Asmussen | Small's passion for Illinois - and winning - remains unmatched

Asmussen | Small's passion for Illinois - and winning - remains unmatched

CHAMPAIGN — It's lunchtime Wednesday at bustling Black Dog near downtown Champaign. There's a celebrity in the room: arguably, the most successful coach in Illinois history — in any sport.

You might think his presence would cause a stir. If Lovie Smith or Brad Underwood walked in, there would certainly be handshakes, a selfie or two and some rubber-necking.

But Mike Small goes mostly unnoticed.

Not totally. At the next table, former Illinois football All-American Martin O'Donnell has lunch with fellow Busey employee Chip Jorstad. They stop and greet Small. Later, without saying a word, Jorstad picks up the tab.

"These guys support our program," Small said. "They're friends of ours."

It's happened before.

"People recognize the face because of the notoriety our program has gotten and my longevity here," Small said.

When Small goes to a golf course, locally or on the road, people know him.

"They're just complimentary more than anything," he said. "They say 'We follow your program.' They know our team."

★ ★ ★

Small doesn't seek attention. But he deserves it. His record as Illini men's golf guru is ridiculous. In a good way.

On April 28 in Philadelphia, Small led Illinois to its fifth consecutive Big Ten title. And 10th in the last 11 years. Small just earned his 11th Big Ten Coach of the Year honor.

If the basketball or football coach did that for the Illini, the statue would already be up.

Small can't even get in his alma mater's Athletic Hall of Fame because of a rule that mandates retirement before selection.

Sure, dominating the conference for a decade-plus is impressive. Small hasn't stopped there.

Despite the hazards of Midwest golf (try teeing it up in January), Small's teams have a long run of NCAA success.

The Illini open NCAA regional play Monday at Myrtle Beach, S.C., looking for the school's 12th consecutive trip to the NCAA championships.

In the last eight years, Illinois has the highest average NCAA finish. No team has been to more Elite Eights.

The one missing prize is a national title. Yes, the coach wants one for his school and for his players. He's also happy with the other boxes that have been checked.

"What's more important, winning the national championship one time in 20 years or going to six Elite Eights and four Final Fours?" Small said. "I love consistency. My personality is I want to be in the game."

★ ★ ★

How'd he do that?

Northern schools aren't supposed to win in golf. Not like at Illinois during Small's fun run.

Unique is appealing.

"It's become its own brand, its own animal, because it doesn't make sense to a lot of people," Small said. "If I was at UCLA or Florida having been to the Final Fours and runner-up and the national champions that we've had, it wouldn't be that big of a deal. But Illinois, it makes people's ears perk up a little bit."

The uniqueness goes beyond geography. It extends to a coach who continues to play at a high level.

Small has qualified for 13 majors, 10 while serving as coach.

Last year, he finished 68th on the Champions Tour money list, earning $182,885 in just seven events.

"I'm not a full-time player and I'm not a full-time coach, but I've had success at both, which I'm tickled to death about," Small said. "I think that's what caused people to take notice is that it's different."

Small, 53, is moving toward the end of his run as a player.

"I've always been coach first, player second," Small said.

He won't be tempted to go back.

"I will tell you a secret: the majority of the guys on the Champions Tour would love to have my job," Small said.

At the start of his coaching career, the extra money he made as a player came in handy.

"I had to play to make ends meet, to have the lifestyle we wanted," Small said.

★ ★ ★

His bosses have always supported Small's playing career.

Former athletic director Ron Guenther, who hired Small almost two decades ago, knew the coach's playing career would be an asset to the Illini.

"Ron Guenther was smart, and we talked about it, that playing gave us a different niche to recruit out of. We had to separate from other Big Ten schools," Small said. "Eventually, it separated us from other national schools."

It wasn't easy to do both.

"It was taxing," Small said. "It was exhausting to try to build a program, without an assistant coach at the time, and to build it and to brand it and to recruit and do everything you need to do. Looking back at it, those were probably some of the funnest years. It was a lot of work. But it was all worth it."

Small won three PGA Club Pro titles, which made it possible for him to play in almost 30 PGA Tour events.

He's shared the postmatch stage with Tiger Woods. Talk about a recruiting advantage.

"I had a different storyline to get into the door," Small said.

It worked with former Illini Luke Guthrie. In 2007, Guthrie was on a recruiting visit at Oklahoma State during the PGA Championship, which was at nearby Southern Hills in Tulsa, Okla.

