from playing to coaching, Small used his experience as a professional to help him have an almost immediate impact on the program.

    “He coaches from a player’s perspective,” Pezzino said. “He gives the guys real tournament exposure.”

    Giving his players tips that he learned from over a decade of professional golf helped him turn Illinois into a Top 25 program. By the 2001-02 season, Small was named Big Ten Coach of the Year.

    “I know what some of the best players do and I know how they think,” Small said. “I know what they’re thinking and how they feel. I know what they’re thinking when they’re playing good and when they’re playing bad.”

    While Small helped establish the Illinois program as one of the better teams in the nation, his coaching experience also helped him in his professional career which he continued to play in the offseason.

    “I think any profession, whatever you do, if you can look at it from a different perspective, then you can keep learning,” Small said. “When I came here, I had to worry about 10 other people’s games and look at golf from a whole bunch of perspectives and that’s helped me learn more about the game.”

    Although he played in less tournaments than he did when he was on the tour, Small still competed at the elite level of players who were not on the tour. He said he wanted to use his individual playing time to keep up on the latest strategies and technology in the game, but Small eventually began to dominate the tournaments he was playing.

    In 2006, Small was rewarded for his play by being named the PGA Professional Player of the Year, which brings fulfillment to his individual golf career.

    “To win this award was a validation of all the hard work I put in those 10 years on the Tour,” Small said. “It’s very rewarding personally.”

    Although Small took time off to go to Orlando to receive his award on Jan. 25, the next week he was back dedicating his time to coaching as he went on a week-long recruiting trip.

    “Coaching is my first and foremost goal,” Small said. “I want that to be known.”

    As the calendar begins to inch toward spring and the start of the season nears, Small works more diligently in his sterile office. He doesn’t need trophies or awards to know he’s a competitor. He doesn’t need championships or accolades to show his desire to win. Instead he works in silence, knowing that his passion will bring him all the success he deserves.