When Justin Smith is by the tee box, the line between coach and competitor can blur.
“Sometimes when we’re out there on the golf course, it almost feels like he’s playing. He gets so competitive and fierce,” Gophers junior Evan Long said. “It’s just like he wants to win that bad. And he’s just always pushing us harder to become more like that.”
Smith will continue that endeavor now as the Gophers head men’s golf coach, after athletic director Mark Coyle officially named him to the position Monday. Smith already spent the past two years as associate head coach while John Carlson moved to a more administrative director role. Carlson resigned last month to pursue other opportunities, according to a team spokesman.
While Smith first joined the program as an assistant in 2014, his tenure with the Gophers actually started back in 2000 as a golfer. He was part of the most successful era of the program that won two Big Ten titles and advanced to the NCAA finals three times, including winning the NCAA championship in 2002.
Smith actually made the clinching putt on the 18th hole to secure the Gophers’ first and only national title. How he returns the program to that glory depends on finding golfers who are passionate and driven like that team from more than 15 years ago.
“We didn’t have the most talent, but man, we had a group that just believed. And we had a group that just worked harder than anybody,” Smith said. “… You’ve got to find individuals that kind of have a chip on their shoulder. … That’s what happened with me. That’s what happened with a lot of my teammates back in the day.
“There were some schools that probably made decisions that led us to Minnesota, and that’s OK. We’ll find those individuals. We want them here.”
Long fit that description, as Smith recruited him since they are both from the Western Pennsylvania region. Long said Smith’s 2002 team proved northern schools can compete on the national level despite the unique weather challenges, and that’s especially true now with the program’s new indoor facility.
Facility management will be one of Smith’s new job responsibilities. While he had been handling the day-to-day coaching of the players as well as recruiting, he now adds Carlson’s tasks, like fundraising and alumni outreach. The golf side likely will be a smooth transition with minimal changes aside from Smith adding a new assistant soon. But he plans to work harder on connecting with the local area.
“We’re the only Division I school in our state, so all eyes are on us,” Smith said. “And because of that, we have to do a really good job in the community and getting everybody excited about Gopher golf, try to build that brand.”
Making the team successful again should help with that endeavor, and Smith said he feels his team is on the cusp of that. The Gophers’ core is sophomores and juniors, including Big Ten champion Angus Flanagan. Smith said if each golfer can shave one or two strokes off their average score, it will make a huge difference at the end of the year.
But Smith also acknowledged how the game has changed since he won that national title, thanks to advances in technology and golfers coming into college with their own personal swing coaches and whatnot. So the college coach’s job has morphed into more of a professional puzzler — someone who can find, or develop, the perfect fits within a team.
Long recalled one such team bonding experience this past season when the Gophers flew into Pittsburgh for a competition at Penn State. Smith and Long teamed up to take the Gophers out for a delicious meal at a local chain establishment known for its food and its fuel.
“I just remember his face when he got back to Sheetz and had it again,” Long said. “Being in Minnesota, gas station food really isn’t a thing. But all my teammates loved it.”
Mac ‘N Cheese Bites and Boom Boom Sauce might have helped shape Smith into one of the Gophers’ great golfers. But he’s hoping the spirit of his national championship winning team will reincarnate now with him as coach.
“That identity is starting to come back,” Smith said. “Now it’s just a matter of going to work.”