When you catch him walking around the Oklahoma State campus in Stillwater, you usually find Mike Holder not in golf duds and soft-spikes but rather a warm-up outfit and a pair of running shoes, size 12½ to be precise. Come to think of it, it's quite appropriate attire considering how far in front of the pack the 57-year-old kept his Cowboy golf teams. Before ending his renowned coaching career in early September to take OSU's athletic director post, the man known for being a mix of old-fashioned cowpoke -- cordial but rough around the edges -- and modern-day CEO had built a dynasty the envy of any collegiate sport. Eight NCAA titles, 25 conference championships, 178 tournament victories, 38 first-team All-Americans and 20 academic All-Americans.
As I described in a 2003 Golf World profile on Holder, his approach to coaching fell somewhere between breaking a horse and building a corporation, and he expected as much from himself as any of his players. Not surprisingly, then, when asked about his coaching legacy last week, he provided a typically Holder-esque response: "I look back and think I should have done a lot better. We had better players than what the record showed. We should have won more championships and had more All-Americans."
Meanwhile, that giant gasping sound you just heard is the deep breath being taken by Mike McGraw, an assistant to Holder from 1997 to 2004 before taking over the head job with the OSU women's team last season. Within the next week, McGraw is expected to be named the new men's coach, joining Labron Harris Sr. and Holder as just the third person to hold the title since the team's inception in 1947. (A search will then begin to find McGraw's replacement on the women's side, with Georgia assistant Laura Henderson rumored to be a leading candidate.)
Suffice it to say, following a coaching giant should come with its own surgeon general's warning: no doubt it can be hazardous to one's coaching health. Do you remember who it was that took over when Bear Bryant retired at Alabama? Or, more recently, who replaced John Thompson at Georgetown?
McGraw, 45, provided Oklahoma State boosters their first taste of life post-Holder this week when he took the men's team, No. 2 in the most recent Golf World College Coaches Poll, to Oregon's Sunriver Resort for their season opener earlier this week and finished a respectable third at the Ping/Golfweek Preview, 17 shots back of top-ranked Georgia.
"I'm aware it's there, but I'm not afraid of it." McGraw said, of the pressure of replacing a living legend. At least Ray Perkins and Craig Esherick, [Bryant's and Thompson's successors] didn't have the added specter of having the old coach as their new boss.
Holder understood how difficult it could be for his heir apparent to take the reigns, which is why he set out last month to create an environment conducive to an easy transition. Realizing he was a leading candidate for the AD job, he left the perfunctory early-season coaching tasks to McGraw as well as his two assistants, Alan Bratton and Scott Davies. As the Cowboys have few formal practices in the first place, Holder attended only one and spoke to the entire team just two times, once to kick off the season and the other to address the rumors of his bid for AD roughly a week before he was officially hired.
"I stayed out of their business and purposely didn't do much with the incoming freshmen," Holder said. "I didn't want to develop a relationship that would be over in a few weeks."
In many respects, McGraw believes he's in the best position to succeed, and there's likely some truth to his claims. Having witnessed the blood, sweat and tears Holder put into the program, McGraw knows precisely what will be expected of him going forward. "If I were an outsider coming in, maybe I'd think I knew [how Holder operated]. But I've seen first hand for seven and a half years and I know the effort he's put in."
The players, too, are cognizant of just what McGraw will be facing in the coming months. "I think it's on us to handle our business and play Cowboy golf," noted fifth-year senior Zack Robinson, one of three All-Americans back in 2005. "Everybody wants to see [McGraw] do well, and the way we can make things go most smoothly is by playing to our capabilities." (In an interesting twist of fate, OSU has just two more tournaments on its fall schedule, helping make the switch less stressful.)
The closest men's college golf has come to a transfer of power such as this was when Houston coach Dave Williams stepped down in 1987 after winning 16 NCAA titles, and former Cougar All-American Keith Fergus, without any coaching experience, took over. "I honestly never felt it was a burden to follow Coach Williams," says Fergus, "but I can't say it was easy, either."
Indeed, Fergus lasted only seven years and the program has struggled of late holding its own on the national scene.
That's not to say the same thing will happen at Oklahoma State. Far from it, actually. For one thing, McGraw is an excellent choice to succeed Holder, his dry wit and fastidious work ethic making him a natural fit for the Cowboys current squad and the mentality of today's junior players that he'll be recruiting down the road. Moreover, the financial resources won't dry up in Stillwater as they did at Houston, not with Holder in charge of athletics.
"He just needs to be himself," contends Holder. "Take what you've learned from other coaches but use it in your own style. Don't try to coach like anybody else."
That might be the best advice you can get, especially coming from the man whose size 12½s McGraw's going to try to fill.
Players of the week
Vincent Johnson, Oregon State
The sophomore set a school and tournament mark with a 14-under 202 at Trysting Tree GC in Corvallis to win the Northwest Collegiate Classic title on Sept. 20 and lead the Beavers to the team title. He also finished T-8 at the Michigan Invitational in Ann Arbor on Sept. 25.
Amanda Blumenherst, Duke
In her collegiate debut, the freshman helped Blue Devils coach Dan Brooks win his 90th career tournament (one short of the NCAA mark) by claiming medalist honors at the Mason Rudolph Women's Championship in Nashville with a 8-under 208. It was also the best opening tournament by a freshman in Duke history.
What to watch for
• After holding the women's event last week, Vanderbilt hosts the men's version of the Mason Rudolph this weekend. Look for Commodore junior Luke List, U.S. Amateur runner-up in 2004, to bounce back from a T-26 finish in the season-opening Inverness Intercollegiate.
• Despite poor weather forcing the inaugural Big Ten/Pac-10 Challenge to be shortened to 36 holes last fall at Oregon's Bandon Dunes, the event was deemed a success by coaches and players alike. Rotating the event from the West Coast to a Midwest venue brings the tournament to The Glen Club outside Chicago Monday and Tuesday. Top players in the field include 2005 NCAA champ James Lepp (Washington), 2003 NCAA champ Alejandro Canizares (Arizona State) and 2005 U.S. Amateur runner-up Dillon Dougherty (Northwestern). Minnesota looks to defend its team title, and the Pac-10 hopes to repeat as winner of the conference challenge.
• The Duke women haven't lost a fall tournament since 2002 and haven't finished out of first at the Lady Tar Heel Invitational since 1997. Both streaks are on the line when the Blue Devils travel to Finley GC in Chapel Hill Friday.
Ryan Herrington is a senior writer for Golf World magazine