Life coach: The Sam Puryear impact

It’s been another frigid winter in central Michigan. Snowfall in East Lansing has been about 14 inches above average, which isn’t good news for Michigan State senior Nate Gunthorpe. The Spartans have putting practice at 6 a.m. three days per week, and it’s a few miles from his off-campus house to the school’s indoor Rearick Golf Complex.

“Waking up, getting snow off your car, warming it up and being there by 6 ready to putt,” Gunthorpe said. “We definitely know why we’re doing it.”

Waiting for Gunthorpe and his teammates is first-year head coach Sam Puryear. Standing 6 feet tall and dressed impeccably in Spartan green, Puryear is a man with a plan. His energy is palpable, and his preparation is relentless. Always approachable and never short on one-liners, Puryear is just nine months removed from his first college coaching job, a 1 1/2-year stint as Stanford’s assistant coach, in which he helped head coach Conrad Ray guide the Cardinal to the 2007 NCAA championship.

Now, as the first black head golf coach in a major NCAA Division I conference, Puryear has the reins of the Spartans, a team that rose into the top 20 earlier this season. There’s a reason he has his squad up early and is consumed with everything from tutoring schedules to swing mechanics.

Puryear, 37, feels the eyes of the college golf world on him. And why shouldn’t he?

His climb through the coaching ranks has been swift and unconventional. He didn’t pay his dues laboring at junior colleges, nor does he sport a flashy competitive resume that would command the respect of recruits. Rather, Puryear made a name for himself as a mentor of junior golfers at East Lake Golf Club, the Atlanta home of Bobby Jones.

Puryear is certain there are skeptics out there who doubt his credentials, and he hears the whispers that race factored into his hiring at Michigan State.

But he isn’t offended; only motivated.

“I’m sure there are a lot of people that would like to see me fail,” Puryear said. “I’m convinced of that. That’s OK. To be successful, I realize you’ve got to do more than anyone else.”

• • •

Puryear fell in love with golf while growing up in Winston-Salem, N.C. His father was a small-college All-American in 1965 at Winston-Salem State, a historically black school, and Puryear would tag along with him to the area’s public courses. Puryear’s father, now a retired high school principal, and his mother, who teaches English at Winston-Salem State, provided an education-rich environment for Puryear and his younger brother, Eric.

Lesson No. 1: Outside influences have no effect on success or failure on the golf course.

“I recognized that there were some discrepancies as far as minorities getting opportunities, but my dad always taught me that golf was a game based on merit,” Puryear said. “Success has no hue.”

When Lee Elder, Charlie Sifford and Jim Dent came through town, the Puryears would watch. When Wake Forest’s Curtis Strange, Scott Hoch and Gary Hallberg played nearby, the Puryears were there.

“I felt like I had the best of both worlds,” Puryear said.

After graduating in 1992 with a speech and theater degree from Tennessee State, where he captained the golf team, Puryear wrote for a local newspaper and taught at an elementary school. He then took a job in Louisville, Ky., with the Boy Scouts of America. In December 1997, he got a call that changed his life. A college friend affiliated with East Lake told him the club was beginning to form a junior program and needed someone to take over. In his interview, Puryear gave the club’s board of directors a simple message.

“I told them, ‘If you thought you had a babysitter, you’ve got the wrong guy,’ ” Puryear recalls. “In order to have a good program, I wanted these kids to grow up one day and play East Lake.”

Puryear became director of the East Lake Junior Academy in January 1998 and admittedly didn’t know much about the community. Once a renowned club that produced Bobby Jones and hosted many of the nation’s prominent events in the early 1900s, East Lake and the surrounding neighborhood took a tumble in the ’60s when the property was sold to a developer who built low-income public housing on nearby land.

By the early ’90s, the crime rate had soared and drugs ruled the streets. In 1993, Tom Cousins, a lifelong East Lake member, purchased the club and with the help of a charitable foundation replaced much of the existing housing with new homes. They created the Drew Charter School (pre-kindergarten through eighth grade), renovated the golf course and unveiled the 18-hole, par-58 Charlie Yates Golf Course – a Rees Jones design. In ensuing years, violent crime fell and the area’s redevelopment fueled job growth.

Yet Puryear still saw people in need, especially children.

Most of the junior academy’s kids came from low-income families; some didn’t have families. Few knew about golf, and even fewer had ever touched a club. “Mr. Sam,” as Puryear was known at East Lake, went to great lengths to make sure each had every opportunity to succeed. Golf was always an option but never a requirement. Puryear took kids on family vacations. He made house calls when they didn’t show up to the course and let them cut his lawn for extra money.

