ATLANTA -- Since taking over as the team’s coach in 2000, Mike Small has revolutionized the Illinois men’s golf program. He led the Fighting Illini to its first Big Ten title in 21 years in 2009, and the team has claimed a conference championship five more times since. The school won its first two Regional Championships (2013 and 2015) under Small, and, on Tuesday, the Illini won the inaugural East Lake Cup.
“He’s single-handedly the reason why the program is what it is,” Illinois senior golfer Charlie Danielson said.
Success on the golf course is nothing new for Small. He also thrived during his playing days.
After spending his college playing years at Illinois – he was a member of the team that won the Big Ten championship in 1988 – Small turned professional in 1990 and ultimately joined the PGA Tour in 1995. He’s amassed 19 wins during his career, including two Nationwide Tour victories, and has played on golf’s biggest stages. He's played in three U.S. Opens (1994,1998 and 2007) and made the cut in three PGA Championships (2005, 2007 and 2011).
Having that type of resume as a player has helped Small tremendously as a coach, his players said.
“You know that he’s not just reading what he says to you out of a book," Illinois senior golfer Alex Burge said. “He’s lived it. It’s a lot different when you’ve experienced it first-hand and we really listen to what he has to say.”
Burge came back from three strokes down with six holes remaining to win his match over Georgia’s Greyson Sigg to clinch the East Lake Cup for Illinois. Having a coach like Small, he said, can help when it comes to overcoming adversity as he did Tuesday.
“It’s comforting to have him. Because you know he’s come back and won and he’s also failed before,” Burge said. “Either way, he’s been there and you know he’s got your back 100 percent.
“No matter how much success you’ve had, you have to keep pushing,” Burge said. “Tomorrow we’ll forget about this win. You just have to bring your lunch pail and work to get better every day.”
Danielson says the culture Smart has built keeps the team humble despite its success.
“He just says it how it is," Danielson said. "He’s going to be straight up with you. Whenever you’re playing well and feeling too happy about yourself, he’ll bring you back to the level you should be at. It’s great to have a coach like that because you’re never really satisfied.”
“I owe pretty much everything to him,” senior golfer Thomas Detry said. “He’s helping mentally, physically and to play with more of a purpose.”