Tide Players Credit Coach For Success
These five men make up the roster from The University of Alabama competing at the 2008 NCAA Men's Golf Championships. Alabama is one of 30 teams competing for the national championship. Those five men took their first swings in official play Wednesday afternoon in their quest for a national title.
Joining Alabama in the field of 30 teams at Purdue's Kampen Course at the Birck Boilermaker Golf Complex in West Lafayette, Ind., is top-seeded Southern California, followed, in NCAA finals seeding order by Georgia, Wake Forest, Oklahoma State, Clemson, Florida, UCLA, UAB, Alabama, Stanford, Auburn, Charlotte, Texas A&M, East Tennessee State, Oregon, Augusta State, UC Irvine, Illinois, Louisville, Mississippi State, Washington, Saint Mary's, Arizona State, Kent State, Penn State, San Diego State, Texas, Middle Tennessee State and Virginia.
Alabama is among the favorites to contend for the championship. Alabama is ranked No. 1 in the Golf World/Nike Golf Coaches' poll and No. 2 in the Golfweek/Sagarin rankings. Alabama won six of its 11 stroke-play tournaments this season, including the 2008 Southeastern Conference Championships. The six wins co-leads the nation in terms of team victories this season, tying with Charlotte's six wins this year. In fact, the two are one and two in terms of team victories in the last two years. Charlotte has won 11 times. Alabama has won 10 times. The next best output is eight in two years by four teams, Southern California, Georgia, Stanford and Lamar.
That Alabama is among the heavy contenders in 2008 would have perhaps been scoffed at six years ago. The Crimson Tide golf program has long been a success---Alabama finished third at the 1975 NCAA Championships and has advanced to the postseason 17 times since 1973. Its list of PGA golfers includes names like Jerry Pate, a U.S. Amateur champion while he was a player at Alabama, and the PGA's Steve Lowery, a two-time Southeastern Conference Golfer of the Year. But this 2008 team is the first Alabama team in decades that golf's biggest national observers, including one Golfweek reporter who predicted the Tide would win it all, believe Alabama may have a chance to indeed win it all.
The difference that has brought Alabama to this extra notch higher has been its coach, Jay Seawell. In six seasons Seawell has coached Alabama to the postseason five times, advancing from the regional to the finals in 2005, 2007 and now 2008. Last year his Alabama team finished sixth at NCAAs. Each time his teams have gone into the postseason with the aim to win. This time, he and his players all believe, is the real deal.
"This one is different. You really do feel like you have the chance to win, that you feel like if you do the right things, that you've got it lined up, that you have the experience, the talent, and maybe even the golf course, too, that can really help us achieve our goals. So that part of its different. We got here by the same old way: hard work and working all year long. And you're proud of the guys for that. It's our goal every year to get here and it's a big deal," said Seawell. "I think what makes this team stand out is the chemistry. They all have a common goal. They're all different. They all have different likes, they come from different areas, but they all have a common goal that they want Alabama golf to be a great program. I'm proud that they've done that and that they've taken pride in that. I think that's where their chemistry starts: that they all have a common goal."
What Alabama's golfers take pride in, too, is the man who leads them, their coach, Jay Seawell. They want to win for him.
"Coach is an energetic, real giddy kind of guy," says Harrell, a senior All-SEC golfer who has played on four UA NCAA postseason teams now. "He's fun to be around. Always excited. He loves what he's doing and it feeds on us, too. We enjoy being around him. He gave me an opportunity to come here and play for this university, and I will always be thankful for that. But playing for him has been an awesome experience in my life. He's taught me if your attitude is right, then you're a winner. And I think that's where we're good on this team. We have a positive attitude and we love to win. You love playing for him. He's a great guy and a great coach. We want to win the national championship for him and for us as well, but especially for him."
Harrell was a 2007 U.S. Amateur participant. Thompson not only made the final at the U.S. Amateur, he played in The Masters as an amateur in 2008. Sykora came in as the Future Masters Champion and has won two state match play championships and two collegiate tournaments. Alabama, in fact, is a team filled with golfers who are a cut above, who come in talent-laden with a long list of accomplishments and accolades.
So what is it about Seawell that makes this already successful golfer listen and heed his coaching?
