Alabama vs. Oklahoma State connected via McGraw

Alabama assistant coach Mike McGraw with Robby Shelton during Tuesday's semifinals of match play of the NCAA Men's Division 1 Championship at Prairie Dunes Country Club in Hutchinson, Kan.

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HUTCHINSON, Kan. – If it’s storylines you desire at the NCAA Division I Men’s Golf Championships, well, bring a big wheelbarrow, because here at Prairie Dunes, there is a tall heap of them.

In Wednesday’s match-play final, we’ll have the power matchup that was coveted when college golf moved to television: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Oklahoma State. As gold blazer-clad former ABC announcer Keith Jackson used to bellow, “Whoa, Nelly!”

We have a trio of talented, accomplished seniors at Alabama trying to go out on the highest of notes for the second consecutive year. With Alabama making its third consecutive appearance in the national final – a feat that may not get matched for a long, long time – there’s even been mention of the “D” word. You know, a Tide dynasty.

In the other corner of this heavyweight bout stands college golf’s most storied program – the proud, bright orange Oklahoma State Cowboys, back on the grandest of stages after weathering some uncharacteristically difficult times. Two years ago, Oklahoma State failed to advance to the NCAA Championship for the first time in the team’s then-65-year history, and back in Stillwater, only three hours down the road from where the championship is being staged this week, why, you’d have thought they’d just canceled Christmas.

Lastly and certainly not least, you have a gentleman “assistant” on the Alabama sideline who will be coaching against five OSU players whom he recruited to the program himself. Mike McGraw, dismissed from the Cowboys helm after last season, was in several of those young men’s living rooms, telling them that if they'd sign on the dotted line to play golf at Oklahoma State, they'd one day play for a national title. At OSU, that’s the deal.

True to McGraw’s word – and thanks to some incredible late heroics in the semifinals by Cowboys senior Talor Gooch – on Wednesday they will.

Back in September, in Alabama’s first start of the year, the Fighting Illini Invitational at Olympia Fields outside Chicago, Alabama played alongside OSU the entire tournament. McGraw happened to be walking one day with Cowboys senior Ian Davis, a former walk-on who has stayed in close contact with his old coach. The two shared a daydream: What if, at Prairie Dunes, with June knocking on the door, it was the Cowboys against the Tide for all the marbles in college golf?

“I think it’s going to be pretty special, Coach McGraw being my coach my first three years,” Davis said. “I’ve been saying it all year long: We’re going to end up with Alabama in the finals. And sure enough, it happened. Pretty crazy.”

Pretty crazy. Heed the adage: Be careful for what you wish.

OSU head coach Alan Bratton knows the expectations in CowboyLand as well as anyone. He was a former All-American at OSU who played on some pretty stout squads. So a berth in the championship final this week, which the Cowboys earned by dispatching a very good Georgia Tech team, 4-0-1, before ending the decorated career of Patrick Rodgers and Cameron Wilson at Stanford, 3-2, in the afternoon semis, is a pretty big deal.

“That’s certainly the expectation,” Bratton said, “and that’s been a part of my life for a long time. That’s why you get into coaching, to get an opportunity like this for the players, and now we have that. We’ve had some guys whose careers did not start out the way they wanted, but experience is a great teacher. It’s been fun to watch these guys grow and trust each other.”

If OSU can upend the mighty Tide, it would mean an 11th national title for the Cowboys, who, regardless of Wednesday’s result, will have finished first or second a staggering 27 times in 67 NCAA Championship appearances.

For McGraw, this college golf season has been about healing. Coaching alongside old friend Jay Seawell has given him a renewed energy and rejuvenated his deep passion for coaching. Looking back, as the last sands left the glass and his seven-year head coaching career slipped away at OSU, he was admittedly pretty stressed, and not having much fun.

“I was working harder than I ever had,” said McGraw, standing on the back of the 17th green at Prairie Dunes and quietly reminiscing after Alabama had clinched its spot in the final. “But I wasn’t enthusiastic and I’m sure the kids felt it. What you see in Jay, he’s way out there (with enthusiasm), but that’s the way I used to be as a high school coach, and as a history teacher, and as junior golf director at the golf course in Edmond, Okla.

"I’d lost that.”

When Seawell called McGraw immediately after the coach had been fired to come join the national-championship cause in Tuscaloosa, there was a stipulation: Seawell wanted to see the happy, enthusiastic coach that he once knew.

“Whether we’ve learned from each other this year, and I think we have, I can’t repay him for that,” McGraw said.

McGraw even has penned a journal as the year has unfolded, some 300-plus pages of material pontificating on his coaching philosophy and influences, including stories and teachings ranging from freshman Robby Shelton to Seawell to Mike Holder, an OSU coaching legend.

“I just wanted to see, what do I believe?” he said. “What’s my philosophy? What do I think? Now I’ve got it, and I’ll continue to add to it and learn more about who I am. So it’s a self-reflective exercise. I’m not sure it’s healing … but you know what? I really enjoy coaching, and this is what I want to do.

“The book won’t ever be published, but it’s helped me figure out who I am.”

Davis, one of two Cowboys seniors who spent three seasons with McGraw, thinks it will be pretty cool to see his former coach watching him on Wednesday, when a champion will be crowned, even if McGraw will be wearing crimson and not bright orange and black.

“He still sends us congratulatory messages when we play well, and I’m pretty close with Coach, so we talk about other stuff, too,” Davis said. “He’s where my OSU career started, and tomorrow, he’ll be there when it finishes. That’s pretty special.”

Pretty special. A red-hot No. 1 team vs. college golf's most storied program on the venerable fairways of Prairie Dunes. Alabama seeking to repeat, its three great seniors trying to go out on top. Oklahoma State trying to land its first national title since 2006. And a caring coach with his heart in two camps.

“I love every one of those kids,” McGraw said of the Cowboys, “and I’m proud of what they’ve done this year.”

Pretty special, indeed.

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