2004: Crafty Potter molds Furman

By Jay A. Coffin

Furman coach Mic Potter remembers the day well. With three holes remaining in the 1987 NCAA Championship, his team was in position to put the finishing touches on an outstanding season. The Lady Paladins had won three tournaments and the NCAA Championship was within reach.

Then it all came tumbling down.

San Jose State’s fourth player, Lisa Ipkendanz, skulled her pitch shot at the par-5 18th hole at the University of New Mexico’s Championship Course. But the ball hit the middle of the flagstick and dropped into the hole for an eagle 3.

Then, in the final group on the final hole, San Jose State’s top player, Anne Jones, took an unplayable lie after her second shot. After adding the penalty stroke, Jones hit her fourth shot onto the back of the green, some 35 feet beyond the front, downhill pin location. Jones then proceeded to pour in the par putt, giving San Jose State an improbable one-stroke victory over Potter and the Paladins.

“That hurt,” Potter says now. “That really hurt. I still think about it.”

Potter, 49, is many things: a teacher, recruiter, motivator and intense student of the game. But he’s also a realist. He knows that opportunities like the one he had 17 years ago don’t come around often. Especially when you’re at a disadvantage when it comes to recruiting.

Success is relative, but don’t tell Potter that. The Furman administration doesn’t expect the team to contend for a national championship every year; a Southern Conference title every so often will suffice. However, that doesn’t keep Potter from coveting a national championship, the same goal he had when he accepted the head women’s position back in 1982. The goal always remains the same, even though he’s at a small Division I school in Greenville, S.C., with only 2,500 students.

Thus, Potter is on a never-ending search to find players who may be relatively unknown but who display an overabundance of desire and athletic ability that he can mold. He looks for those who want to learn, those who want to be at Furman and those who can handle the university’s high academic standards.

Sarah Johnston and Brandi Jackson epitomize the type of player Potter is looking for. Johnston was a walk-on five years ago and left Furman in May an All-American. If not for an accidental meeting with Potter the week before the college signing deadline, Jackson would not have gone to Furman. She graduated in 2003 as an All-American and was runner-up at the 2002 U.S. Women’s Amateur.

“If I didn’t happen to run into Mic, I don’t know what I’d be doing right now,” said Jackson, an LPGA rookie. “I probably wouldn’t be playing golf.”

Potter has found a formula for success. He has led the Paladins to 10 Southern Conference titles and a trip to the NCAA regionals each year since they were created in 1993. His teams have six top 10s in 14 NCAA Championship appearances.

“Why our program is able to stay at the level it does when it probably shouldn’t is because we get kids who are passionate about being successful,” says Potter, who also oversees the men’s program as Furman’s director of intercollegiate golf.

This year should be no different. Four players – junior Connor Atkinson and sophomores Jenny Suh, Theresa Paik and Monique Gesualdi – return from last year’s squad that won the Southern Conference, tied for 15th at the NCAA Championship and was No. 24 in the Golfweek/ Sagarin College Rankings.

Suh, 19, led the team in scoring average last year and should be the Paladins’ leader for the next three years. When people ask Suh if she feels responsible for the success of the team, she’s quick to point out that it’s not her, but Potter, who makes the team tick.

“All of us on the team are different,” Suh said. “But Mic knows how to handle us and say the right things to get the best out of us. He knows what to say to get you back out there, what to say to get you out of a slump. He’s encouraging and only brings up the positives. He’s one of the greatest coaches ever.”

Potter graduated from Cortland (N.Y.) State University in 1977 with a physical education degree and four varsity letters, three in soccer and one in golf. It wasn’t until his senior year, while working at Cortland Country Club, that Potter caught the golf bug and realized he wanted to teach the game.

A year later, he and his wife, Kim, moved to Greenville, where Potter accepted a job as men’s assistant coach at Furman. Four years later, he landed the head women’s position.

Potter won the first tournament in his first season in 1982 and he hasn’t looked back, winning 35 tournaments during his tenure. He has built onto the legacy that already existed from Furman’s 1976 Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women national championship team that included future LPGA players Beth Daniel, Betsy King and Sherri Turner.

Although the previous women’s coach, Willie Miller, recruited Dottie Pepper before he moved over to the men’s program, Potter received a boost from the young hotshot when she joined the program in 1983, again solidifying Furman’s reputation as a top-notch program. Add Title IX legislation to the mix in the early 1980s, and the Paladins likely were the most well-to-do program in women’s college golf.

Although that has changed in the last 15 years or so, with many golf programs at larger schools now reaping the benefits of football and basketball money, Furman remains as consistent as any program in the country.

“He’s a very good coach with a sound fundamental understanding of the game,” says Pepper, who along with Daniel and King each donated $25,000 to help Furman build a new practice facility in 1995. “Let’s face it, dealing with five women isn’t easy.”

Loyalty means a great deal to Potter, which explains why he has not pursued other coaching opportunities at universities in more prestigious conferences that would pay him more and give him a bigger budget.

He doesn’t want to leave players that he recruited, he says, because he’d feel like he let them down. Also, Potter won’t seek a more high-profile job because those schools often bring in polished recruits with their own swing coaches. That wouldn’t allow Potter to do what he does best.

“I don’t want to feel like I have to recruit the best players every year and just take them to tournaments,” he says. “I want to be where I feel like I can coach and develop players.”

Potter loves what he’s doing and is surrounded by people who love him. Potter’s two sons, Ryan, 22, and Corey, 20, were born in Greenville and both attend Furman. Corey is a junior and Ryan, a fifth-year senior, is on the men’s golf team.

“We’ve just made a home here,” Potter says, “and I’ve not wanted to leave. It’s the kind of program that I want to be associated with. I really can’t picture doing anything else.”

Rest assured, Furman doesn’t want Potter to leave either. The man helped put the school on the college golf map and, perhaps more amazingly, has helped keep it there. Although Potter takes great pride in developing talent and turning women into players they didn’t think they could become, he won’t feel completely fulfilled until he lands the ultimate prize, one he nearly touched 17 years ago.

“I’ve been within one shot and I know what it feels like to lose,” Potter says. “I’d like to know what it feels like to win.”

Many would argue he already has.

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