"He's a real genuine guy. He honestly cares about everybody," said Swan, a junior All-SEC golfer who is a three-time U.S. Amateur participant who helped the USA win a gold medal as a member of the USA's World Junior Golf Team in 2005 in Japan. "The things that he tells you recruiting, he honestly comes through and follows through with that. And also, I think he knows how to work with different players. Take someone like me and Joseph. We would be totally separate players in how you would coach us. And I think he really understands how to work with Joseph and then turn around and work with me. I think he's really good with that and understands that and the players. I think that's a real big bonus."
It was Sykora who became Seawell's first signee. The Daphne native won the 2002 Futures Masters the same summer that Seawell became head coach at Alabama. His international play included the U.S. Junior World Cup and he was one of the top 25 junior golfers in the nation. Alabama golf had finished 15th at the NCAA regionals under a different coach that spring but it had been its first postseason play since 1997 after going six times between 1991 and 1997. Sykora could have gone to any number of golf programs. But there was something about Seawell that made him believe he could help bring Alabama to the top.
"Coach recruited me more than five years ago when he first got here," said Sykora who finished second at the 2008 SEC Championships and who has won the SEC's and University of Alabama's top academic awards this year to go with his golf success. "I really believed Coach to be a genuine guy then, and in the five years that I've been here, it's proven to be true. Everything he said he was going to do when he started, he's done. Not only that, I felt like he could make me better individually, not just as a golfer but also as a person. I felt like if he could make me better individually, he could make us all better and the team would get better and then everything would improve. He really had a lot of energy and a positive look at our program, which is something that as far as I knew at that point Alabama didn't have a whole lot of. So he really changed around the attitude and the energy. It was something that was attractive to come to, and I think that's evident by all the other people who have come after me."
Among those who followed was Thompson. A two-time All-Conference USA golfer at Tulane in 2004 and 2005, Thompson found himself in a distressing situation. Midway through his collegiate career, his sport got dropped at Tulane. Suddenly the Tucson, Ariz., native had to find a new team and a new coach. He'd been a leader on Tulane's team and forged great friendships there among his teammates and particularly with his head coach, Tom Shaw.
"The reason why I chose Coach Seawell and to play for Alabama was pretty much because he's very similar to Tom Shaw, my old coach at Tulane," said Thompson, a senior who has been All-SEC both seasons at Alabama and won the 2008 SEC Championship and is the 2008 SEC Golfer of the Year. "The moment I met Jay I saw the similarities. Tom had said that he's a positive guy, a real good coach and everybody seems to like him. And so I went with that knowledge to the University of Alabama expecting to meet a guy who was friendly, loved the game of golf as much as I did and loved to promote the game. And that's one of the reasons I chose to come here and I've loved it ever since. He is all that."
His love for the game has also helped lead Alabama's golfers elevate their own game. They say that at times when they don't believe in themselves, Seawell's belief in them is all the motivation they need.
"I think first off, Coach Seawell is a pretty scary judge of talent," said Hughes, a junior making his first NCAA appearance and who went from having played in only two tournaments in his previous two seasons to eight this season and has had 23 of his 24 rounds counted toward Alabama's team score. "He's very golf savvy. He comes from a golf family. He can pick out guys that are good players or have the potential to be good players, and I think that's what he saw in me. I wasn't real good but he saw potential. I think he just never quit believing in and that was really important to me."
Being a believer has been the secret to Seawell's success at Alabama. He went from taking over an unranked program, hovering around 98th in the country in 2002-03 to the nation's No. 1 ranked team, its first ever No. 1 golf ranking, in 2006-07.
"We were in a tournament my first year at Alabama," recalls Seawell who took over the Alabama program after leading Augusta State to a fifth place NCAA finish in 2002, "and another coach told me, ‘you're not going to ever be able to recruit at Alabama.' It was my first year there and it was true, we weren't very good. He said I'd never be able to recruit the same type of players at Alabama that I did at Augusta State. I wanted to prove him wrong, and I think we have. I think we've shown him that the University of Alabama can recruit the golfer that can help win championships. I'm very proud of what we've done over the last five years. I went into Joseph's house and into the other players' homes and told them we could win. I said, ‘we can do this, but the only way we can do this is because of y'all.' You go in great players and you promise them stuff. I told them I didn't have a magic wand but I told them, ‘if we're going to be good, it's because you decided to come and help me build this thing together.' And each one of them said yes. It was kind of a block, a piece of the puzzle. Every time one said yes, it was another piece of the puzzle that fit. It's fun to look back and think of how we didn't have much of a model other than the one in our head or a dream. And now to look back on it and see that it's been built, it's very satisfying."
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