“For Sam, it wasn’t just the golf aspect,” said Leon Gilmore, East Lake’s former junior academy director and now the executive director of the Charles Schwab Cup Championship. “You’ll hear him talk as much about what he’s doing with a kid outside of golf, and that’s why kids respond to him. He’s developing the person.”

Merging golf with school was vital, so Puryear pitched the idea of a golf section in the school’s library to East Lake board member Chris Millard, a golf writer and author. Millard e-mailed colleagues, asking for donations.

“Then books just started coming in,” Puryear said.

Soon nearly 500 golf-related books filled the Drew Charter School’s library, giving kids a place other than the course to learn about the game.

“We can have all of the First Tees and can have Tiger Woods. We can have all the inspiration at a national level, but what really matters is individual contact with children,” said Lew Horne, former executive director of the National Minority Golf Foundation. “He reached kids that some considered were previously unreachable.”

One summer morning in 2000, Puryear was hitting balls at the club’s practice range and called out to a boy who was carrying bags on his way home from a nearby grocery store.

“I asked him if he had ever hit a golf club,” Puryear recalls. “He said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Here, hit this 5-iron.’ ”

The 10-year-old took a whack and made awkward contact. Puryear told him to drop off his groceries at home and, if he wanted, to come back; he would be there. An hour later, Brandon Bradley walked back onto the range and joined Puryear. He and “Mr. Sam’’ hit balls for the next two hours.

“Once you met him, there was just this bond,” said Bradley, who became a regular at the junior program. “I used to get in a little trouble growing up, but he was just always there to help us. Coming where we came from, there were kids that moved because it was too violent. No matter what I needed, he was there for me.”

In 2005, Puryear took Bradley and Shelton Davis, who had been attending the junior academy since he was 8, to the British Open at St. Andrews. The boys worked as credentialed assistants to PGA.com staffers, assisting the Web site’s photographers and editors. Their hotel (300 yards from the first tee), first-class flights overseas, and rounds of golf after the tournament were funded by donations. The rest of the money came out of Puryear’s pocket.

“For some of us, our father wasn’t around,” Davis said. “He was like a father figure for us.”

Bradley now is a sophomore on the Grambling State golf team. Davis, a freshman for Winston-Salem State who led the Rams in scoring in the first fall event of the year, was the first in his family to graduate from high school. A college degree, he says, is next.

Added Bradley: “I wasn’t really even thinking about college, but (Puryear) put it on my mind.”

When Puryear arrived at East Lake in 1998, the program had roughly 40 youths who met daily in the basement of a church. By 2006, more than 750 kids had been involved in what is now known as the First Tee of East Lake.

So when Puryear announced that he was leaving the program for Stanford, there were tears, but there also was understanding. His East Lake kids knew it was time for Mr. Sam to take his magic elsewhere.

• • •

Stanford head coach Conrad Ray didn’t realize the significance of hiring Puryear until after he arrived in Palo Alto, Calif. Ray said race wasn’t a factor, nor was Puryear’s lack of college coaching experience.

“I was intrigued by giving the guy a shot,” said Ray, who made Puryear the program’s first full-time assistant coach. “It’s really easy to assume that as a coach you need to have a super-strong golf background or you need to do X, Y, Z. There’s a perception out there that you need to have certain steps.

“Everyone has a different path to coaching.”

With Ray concentrating on the nuts and bolts of running the team, Puryear focused on connecting with and inspiring his players. He talked politics and argued sports, engaging them at every turn to keep the team loose. He told them how lucky they were to be playing college golf; how his East Lake kids would die for the same chance.

“He put everything into perspective for us and did a good job framing situations,” Stanford senior Rob Grube said. “He’d tell me all the time, ‘It’s not that different. The kids at East Lake aren’t that different than you.’ ”

Once, while waiting to catch a team flight to an event in Puerto Rico, Grube spotted former NBA player Clyde Drexler walking by. When he told his coach that Drexler had ducked into a men’s restroom, Puryear followed without hesitation.

“I’m thinking, ‘How are you going to approach Clyde Drexler, one, and two, how are you going to approach him in the bathroom?’ ” Grube said. “Lo and behold, Sam and Clyde Drexler come out talking up a storm.”

Moments later, Puryear had Drexler chatting with his team.

“That’s just kind of what Sam does,” Grube said. “He can talk to anybody.”

Under Puryear’s guidance, the team grew stronger and closer. After failing to advance out of the West Regional in 2006, the Cardinal went wire-to-wire in winning the 2007 NCAA Championship. Two months later, Puryear accepted the head coaching job at Michigan State.

“He would always talk about how much fun he was having,” Stanford sophomore Joseph Bramlett said. “Looking back on it, now that we don’t have it, we miss it. He never let us get down.”

• • •

Puryear is well aware of the responsibility that accompanies his new position. He’s also prepared for the scrutiny that has come with being the first black head coach in a major Division I conference.

