John Means: Yearning for another D-I shot

John Means says the best part of his job is teaching student-athletes such as Wisconsin-Eau Claire senior Meghan Sobotta.

John Means says the best part of his job is teaching student-athletes such as Wisconsin-Eau Claire senior Meghan Sobotta.

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This story originally appeared in the Nov. 10, 2007 issue of Golfweek.

John Means gets excited when he hears a knock on his office door.

Usually it’s a member of his women’s golf team at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire stopping by to say “Hello.” Interacting with and teaching student athletes is why he began coaching more than three decades ago.

“Every day for 24 years I was excited to get into the office,” Means said. “That’s all I’d ever done.”

But after abruptly resigning as head coach of the University of Minnesota in 2001, Means was stunned by the silence.

“I thought that any school that had an athletic department that was interested in making their golf team competitive would come knocking at the door,” Means said.

So far they haven’t.

Means’ story is one that brings up more questions than answers. Why would a veteran Division I men’s coach who had built the Minnesota program from a perennial Big Ten doormat to one that was poised to win an NCAA Championship not be back coaching a major program?

How does a former president of the Golf Coaches Association of America wind up coaching a Division III women’s team in a small town in western Wisconsin?

And, more important, what does it say about the man that after six years he has not had one interview for a Division I position?

“People in (some college) administrations, they’re out to hire what looks good on a paper and what causes them the least amount of stress,” said Mike Dunphy, former coach at Alabama-Birmingham and current player development manager for Cleveland Golf.

Means’ departure from Minnesota in September 2001 came after an audit of his program revealed that airline tickets and meals for his and his family’s personal use had been charged to the university. Means said in a statement at the time that he did not try to deceive or defraud the university, and though he reimbursed the school for a little more than $3,000 in expenditures, then men’s athletic director Tom Moe asked Means to resign.

When Means left Minnesota after 11 years as coach, the program had transformed into a national powerhouse. Means immediately boosted Minnesota’s schedule strength and began aggressively recruiting the state’s top talent when he arrived in 1990.

After three years, Means had led the Gophers to their first of eight consecutive NCAA Championship appearances, an event in which they had not played in since 1972. In 1998, James McLean won the individual NCAA title for the Gophers, and Means finished runner-up for NCAA Coach of the Year honors. In 2000 the program hosted the NCAA Championship.

“He was the best coach I ever had,” said Dave Carothers, who played for Minnesota from 1988 to ’92. “He put his heart and soul into it. You knew he was trying to make you a better player. He 100 percent turned that program around.”

When Means resigned in fall 2001, the team he had recruited and coached won the NCAA Championship the following spring. Yet it was interim coach Brad James (now Minnesota’s director of golf), not Means, who hoisted the championship trophy.

“When I left, I had a terrible taste in my mouth for college athletics,” Means said.

In the months that followed, he received calls from Nevada and Texas A&M, which had open coaching positions. But Means wasn’t interested. A couple of years later, he opened a golf practice facility in suburban St. Paul, Minn. But after a few months as manager, Means couldn’t sleep and was downright miserable. He wasn’t the same man.

“I missed the daily interaction with the (college) kids,” he said. “I missed them stopping by the office.”

So in 2005, Means began looking for work. He updated his resume and started making phone calls.

“I thought in the golf world people knew who I was and they saw what I had done with turning programs around and making them nationally competitive,” Means said. “I just assumed that people would want to talk to me. It didn’t happen.”

Means settled on the women’sjob at Wisconsin-Eau Claire in January 2006. Athletic director Scott Kilgallon said he was aware of the circumstances surrounding Means’ resignation from Minnesota, but it never factored into his decision to hire him.

“He’s a very good coach that got caught in a tough situation,” Kilgallon said. “The way he was able to relate to (our) students and staff, he’s just a very approachable person, good for the university and good for the student athletes.”

In Means’ first semester as coach, his team placed fifth at the NCAA Division III Women’s Championship. Last season, Means’ second, the Blugolds took three freshmen to the NCAA Championship and finished seventh. This year, in addition to his coaching duties, he was named the university’s major gifts officer for development/alumni relations, a position in which Means will represent the school while working with donors.

“He’s just one of the best folks out there to talk about the university,” Kilgallon said.

And while Means says, “I love every minute” in Eau Claire, the itch to get back to a major college program remains.

This summer, coaching jobs at Akron, Northern Illinois and Cleveland State opened, but Means didn’t pursue them. He said the support he figured he would receive from those schools’ athletic departments wouldn’t be enough for the schools to be nationally competitive.

However, when the men’s positions at Iowa and Michigan State opened, Means applied. Means said boosters from Iowa called him with encouragement.

Yet, to his bewilderment, he never was contacted by either school for an interview.

Michigan State assistant athletics director Greg Iannis declined comment when asked why Means did not receive an interview, as did Iowa athletics director Gary Barta.

“If (a school) hires someone that has a little black mark, whether it’s right or not right, they’re going to have to answer questions,” said Dunphy. “It comes down to a compliance thing. I think that’s why people have just not taken the chances that they probably should have.”

Aaron Barber, who played for Minnesota from 1991 to ’96, said that Means was an intense competitor who “maybe wanted to win too bad” while with the Gophers. Means also never was shy in expressing how he felt about the university and certain policies, Barber said.

“Coach was opinionated,” Barber said. “Sometimes it hurt him, sometimes it helped him. But at the end of the day, you knew where he stood on things. He didn’t pull any punches, and I’m sure that rubs some people the wrong way.”

Added Carothers: “John is very outspoken. I think the university made an example out of him that could have (happened) to a number of different coaches.”

Means’ coaching salary at Eau Claire is one-tenth of what he made at Minnesota. To make ends meet, Means, who has a strong reputation as a swing instructor, started a golf academy four years ago. He instructs and mentors eight college-bound players from May to August at $3,000 a pop. Means also runs two five-day golf camps for kids ages 8-18. His programs provide needed income, but the interaction with developing players is really what Means craves.

Until those relationships happen on a college campus at the highest level, Means says he feels incomplete.

“I want an opportunity,” he said. “I want a chance to sit down in (a Division I) athletic director’s office and say, ‘Here’s what I can do for you. Here’s what I bring to the table.’

“I almost feel like I’m begging. But you don’t want to do that. You don’t want to compromise everything that you’ve worked your whole life for.”

The intensity in his voice grows.

“I could be around for a long time,” he said. “I’m pretty sure this is what God put me on earth for – to work with kids and make them better people and make them better players.

“I see myself with a nationally ranked program and with the kids stopping by the office again. If I don’t let myself think like that, I’m going to wither away and die.”

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