Mike Small has been the men’s golf coach at the University of Illinois for 18 seasons. He’s given the program a national brand, with 11 consecutive NCAA appearances, a runner-up finish in 2013 and nine Big Ten titles in the last 10 years.
Small, playing in the Principal Charity Classic on a sponsor exemption, is also an accomplished player. He’s won the PGA Professional Championship three times and competed on both the PGA TOUR and the Web.com Tour, where he won twice. Steve Stricker’s former teammate at Illinois, this is Small’s seventh PGA TOUR Champions event.
RB: You lived in Iowa for a spell, tying for fourth in the 1989 Iowa Amateur. What were you doing?
MS: I just graduated, and I wasn’t going to play professional golf, even though I had some opportunities. I decided I was going to get a job, go to work. I was getting married. I was going to do the normal American thing. I did it eight months, and decided I needed to play golf. So I turned pro after that. I made it on the PGA TOUR (in 1995). The rest is history.
RB: You were living in Iowa City for those eight months. What were you doing?
MS: I worked for Pfizer Pharmaceuticals. But I quickly changed my dream, my passion.
RB: You’ve become the Bernhard Langer of college coaches, putting together an incredible string of success. How have you done that?
MS: We’ve developed a strong culture, a strong mindset. And the kids want to perpetuate that. We recruit good kids, first of all. We recruit worldwide. We raised a lot of money and built some really good facilities. We’ve got a lot of people on TOUR. The people move the needle. We’ve sustained it, and we’re proud of that.”
RB: You’ve played in 10 PGA Championships, three U.S. Opens and three U.S. Senior Opens. Does that experience help your coaching?
MS: You play to be nervous. I’ve hit great shots in front of 30,000 or 40,000 people, and hit horrible shots. I’ve made a fool of myself. I’ve done it all in my career. I enjoy being out there and testing myself. But it also makes my coaching better. When I’m out there, I’m feeling the emotions they’re feeling. I can relate. If you haven’t done it for five, 10 or 15 years, you tend to forget about it. So, I think coaching helps my playing and playing helps my coaching.
RB: Have you considered trying to play fulltime on the PGA TOUR Champions?
MS: If I’d never played on the PGA TOUR, I’d be thinking I might want to try it. But I played on the PGA TOUR. I know what it’s like. It’s fun, but I’ve got a good gig at Illinois. They’re taking good care of me. You never say never, but I’m in a good place right now.
By Rick Brown, Principal Charity Classic Senior Reporter