Mike Holder is a no-nonsense, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately kind of guy. Not a bit interested in the past, only the present and future. Problem is, when you’ve reigned supreme as college golf’s most successful coach over the past three decades, the term legacy – like it or not – inevitably will arise.
If you ever can prod the hard-nosed coach to take a few moments to revisit his 32-year career at Oklahoma State, he’ll do so grudgingly and with visions of what should have been, rather than what was. Holder’s career in a nutshell: Eight NCAA titles, 10 second-place finishes at the NCAA Championship, 178 tournament titles and 110 All-Americans. Holder is one of only five coaches, regardless of sport, to have won national championships in four different decades (1976, ’78, ’80, ’83, ’87, ’91, ’95 and 2000).
Although those statistics are enough to make his biggest rivals bow in homage, they only aggravate Holder because he believes he didn’t get the most out of his coaching abilities. He doesn’t feel his players let him down, he believes he let his players down.
Mike Holder, an underachiever? A laughable concept to everyone but him.
“The thing I remember when I look back on my career is that our teams should have won more,” Holder says in his stern, thick drawl. “If I had been a better coach, I think we would have won a lot more national championships, a lot more tournaments and had more All-Americans. I look at my shortcomings rather than the few times that I managed to get out of my own way and we were successful.”
Oklahoma State finished first or second 14 times at the NCAA Championship from 1973 to 1988, winning the national title on five occasions. Holder will tell you that the Cowboys should have walked away with 14 championships. If they’d won 13, he’d have grumbled about the one that got away. That competitive fire is what sets him apart from most others.
Many have said for years that aside from Holder’s family – his wife, Robbie, and daughter Michele – his two true loves are college golf and Oklahoma State. When the 57-year-old took over as Oklahoma State’s athletics director Sept. 16 he essentially left one true love for another. It’s Holder’s relentless quest for excellence that Oklahoma State officials hope will spread into every facet of the university’s athletic programs.
Holder truly is a revolutionary. In 1978 he hired a young go-getter named Fred Warren as his first assistant coach, one of four assistants Holder has groomed during his tenure. Warren, now the longtime head coach at East Tennessee State, is believed to be the first full-time, paid assistant coach in college golf history, paving the way for other schools to begin hiring assistants.
“I remember back then that if he was working 10 hours a day and you were working 11, he’d then work 12,” Warren says. “No one can outwork him. Never have, never will.”
The mid-1980s rolled around and Holder was trying to find new ways to challenge his team. He combed the NCAA regulations and stumbled upon a little-known rule that said a day of competition counted only if five players traveled to an event. The next week, Holder took four players to a tournament in Florida because he knew the NCAA wouldn’t count the tournament against his competition days.
“Not only did we win with four,” he says proudly, “we left three of our best players at home (Scott Verplank, Michael Bradley, E.J. Pfister).”
The NCAA changed the regulation the following season.
A few years later, Oklahoma State showed up in Hawaii carrying Ping golf bags with legs that allowed the bag to stand. Neither Holder nor his squad was crazy about the idea but the coach told his players that they were obligated to try the bags once. The Cowboys returned from the trip, changed back to their old golf bags, didn’t like that they would not stand and immediately reclaimed the standing bags. The next season, many of the top teams followed Oklahoma State’s lead.
“All the luxuries these kids have today are because of Coach Holder,” says Trip Kuehne, an OSU standout in the mid-1990s and a graduate assistant under Holder in 1996 and ’97. “We used to drive eight hours in a van to get to a tournament and miss a bunch of school. Now, most of the top programs hop in their private planes, fly home and are in school the next day. That’s all because of him.
“What college golf is going to miss the most is his passion, his vision.”
What Holder is going to miss the most are the players. Without them he’d be nothing, you’ll often hear him declare. They mean so much to him that he hasn’t been able to talk openly about this year’s squad because he’s afraid he’ll get emotional. The last thing Holder wants is for someone to see him cry.
“That chapter in my life is over, it’s not going to do any good to look back,” Holder says. “It’s better if we leave it as it is, remember how it was.”
There’s a lot to remember. All those conference titles, all those tournament victories, all those national championships, all those great players. The list of those who have played under Holder is as impressive as anything else on his resume. Among them are Lindy Miller, David Edwards, Bob Tway, Willie Wood, Verplank, Brian Watts, Bradley, Pfister, Bob May, Bo Van Pelt, Charles Howell III and Hunter Mahan.
Edwards, Verplank, Watts, Pfister and Howell all won NCAA titles. Asked about the best player he ever coached, Holder says, “I always figured it was the next guy I was recruiting. Every time I saw another good player, I thought he was going to be the best player ever.”
That brings us back to the word legacy, which by definition is something immaterial, a style or philosophy, that is passed down from one generation to another.
“I hope my legacy is what my former players have to say about me and how they feel about me,” Holder says. “I look at Scott Verplank and Bob Tway. Those guys are two of the best friends I’ve got, and it’s been over 20 years since they’ve played here. That means a lot to me.”
Says Kuehne: “The things I have in life are because he challenged me to be the best I
could be. Everything I have today is a direct result of him.”