2000: Championship architecture
Florida Southern College is alive with the past, yet breathes the future.
Its campus is the site of the largest collection of Frank Lloyd Wright architecture in the world, founded in 1883 in Orlando and moved about 50 miles west to Lakeland in 1922. There is rich history among the cramped ceilings and maze-like, claustrophobic corridors that are signatures of Wright’s work.
For the past quarter-century, much of that history has been made in golf. And a pyramid of excellence continues to build.
Florida Southern has won 12 NCAA Division II golf championships in the past 25 years, 11 by the men’s program. The women chipped in last year with a national title in just the fifth year of the program’s existence.
Wright was speaking of Florida Southern as a whole, but he could have been referring to its golf program when he said, “ . . . out of the ground and into the light, a child of the sun . . . the college of tomorrow.”
If there were a model of how to build a program, it is here in Lakeland, where former athletic director Hal Smeltzly and former men’s coach Charley Matlock created a little architecture of their own.
This program has been nurtured since its inception, feeding on its success and handed off to successors who have become far more than caretakers.
“The community loves this school, loves and supports the golf teams,” said women’s coach Robbie Davis, who graduated from Lakeland High School in 1988 before playing golf for the University of Kentucky. Davis spent a couple of years knocking around the mini-tours before coming home to coach the FSC women. “It’s going to take a lot of work to keep the women’s program in line with the tradition that’s been established here.”
Said Doug Gordin, beginning his sixth season as men’s coach: “We’d like to think we’re doing things the right way. When I came in here, I had my eyes wide open. I knew, everybody knew, what Charley Matlock accomplished at Florida Southern. But I never really thought of it as pressure.
“I looked at it as a great opportunity, but sure, you better believe I wanted to sustain what they had going here. Who wouldn’t?”
Five seasons ago, Gordin followed Matlock, a true legend in college golf, and has managed a feat Matlock never accomplished. The Moccasins have won the past three Division II national championships, the first time Florida Southern has ever won three in a row, and Gordin has led his teams to national titles in four of his five years at the helm. The “off” year, in 1996-97, Florida Southern finished eighth.
Last season marked another first at FSC – the women won a national title. In the women’s third and fourth years, they finished second in Division II-III. In Year 5, they were champions.
Division II golf has belonged to Florida Southern, but the Moccasins’ excellence defies the limits of division. The golf program is right there with the elite in the country, regardless of class. Sifting through players who opt to ignore the stigma of playing Division II, or scrambling for the leftovers that Division I powers choose to gloss over, the recruiting process at Florida Southern sometimes takes a little ingenuity.
“I chased a kid all through Palatka (Fla.), I spent a year chasing this kid through Palatka, then he goes to Florida,” said Matlock, known as much for garrulous storytelling and unabashed belief in his way of doing things as for winning seven national championships. “But, that’s what we had to do to get us some players. Yeah, we missed out on some of ’em, but we’ve had our share of good ones. Maybe more than our share.”
That share has included two-time U.S. Open champion Lee Janzen; Rocco Mediate, who earned his fourth PGA Tour victory last month at the Buick Open; and Marco Dawson, who had eight top-5s on the Nike Tour in 1999 and has a medical exemption to play 20 PGA Tour events next season after undergoing back surgery in May.
“Florida Southern is just a great place to play,” Dawson said. “You play basically a Division I schedule, and you get to compete for a (Division II) national championship every single year. And that kind of competition gives you an edge . . . an edge you don’t lose.”
Janzen, Mediate and Dawson are just three of the countless golf alumni who help create a national networking system, singing the praises of Florida Southern and steering recruits to Lakeland.
Tom Gleeton, an All-American for FSC in 1978 and 1979, a former PGA Tour pro and now a club pro in Connecticut, also has been instrumental in enlightening young talent on the benefits of playing golf at Florida Southern. As has Jeff Klauk, last year’s individual national champion and Golfweek’s Division II player of the year, who turned professional Aug. 18.
“A lot of people have talked to me already about wanting to go to Florida Southern, and I just got out of school a couple months ago,” Klauk said. “I’ve become such good friends with Coach (Gordin), my experience was so positive and he did so much to help me, I will tell anyone who asks how great it is to go there.”
