Mike Small’s success with men’s golf program astounding

By Alex Roux

Before this year, the SEC had won seven straight BCS National Championships in football. The SEC comprises 14 schools, most of them located in warm, southern climates. Their streak of BCS dominance was broken this season by Florida State, another southern team. Not since 2002 has a school that endures anything resembling a winter season won the title, when Ohio State defeated Miami.

There seems to be a correlation here. Schools located in warm climates enjoy more football success than their cold-weather counterparts, as evidenced by the SEC. It makes sense. Football is an outdoor sport, and warm-weather schools reign. 

Predictably, the same pattern is seen in other outdoor sports, such as baseball and golf, which makes Illinois men’s golf coach Mike Small’s success with the Illini even more impressive.

The nation’s best golf teams are supposed to be in warm climates. Go figure. Pleasant weather means more time for outdoor practice, nicer courses and an attractive recruiting pitch. The warm-weather advantage is reflected in the NCAA top 10:

No. 1 is Alabama, followed by Georgia Tech, California, Oklahoma State, Georgia, Illinois …

Illinois?

Apparently no one told Mike Small about his geographical disadvantage.

Small is the leader of five-straight Big Ten Champion golf teams here at Illinois. 

His Illini squad was the national runner-up last year in the NCAA Championships. Three of his former golfers — Joe Affrunti, Luke Guthrie and Scott Langley — are currently on the PGA Tour. He has won the Big Ten Coach of the Year award six times. The Illini have had three straight individual champions at the Big Ten Championships. Small has built a golf oasis in the middle of a barren, frozen landscape.

The success of Illinois golf is comparable to Butler reaching two straight National Championship games in basketball. It’s as surprising as the United States winning the World Cup. Illinois golf is the classic example of a program that no one suspects to be capable of such success.

At this point, Small’s success at Illinois is not new. It’s sustained. It’s reminiscent of another coach building another unlikely powerhouse program in another sport.

Everyone knows about head coach Mike Krzyzewski at Duke and his success with the Blue Devils’ basketball program. However, not as many people know about Duke’s mediocrity in hoops before Coach K took over in 1980. Before Krzyzewski, as sportswriter and Duke alum John Feinstein put it, “Duke was bad.”

Krzyzewski eventually began to win at Duke. Once he won, he stayed, and he won a lot more. He has now won more than 900 games and is the poster-child of sustained success in college basketball after turning a small private school in North Carolina into a basketball powerhouse.

This is Coach Small’s 14th season at Illinois. He graduated from the University in 1988.  He’s a loyal Illini if I’ve ever seen one. Ex-Illini track coach Tonja Buford-Bailey left her alma mater to coach at Texas last summer. It was an understandable move, but a move that makes you appreciate the job Small is doing that much more.

We may very well have our own golf version of Coach K in Small. He’s turned his program into a perennial national contender, despite the obstacles and elements.

That’s no small feat.

Alex can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @aroux94.