"He watched me play," Small said. "It helped solidify (his choice that), 'This is pretty cool. I'd like to play for somebody like this.'"

Top recruits want to go to the PGA Tour. Small has been there, done that. He experienced good times and bad.

"I've learned more from my failures than from my successes," Small said. "I coach my guys from the perspective, 'I wish I had done this differently.' It's helped our guys."

Steve Stricker, Small's former Illini teammate, has 12 PGA Tour wins and three more on the Champions Tour.

If Small had Stricker-level success "I would not be here," the coach said. "No way. If I still played the PGA Tour, I probably would not have taken this job."

The life of a pro golfer is awesome ... as long as you play well.

"It's the best job in the world," Small said. "But when you're playing bad, it's the worst job in the world. It's costing you $5,000 a week to work. Who works to lose money?"

★ ★ ★

Guenther and former coach Ed Beard always figured Small would excel as a coach. Good call.

They reached out a few times while Small was still on the PGA Tour.

"I said, 'No, I'm not ready. I'm on the PGA Tour," Small said. "But then I lost my card. I was back on the Web.com Tour. It wasn't the same as the (PGA) Tour."

His kids, Will and Wyatt, were getting older, ready to start school. When the opportunity came to return home with wife Ann and the kids, Small grabbed it.

"I wasn't sure whether I'd like it or not," Small said. "I didn't know if I'd be here one year, two years. Here I am 19 years later."

Small took the job in 2000. He watched Beard work the last two tournaments of the season.

"I had never coached before, taught golf, nothing," Small said. "I was a player with a business degree from Illinois."

He got off to a rough start. The Illini finished 10th in the Big Ten his first year.

"I was learning, the team was learning," Small said. "The team at the time was not very good."

The losing didn't last long.

Small's second year, with three freshmen in the lineup, the team finished second in the Big Ten. The Illini led the NCAA tournament after one round before finishing 18th.

"We made it," Small said, "and I got hooked."

★ ★ ★

Small has been told he "needs to reflect on the past more."

That is not his nature. He trained himself to focus on the task at hand.

"In coaching, I'm on to the next day, the next recruit, the next tournament," Small said.

He's working on it.

"I feel like I owe it to my younger players to coach them like I did the old kids," Small said. "Not to get soft. Not to get older. Not to get lazy. I don't want to go out that way."

There will be no winding down for Small. But he is trying to find a balance.

"I'm taking a little more in stride than I would have 10 to 15 years ago," Small said. "Less intense on day to day stuff, but the same intensity when we're going to compete."

Of course, he has made mistakes during his coaching career "all the time."

With no regrets.

"It's all worked out," he said. "This is the perfect job for me."

Family helps. A lot.

Mike and Ann, high school sweethearts, will celebrate their 30th anniversary on May 20. Ann is an Illinois graduate. They traveled the world together early in Mike's playing days,

Oldest son Will, 23, just finished his second Illinois degree in accounting. Wyatt, 20, is a Parkland College student.

Small grew up in Danville, the son of Kay and Bill.

The Smalls are an Illini family. Bill was a standout basketball player at Illinois in the 1960s, Kay is an alum and brother Andy played baseball at the school.

"This is a school that I love," Small said. "This is a department that I love. I'm an Illini."

Small has had chances to go to other schools. To coach powerhouses. But it wouldn't be home. And it wouldn't be as much of a challenge.

"Honestly, in a sadistically weird kind of way," Small said, "I like being an underdog."

★ ★ ★

Small has a knack for building relationships. With players, the golf community and donors.

"I had to learn," Small said. "I had interpersonal skills. I feel like I can talk to anybody about anything. I feel like I can get people excited about things. That's what recruiting is.

"We've done a good job with that."

When he took the job, he picked the brain of other Illinois coaches and administrators. He sought advice from other golf coaches throughout the country.

"I was on a project," Small said. "I had to learn."

It hasn't always worked the way Small wants. Especially in recruiting. Not everyone has been willing to listen to his spiel.

The list of players who said "pass" reads like the leaderboard at a major.

Rickie Fowler "sent me a nice thank you note saying 'No.'" Small said.

Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka, Patrick Cantlay, J.B. Holmes all said "No."

Small doesn't hold a grudge.

"The kids I missed the last 10 years, you'd regret it," Small said. "But we still won. We're still pretty good."

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

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