Balicki: Yestingsmeier was and will be Ball State golf

Former Ball State coach Earl Yestingsmeier passed away on Jan. 9. He was 80.

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It had been many years since I had last seen, let alone talk with, former Ball State men’s golf coach Earl Yestingsmeier. He was always fun to be around, to chat about college golf in his soft-spoken way and with that warm and pleasant smile streamed across his face.

But once he retired from coaching in 1998, we sort of lost track of each other.

So when I learned he was attending the NCAA Championship last spring at Capital City Golf Club’s Crabapple course, I knew I had to find him and catch up on what was going on in his life the past 15 years.

I did just that, and what a treat it was. Yestingsmeier had been a cornerstone within the college golf ranks for some 36 years. From 1962 through 1998, he was not only the face and voice of golf at his alma mater, he was Ball State golf.

As it turned out, it would be the last time I would see or talk to the coach who was like the father of golf at the Indiana school.

At 80 years old, Yestingsmeier passed away this week at his home in Muncie, Ind., leaving behind many long friendships and lasting memories, not only within the Cardinals’ golf program but within college golf in general.

He has – and will always be – very special to so many people who not only have played and coached at the college level, but to people like myself who have written and reported on the sport.

For 36 years, Yestingsmeier guided the Ball State men’s golf program, coaching the team to 11 NCAA appearances, six conference titles and 107 tournament wins.

At the end of the 1997-98 season, Yestingsmeier, then 65, retired, turning the reins over to current coach Mike Fleck, a 1993 Ball State graduate.

Many times when a coach retires or leaves the profession, he or she creates some distance from the program and the college game.

That was not the case for Yestingsmeier. As head coach of the Cardinals, he missed just one tournament in 36 years. And during the past 15 years since his retirement, Yestingsmeier had missed only two Ball State starts. That’s just three events in – do the math – the past 51 years.

Even Yestingsmeier, a member of the Ball State Athletics, Golf Coaches Association of America and Indiana Golf halls of fame, couldn’t tell you the exact number of Ball State tournaments that he attended. But a quick 51-year guess would be that he has been on hand for more than 600 Cardinals events.

Truly amazing, but also why it came as no surprise that Yestingsmeier was in Georgia in late May for the NCAA Championship finals.

No way he was going to miss this one. After all, this was the first time since the introduction of NCAA regionals in 1989 that the Cardinals had advanced to the big show. It was their first finals appearance since Yestingsmeier led the program to the finals in 1986 at Bermuda Run G&CC in Winston-Salem, N.C., where they finished 27th in the 31-team field.

They got to the 2013 finals by winning a playoff with San Diego State for the fifth and final qualifying spot on the first hole at the Pullman, Wash., regional, the first time a Cardinals team had been invited to the NCAA postseason since 1991.

“It’s been a long time, that’s for sure,” Yestingsmeier said at the time. “This is so great for the program and for coach Fleck. There was no way I was going to not be here this week. It’s very special.

“The thing is, I just like to go to all the tournaments,” he said. “Coach Fleck has done a very good job with the kids, and they are respectful and it’s fun to watch them play this great game of golf. I always have and always will love Ball State. My favorite times each year are those few occasions when they invite me to ride in the van with the team.”

Ball State finished 30th among the starting field of 30 teams at last season’s NCAA finals, three shots behind St. Mary’s (Calif.) and four back of South Carolina and Kent State.

Still it was a special week for Fleck and his Cardinals, getting to the finals and especially having Yestingsmeier front and center to watch it all.

“Earl has always been and continues to be our biggest fan, our biggest supporter,” Fleck said at the time. “He has been like a father figure to every player that has come through Ball State in the last 50 years.

“The guys on the team love him and understand what he’s meant to this program,” Fleck said. “All the guys embrace him and keep him a major part of the program. He is Ball State golf.”

In addition to having coached the golf team, Yestingsmeier, a 1955 graduate at Ball State, also served as the university’s sports information director for 31 years.

Four times, Yestingsmeier was named conference coach of the year. His teams won six league titles in his career as he guided the Cardinals from their days in the Indiana Collegiate Conference into the Midwestern Conference and eventually into the Mid-American Conference in the 1970s.

He coached a number of players who went on to compete professionally, including Brian Tennyson, Jeff Gallagher, Denny Hepler and Scott Steger on the PGA Tour. Also, 89 of his players went on to careers golf management or as teaching professionals, including Fleck.

“Coach Earl truly was Ball State golf in every sense of the word,” Fleck said. “It is a sad day. I loved the man, and I know he loved all of us. He was a great ambassador for Ball State and for college golf, and we are going to miss him dearly. He did so much for so many of us.”

In addition to his continuing to follow Ball State golf, Yestingsmeier remained a fixture at athletic events on campus. When Scheumann Stadium was renovated in 2007, the main press area was name in honor of Yestingsmeier and his wife, the former Mona Fahl, who preceded him in death.

“I was not privileged to be around Earl nearly as long as so many others at Ball State, but it didn’t take me long to realize just what a treasure he was for our university,” Ball State athletic director Bill Scholl said in a statement. “He was dedicated to our athletic department and our student-athletes for decades, and we will always be grateful for his contributions.

“I had the good fortune of spending time with him when our men’s golf team competed in the NCAA Championships last spring,” Scholl said. “I will remember those moments fondly.”

So, too, will I, not only our last meeting at the NCAA Championship, but all the years I knew him and worked with him during his coaching days.

Earl Yestingsmeier was not only a special coach to all those who passed through the Ball State golf program, but he was a special, and loved, person to all those who knew him.

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