Baylor coach Mike McGraw recounts college comeback in 'Better Than I Found It'

Baylor coach Mike McGraw Golfweek File Photo

Baylor coach Mike McGraw recounts college comeback in 'Better Than I Found It'

College

Baylor coach Mike McGraw recounts college comeback in 'Better Than I Found It'

As far as reviews go, Mike Holder’s was probably the one that mattered most. It was the Oklahoma State athletic director, after all, who gave Mike McGraw his dream job as head men’s golf coach and then fired him eight years later. 

McGraw, now head coach at Baylor, had written a book on his coaching career. He knew the events that led to his dismissal at OSU and the journey back into head coaching were the parts of “Better Than I Found It” that held the most intrigue. Frankly, it’s the reason he wrote the book.

“You’re just kind of naked there when it happens,” said McGraw of being fired from an iconic school. “I think (coaches) all appreciated the fact that I made myself vulnerable about how much struggle I felt and what I was going through.”

Holder, by the way, loved the book.

There’s not a hint of bitterness from McGraw about what happened at Oklahoma State. He viewed it as an opportunity not only to model what he preached to his players about dealing with adversity, but to take ownership about what went wrong.

“I had lost my enthusiasm and had lost my way,” McGraw wrote. “It had been several years since I had coached for the pure love of coaching. Going to the player’s heart had taken a back seat to struggling to grind out a certain result. The RESULT became all-consuming.”

The landscape of college golf has changed so much in the past decade that coaches around the country are losing their dream jobs now more than ever. McGraw’s been there, and his book details the way back.

McGraw was in the trees somewhere at Texas State Junior Championship at Horseshoe Bay Resort when I caught up with him on the phone. He was out recruiting, and my call would’ve sent him to a less conspicuous place. There’s a whole chapter on recruiting in his book. It’s useful information, but funny too. Like the time he was recruiting at the 2003 Canon Cup and realized that none of the kids in the afternoon matches were available. So he decided to follow Brian Harman, who was caddying for one of his female teammates from the East Team. 

“I actually watched a prospect caddying,” he wrote. “I’m not proud of it, but it did happen. Brian went to Georgia, by the way.”

Amusing anecdotes like that are weaved throughout McGraw’s book. He checked with former players who are mentioned to corroborate his memories.

“There isn’t any fiction,” he said.

Those who have followed college golf know all the characters, many of whom are now on the PGA Tour. His trip to Murrieta, Calif., to talk to all the people who were important in the life of a young Rickie Fowler stands out in particular. 

McGraw compiled the book in eight-and-a-half months from detailed journals he had kept over the years. Two spiral notebooks helped shape it. When a 53-year-old McGraw found himself back in the role of assistant coach at Alabama in the summer of 2013, he started a fresh journal titled “Stuff that Works,” in which he wrote down anything he’d learned in 20-plus years of coaching that helped student-athletes.

In the book, McGraw weaves anecdotes alongside bullet points, where he lists valuable information for parents, players and coaches about what to expect in college golf, what’s worked well and what hasn’t.

His chapter on the qualifying techniques he has used over the years might sound dry but turned out to be quite compelling. (Like “Survivor”: Every player starts with one ball in his bag. Lose the ball and you’re disqualified.) McGraw said the idea was to get coaches to think more creatively. He’s taken notes on the feedback they’ve given him.

This isn’t the Bible of college golf coaching, McGraw said. He doesn’t have any secrets either. What he has is experience, and he wants his story to encourage and inspire and hopefully prevent coaches from making the same mistakes.

Not only is this a must-read for those in the junior and college golf world, it’s an enjoyable read. 
Take for example McGraw’s short stint coaching the women’s golf team at OSU. During their first team meeting, he asked Karin Sjodin what size shorts she wore: “What do you weigh, like 120 pounds?” (As he said, for a man with five sisters, he didn’t have a clue.)

During the first tournament, he got the Cowgirls a six-stroke penalty for walking on the greens. (That rule was different for the men back then.)

But the best story from that chapter can be found in the section titled “Candy Herrera, Willie Nelson and a Cold Sandwich.”

Essentially, McGraw was ready to explode when Herrera balked at the cold sandwiches being served (by McGraw) on the men’s Lear 45 private jet. When he got back to Stillwater, McGraw typed up a two-page letter detailing all the perks of playing college golf and read it aloud at a team meeting.

Then, he surprised the players on their next trip. McGraw not only canceled their flights to Austin and drove them in the team van, he went an excruciatingly slow 55 mph., turning a seven-hour drive into 10. And he played his dad’s favorite country music artists – George Jones, Conway Twitty, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard – the entire way.

“We only stopped once to eat, at a Subway in Dallas,” he wrote. “When I pulled into the parking space, I turned off the van and looked in the rear-view mirror directly at Candy and said: ‘Girls, let’s get a bite to eat. Oh, and Candy, you’ll be glad to know that Subway is now toasting their sandwiches so you will be able to get a hot sandwich here.’”

(Note: This story appeared in the July 31, 2017 issue of Golfweek.)

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