Chick-fil-A Bowl: From the gridiron to the green

Alabama coach Nick Saban watches his tee ball at the Chick-fil-A Bowl Challenge in Greensboro, Ga.

Alabama coach Nick Saban watches his tee ball at the Chick-fil-A Bowl Challenge in Greensboro, Ga.

Men's Rankings »

RankNameSchoolRating
1Joey GarberGeorgia  68.61 
2Robby SheltonAlabama  68.62 
3Patrick RodgersStanford  68.67 
4Ollie SchniederjansGA Tech  68.81 
5Cameron WilsonStanford  69.05 

Men's Team Rankings »

RankNameRatingEvents
1Alabama 68.92 
2Georgia 69.62 
3Georgia Tech 69.62 
4Oklahoma State 69.72  10 
5California 69.81  11 

Editor’s note: The Chick-fil-A Bowl Challenge will air at noon EDT Saturday, Aug. 6 on ESPN2. The event was played May 3.

• • •

GREENSBORO, Ga. – It’s 8 a.m. on a cloudless spring morning in Georgia’s Lake Country, and the nation’s most grizzled football men are about to get roughed up. Spring ball ended two weeks ago, so for three days, at least, 12 NCAA Division I college football coaches could forget about breaking down game film, they could forget about recruits, they could forget about upcoming two-a-days . . . and focus on reviving their dormant golf games.

The fifth annual Chick-fil-A Bowl Challenge may have been just a three-day, one-round, hit-and-giggle at Reynolds Plantation, and the stakes may have been not a conference title but $425,000 in scholarship money, but you wouldn’t know it looking down the practice tee. Frank Beamer is taping his fingers; Houston Nutt is trying (sometimes unsuccessfully) to keep the ball on the 150-yard-wide range; and Sterling Sharpe is working meticulously through his bag, wedge through driver, while his partner, Steve Spurrier, the Ol’ Ball Coach, toils on the opposite end, a white sleeve over his balky right knee. After a few wildly inconsistent swings, after his effort guaranteed nothing but more frustration, Dan Mullen seemed content to stand back, arms crossed, and watch his fellow competitors tire themselves. “I don’t need much warmup,” said the Mississippi State coach, nonchalantly. “That’s why I have a partner.”

Ah, yes. The partners. Turns out recruiting isn’t a practice reserved solely for the football field. The two-man teams here are comprised of a college football coach from the ACC or SEC and a notable alumnus from any sport. Therein lies the intrigue, of course. After finishing sixth in 2007 with Hootie & the Blowfish frontman Darius Rucker, Spurrier called an audible: He snagged prized recruit Sharpe, a plus-handicap and regular on the celeb golf circuit, as his partner. (They’ve won twice since.) Every spring Alabama coach Nick Saban shows up with a new partner, yet he still hasn’t contended. (And he didn’t again in 2011, despite playing alongside long-driving Chris Mohr.)

“Oh, the recruiting is just unbelievable out here,” said new Miami coach Al Golden, in his first year at the Chick-fil-A Bowl Challenge. “I know what this is all about now. All I know is, this is our first opportunity to come and get the lay of the land, and next year, we’ll match fire with fire.”

Why all the finagling over partners? Well, there’s a hefty sum of scholarship money at stake. The Challenge has awarded more than $2.5 million in charitable and scholarship contributions over the past five years, including $632,000 for the 2011 edition. On the eve of the championship, during a welcome dinner for sponsors, Saban announced that an additional $70,000 would be donated to his foundation (“Nick’s Kids”) to assist the tornado-relief efforts in Alabama, after twisters near Tuscaloosa in late April killed nearly 300. A similarly philanthropic gesture was made in 2007, when Beamer and partner Dell Curry donated their first-place check of $100,000 to a memorial fund just two weeks after a shooting on the Virginia Tech campus. “Any time you can help people, we’re all for it,” said former Mississippi State fullback Fred McCrary, who teamed with Mullen. “That’s what this is all about. To help somebody else, you feel good inside.”