But Puryear sees himself as a coach first, a pioneer second. “It never boils down to race,” he said.

“I want to be the best golf coach ever. Period.”

Added Gilmore: “It shouldn’t be ‘Here’s a black guy that can coach college golf.’ That shouldn’t be the issue. The issue should be, ‘Here’s a phenomenal guy who’s involved with kids, making them better people.’ When you’re in a position where you’re one of the few black people to be doing what Sam’s doing, you realize how important it is.”

Ensuring more minorities are given the opportunity to play college golf is high on Puryear’s agenda. He scouts not only AJGA events during the summer but minority tournaments, too. He says most of these players have never seen a coach, and some “can’t even take the club back” when he stands near them. However, Puryear is quick to point out that he’s only interested in signing the best players possible.

“If there is a white kid that is a better player than the black kid, I’m going to get the white kid. No ifs, ands or buts about it,” he said.

“It’s not about color. I’m doing a disservice to the game if I’m fielding a team based on some unwritten criteria. I want a kid that can go low.”

Puryear tells parents of minority players to “mainstream your kids.” But that’s sometimes easier said than done. Many parents don’t have the money to send their kids across the country to play against top competition. Even fewer know about programs such as the AJGA’s ACE Grant Program, which is aimed to give all golfers, no matter their financial status, equal opportunity.

“People have to get acclimated to the education process,” Puryear said. “I’m not about isolation. That’s not how I grew up.”

It’s for that reason that he invited three teams, including Grambling State, to take part in the inaugural Spartan Challenge, an 18-hole exhibition last month at PGA Golf Club in Port St. Lucie, Fla.

Puryear plans to invite teams that are not in major conferences to the event each spring, because, as he says, “When else will these guys get to play against a top-20 team?”

It was especially memorable for Bradley, once Puryear’s student at East Lake and now a sophomore with the Tigers, to see how his life has evolved since meeting Mr. Sam.

“I think about it all the time,” Bradley said. “If it weren’t for him, what would I be doing?”

• • •

Even at a 6 a.m. practice, the Spartans are a loose bunch.

“(Puryear) likes to joke around in the morning to take a little of the pressure off,” freshman Graham Baillargeon said.

Senior Ryan Brehm says the team’s attitude and mentality have gone in an “unbelievably different direction” since Puryear took over.

Former coach Mark Hankins, now with Iowa, who won two Big Ten titles and was twice named conference coach of the year with MSU, ran a more “individualized” system, players said. The Spartans are now bonding more. The entire team went on spring break to Houston for 10 days. Last year, half went. A pingpong table and video games have been added to the team’s lounge to encourage camaraderie.

“Sam was open to learn from each and every one of us,” Brehm said. “He never came in with an ego and said there’s only one way to do it. . . . Because of that, we’ve all grown.”

The Spartans started the season ranked 30th, and, with a victory and two second-place finishes in the fall, are now No. 22. Puryear has the team believing a national title is within its grasp, and that’s why there’s no time to rest.

He certainly doesn’t consider all the work he has invested – which has taken him from East Lake to Stanford and now to East Lansing – as an excuse to pause.

“I realize people are looking at me,” he said. “I’m relentless. I don’t stop thinking about how to make it better.”

Truth is, he already has.

• • •

Dan Mirocha is a Golfweek assistant editor. To reach him e-mail dmirocha@golfweek.com.

The Puryear file

Name: Samuel G. Puryear Jr.

Birthdate: Oct. 13, 1970

Hometown: Winston-Salem, N.C.

College: Tennessee State, 1992

Coaching philosophy: “Be prepared, be willing to do what others are not and be willing to go the extra mile. I don’t like surprises, and I don’t like stones left unturned.”

Family: Wife Karen; children Tony, Brooke, Cameron; younger brother, Eric, is the football defensive coordinator and assistant women’s golf coach at Johnson C. Smith University.

• • •

Other black coaches

Although Sam Puryear is the first black head coach at a major Division I school, others have been coaching at smaller colleges – most of them historically black schools – for years. Here is a look at other current black head coaches in Division I:

• Richard Arrington, S.C. State (men)
• Herman Belton, S.C. State (women)
• Robert Bethea, Winston-Salem State
• Alvin Blake, Prairie View A&M
• Ocie Brown, Alcorn State
• Gary Freeman, Bethune-Cookman
• Gary Grandison, Alabama State
• Marvin Green, Florida A&M
• Charles Hayes, Chicago State
• Reggie Mitchell, Hampton
• Josh Oliver, Alabama A&M
• Eddie Payton, Jackson State
• Donald R. Sims, Mississippi Valley State
• Henry “Hank” Stewart, Texas Southern
• Tegitra Thomas, Grambling State
• Willie Williams, Southern University

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