By ERIC SODERSTROM
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Greg Nye loves this walk. He steps out of the clubhouse at the Penn State Golf complex, heading toward the Blue Course’s 18th tee. He puts his hands in his coat pockets, walking around a bunker to the top of a large mound.
He stops and looks out toward Mount Nittany.
It’s the start to a cool, crisp October day here in State College, Pa., the type of morning Nye would love to put on repeat. “I will not forget,” Nye says, “my first month here driving into town looking across the fields this time of year and seeing the mist below the mountains.”
He says he is a “big environment guy,” which due to circumstances nowadays is only right. He is a golf coach with a mountain to climb, whether he likes it or not.
Nye looks down from the mountains. He is still on his mound, studying two acres below where a new short game practice area is under construction. A few yards to the left, his assistant Jonathan Dunlap bends down to inspect a newly-seeded patch of grass.
“This is my playground,” said Nye. He would later use more adjectives: “I’m most excited about our 2-acre multifaceted practice facility.”
Nye is well-spoken, but probably known more for speaking. He’s aware. If he seems right at home at the top of this mound, it’s because it probably doesn’t feel much different than a soapbox.
Last January, Nye was one of the first coaches to stand up at the Golf Coaches Association of America’s annual convention, arguing proposed changes to the NCAA postseason that would inevitably hurt the postseason chances of Penn State (currently ranked 101st in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings) and many others.
“I’ve got lots of history,” says Nye, a 1979 graduate of the College of Wooster in Ohio, where he earned All-America honors in each of his four seasons, helping lead his team to the 1975 NCAA Division III Championship. His father Bob Nye, who coached golf and soccer at Wooster from 1963-1996, is a past president of both the Golf Coaches Association of America and National Soccer Coaches Association of America.
“That’s why I’m the animal that I am,” he says.
Nye, unofficially the vocal leader of the Northern golf schools (a.k.a. Schools where it Snows), appealed to the NCAA Golf Committee to resume postseason selections through regional allocations. (Under that system, there were nine subregions guaranteed a specific number of spots in one of three regional championships. New England, for example, always sent three teams and the Mid-Atlantic region sent four.)
But since when do NCAA committees give in? Nye had no expectations and in the end, he couldn’t stop it.
“We kind of planned on something that wasn’t broken to continue,” he says. “Now you see something done that’s rash and not well thought out.”
Next year, 28 conference champions will earn automatic bids into the NCAA tournament, while the remaining teams will be picked at-large. It is a big change, but one in line with most NCAA sports.
“But we (college golf) are different,” Nye responds. On that point, he could slow-play you all day. He knows this is only one side of the story, specifically from a place that gets really cold (not counting this winter’s Northeastern heatwave).
But that’s the point.
He says, “we are different, because we play an outdoor (spring) sport,” and early-May graduation dates “have destroyed the opportunity for tradionally spring sports to develop.” He says that the Big 10 spring golf season has been squashed down to just three weeks, and that three weeks does not constitute a season. He says that out of about 300 college golf programs, “I would venture a conservative guess that 200 programs would not be able to achieve the schedule to even have an opportunity to qualify for a regional, other than their AQ (automatic qualifier) opportunity.”
He says athletic directors might find that reason enough to drop their golf programs.
It gets more difficult. Nye says there is even talk that Northern teams won’t participate in significant events that affect ranking until as late as mid-April, “virtually qualifying for an NCAA championship six months before it occurs.” He says Ivy League coaches are even thinking about just playing other Ivy league opponents all year long. “Therefore, they’ll have no basis of comparison with any other squad from any other conference,” he says. “So what are you going to do with the No. 1 Ivy team?”
The subject is overwhelming, and even Nye sometimes seems tired of it. He should be even more excited about his new short-game area, and the new team center building that is going to be built behind the Blue Course’s 18th green adjacent to the clubhouse.
Nye stands on the currently open ground, and spread his arms out.
“It’ll be right here,” he says. “This will just add another piece that will give us a strong identity as well as a home. So I don’t know that we’re going to lack in any facet.”
Touring the athletic facilities at Penn State, you realize fast that people care about the wrestling team just as much as the football team. (The golf team even hits balls in Joe Paterno’s two indoor practice fields.) The school has the largest alumni association in the country, and many members aren’t shy with their checkbooks. These people care. That’s why people love it here. That’s why Nye loves it here.
“It’s just hard to see a program like this that’s growing, teams that are growing in the Northeast … ,” says Nye, losing the thought.
Three years ago, Penn State finished second above several top-ranked teams at the NCAA East Regional. “We managed our games, we hit our golf ball in a lot of the right places, and we made some putts,” Nye said. It was a miraculous story, even without considering the team had lost 19-year-old Michael Carter in an automobile accident the year before.
“That whole experience just tells a lot of what good groups can do in life, get through a very difficult experience,” says Nye, whose team then went on to make the final-round cut and finish 15th at the NCAA Championship.
“As I have talked to other coaches from like programs that handed us our lunch year in and year out, and programs just like us who had never advanced to the finals, it was great news to them, a great piece of hope, that Marshall University could advance to the NCAA finals, that Ball State could advance to the NCAA finals, that teams that we competed against year round that are pretty darn good, we represented them that year.”
Penn State was ranked 72nd that season, which probably wouldn’t have earned them a postseason chance under next year’s system.
“Had that been in place, we would not have competed in the regional,” Nye says, “and that’s a major flaw in this new approach.”
He has his opinions.
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Eric Soderstrom is a Golfweek assistant editor. To reach him e-mail [email protected]