No team felt better -- and returned to campus with more cash -- than Georgia Tech, led by coach Paul Johnson and former basketball star (and current ESPN analyst) Jon Barry. Twice a runner-up in this event, Johnson stuck his approach to 4 feet on the 16th hole, then rolled in a 15-footer on the last as the Yellow Jackets shot 11-under 61 on the Oconee Course at Reynolds to win by three strokes over Tennessee. The $125,000 earmarked for scholarships was heading to The Flats. “We finally ham-and-egged it and got the job done,” Barry said.

The maestro of the triple-option offense at Georgia Tech, Johnson was a bit more conventional on the course. His game is predicated on fairways and greens - just like his offense, very repetitive - while Barry pounded his drives well over 300 yards, leaving easy approaches into the Oconee Course’s vast putting surfaces. (“He hits it Tour-long,” Johnson said of Barry.) Despite playing only a handful of times since July 2010, Johnson, a 7-handicap, showed little rust on the greens. “We made our share of putts,” Johnson said, “but that’s what you have to do in these things.”

Having a short memory -- and a carefree demeanor -- also helps.

• • •

“Come on, Coach! We need the money at Mississippi State,” McCrary exhorted as the sun begins to set. The $5,000 payout comes down to Mullen, 39, who moments earlier had said: “My game is so bad that I don’t take it seriously.” And, conveniently enough, this is quite serious.

It’s 90 degrees, warm, sticky, uncomfortable -- just like Starkville on a fall afternoon. Here, it’s half humidity, half fear. After all, no one wants to foozle a shot in front of colleagues. It’s the closest-to-the-pin contest, staged just outside the Ritz-Carlton, and Mullen is rusty. He has played once this spring, but needs to stick it close on a 88-yard shot, drastically downhill, with all of his pigskin-lovin’ buddies watching intently. He draws back his wedge, jerky and off-plane . . . and the ball flies not even halfway to the flag. “You know,” Mullen says, turning to McCrary, “not everyone lays up from here. But I tried a different approach.”

“Yeah,” Mullen said with a sigh afterward. “I’m not what you would call a good golfer.”

The same can't be said for Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe, who carries a 13-handicap -- pretty solid, by coaching standards. Should he be better? Probably. His son, Matt, is the head pro at Dragonridge Country Club near Las Vegas. And though the father and son may work on rhythm and balance and short game, the private lessons go only so far. “He thinks I’m uncoachable,” Grobe said, shrugging his shoulders. At Reynolds, Grobe called upon his former quarterback, Riley Skinner, a 24-year-old graduate student who, while with the Demon Deacons, became the school’s all-time leader in completions and touchdown passes. No pressure, of course, but a poor result in this bowl, in front of this crowd, would have much more dire consequences. “He knows he needs to play pretty good,” Grobe said, “or he might be doing conditioning drills after the round.” (The Grobe-Skinner team finished seventh, but the kid was spared a few hours on the track.)

Spurrier, meanwhile, needed no extra motivation. He loves competing. Perhaps that explains why during the tournament proper, as teams were regrouped after the opening nine -- it makes for better TV to have the leaders together -- Spurrier was back on the range, trying to iron out his swing, looking for something to take into the final nine. Never mind that his right knee (which has undergone three operations) needs to be replaced. So while others ate their boxed lunches, the Ol’ Ball Coach smacked drive after drive, each with a baby fade, as his wife, Jerri, stood a few paces back. Try as they might, the Spurrier-Sharpe pairing, a presumptive favorite entering the day, never got on track. “I didn’t play very well at all,” Spurrier said later. “I hit a lot of uglies.”

He was far from the only one . . . not that it mattered. Because despite flaunting their high-tech equipment and their staff bags and their training devices, it’s easy to forget that these grizzled football men play golf but three months a year, their clubs stowed in the garage once the calendar flips to August, which undoubtedly is football season. Soon, they will dive into the playbook. They will break down game film. And in those dog days of summer, when sweat flows like a Gatorade bath, they will oversee grueling two-a-days. Sure makes three sun-drenched days in Georgia’s Lake Country seem celestial.

“We want to beat each other really badly, and we’re very, very competitive, but we’re a pretty close-knit fraternity,” Grobe said. And then he smiled widely, seeing a picture fuller and brighter. “But the best part of this,” he said, “is that you’re not going to get fired for losing.”

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