Klauk credits Gordin with helping him manage his game . . . and his temper.
“When I first got to Florida Southern, I’d slam a club when things didn’t go well, and I’d let that frustration carry into the next shot, and then the one after that,” Klauk said. “But coach taught me how to control the anger, and keep it from affecting the rest of the round.”
Gordin plans to keep teaching the lessons to help his players improve, and to keep his program among the nation’s elite. He ranks sixth on the list of men’s national-championship coaches, trailing Dave Williams (16, Houston, Division I), Jim Hanny (12, Cal State Stanislaus, Division III), Steve Conley (nine, Methodist College, Division III), Mike Holder (eight, Oklahoma State, Division I) and Matlock (seven).
“There’s no way I’ll catch Dave Williams,” Gordin said. “I don’t intend on coaching that long. But, with the success we’ve had here at Florida Southern, we could make some headway on the other guys.”
Gordin will talk personal achievement if you press him, but he heaps praise on Smeltzly, who is in his first year of retirement after 28 years as athletic director, and on Matlock, whom he calls “the God of Florida Southern golf.”
“Those two people built this program from nothing,” Gordin said. “They turned it into a national power, and they didn’t cheat. They are wonderful examples for us, and for everyone associated with college athletics, to look up to.”
Smeltzly and Matlock indeed were the powers that created the FSC golf program, and the community has rallied around the Mocs. The most obvious example of support is The Pop Sikes Golf Day, an annual fund-raiser held at Lone Palm Golf Club that has pumped $500,000 into the program since 1976.
“The money we got from that fund-raiser allowed us to take trips, to fly,” said Matlock. “And, boy, did that make a difference. When you can look a kid in the eye, and tell him we can go play golf anywhere in the country, it has a way of opening his eyes a little bit.”
Access to courses is another example of community support. Four private clubs in Lakeland offer free golf to members of the FSC men’s and women’s teams.
“I know schools where maybe one club opens its doors, or there are reduced rates for team members, but we play for free everywhere in town,” Gordin said. “The support of this community is unparalleled in college golf, and we appreciate it and understand how important it is in allowing us to continue to succeed.”
Florida Southern president Tom Reuschling, a 19-handicapper, also supports the program, showing up for tournaments and keeping up on the teams’ progress.
“I think that’s important to let them know I care about what they’re doing,” Reuschling said. “People sometimes make a big deal of it, but I tell them going to a golf tournament is nothing compared to a nice, rainy Saturday morning cross-country meet.”
The support is in place for continued success, but do Gordin and Davis have the horses to win another national championship? Thanks in large part to a late group of transfers – three from Division I programs – the men seem poised to make another run.
Steve Sokol (Old Dominion), who made it to the second round of match play at the U.S. Amateur in August, Jon Rusk (Auburn), Austin Jones (Auburn) and B.J. Pitzen (Otterbein College) all picked up the phone and, for various reasons, told Gordin they’d like to go to school and play golf at Florida Southern. Sokol was steered to FSC by Gleeton, the former Moccasin standout who teaches him in Connecticut.
The incoming players join returning sophomores Alex Renard and Steve Paramore, each of whom was honorable mention All-American last season. Senior Daniel Cardona, freshman Zach Doran and sophomores Peter Sours, Frank Garcia, Brad Stainsby and Shaun York round out the squad.
The women have added three-time Florida junior champion Tammy Carter, but their task appears more formidable.
Eight FSC women return from last year’s team, but only junior Lisa Ball and senior Maria Persson were among last season’s top 5. Other returning members are seniors Theresa Halse and Lydia Gartrell; juniors Beth Ann Baldry and Brittany Johnson; sophomore Lisa Troiano; and red-shirt freshman Jenica Karol. Rachael Bell, a freshman from England, joins Carter as the team’s only newcomers.
“It’ll be different for this group,” Davis said. “After winning the national championship last year, there are now higher expectations. It’s a different mindset.”
The Moccasin men’s and women’s teams each has a tough act to follow. But if history is any indicator – and it always has been at Florida Southern – the structure for success is in place.