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Experts’ Roundtable: Women’s Golf Sport Administrators

By Mike Holder, Oklahoma State; Steve Eigenbrot, South Carolina; Steve O'Brien, San Jose State

In the latest edition of the Experts’ Roundtable series, AthleticDirectorU chats with Women’s Golf sport administrators on a variety of topics, including partnerships with Head Coaches, international student-athletes, the .500 rule, the Transfer Portal & more.


What tenets do you operate by when administering a sport program? Are you hands-on or hands-off? Do you commonly meet on the HC’s turf or in your office? How often do you stop by practice or the range? What are the unique elements of overseeing Women’s Golf compared to another sport?


Mike Holder – Athletic Director – Oklahoma State 


Hands off. Rarely meet and it could be anywhere. I never attend practice or events. Every sport is unique. The secret is to hire good coaches and allow them to do their job.


Steve Eigenbrot – Executive Assoc. AD for Development/CEO of the Gamecock Club – South Carolina 


When it comes to administering our golf programs, I try to focus on keeping open lines of communication and being around the program when it feels natural. As a full-time fundraiser, working with men’s golf has had a few more synergies in my experience because some of those parents have been substantial donors. In those instances, student-athletes might view me as a “friend” of their parents though, which can complicate rapport-building. With the women, it’s really about getting on their turf when it makes sense – finding time at the start or end of practice when they’re not scattered on the range or the course, or coming by the weight room before or after a workout to hang out for a little bit. I like to talk to them about their games, and also about my own – not because it’s any good, but because it humanizes me to them, allows us to start breaking down barriers and from there, I have a much better shot of doing my job as an admin.


With no home competitions here in our city and in a sport that doesn’t lend itself to huge crowds at this level, the role of an administrator with golf is unique. The number of international student-athletes in our women’s program adds a level of complexity to that, too, so it really is important that you get out to see them compete whenever possible. These girls are representing our university just like any other student-athlete, but their families might have a harder time getting stateside on a regular basis to watch them compete, so you really need to step in and be an active voice in rooting for them and reminding them that they have an entire administration behind them. 


Steve O’Brien – Deputy AD/Eileen Daley – Senior Associate AD for Academics and Student Services/SWA – San Jose State


While each sport/coach is different, we have taken a collaborative approach with Head Coach Dana Dormann and our women’s golf program. Coach Dormann has won an NCAA team championship as a student-athlete at San José State University, and Assistant Coach Pat Hurst has won both an NCAA team championship and an NCAA individual championship while competing as a student-athlete for San José State. Coach Dormann also served as the program’s top assistant for over 10 years. Her team reached the NCAA Championships and the program had an individual golfer finish in the Top 10 in her first year at the helm. Consequently, we couldn’t really ask for someone with a greater wealth of knowledge about the game, the program or the institution. We suppose our “administrating tenet” should be to hire more coaches like Coach Dormann! 


In all seriousness, our contribution as sport administrators comes in three general areas. First, we make sure that Coach Dormann and our women’s golfers are priorities within the department. With 22 varsity sports and over 525 student-athletes, this can be a challenge, but with attentive administrators, each program’s “important stuff” can be elevated when it matters the most. Second, we help address any issues that Coach Dormann or student-athletes are having within any facet of the program (sports performance, academic support, summer school enrollment, admissions, etc.) in order for the coach to be able to focus on coaching. Finally, we work with Coach Dormann to maintain a “big-picture” view of the program. Last year, we were one of only a handful of Group of 5 schools to have both women’s and men’s golf programs reach the NCAA Regionals (and one program reach the NCAA Finals). With our men’s program having the unique distinction of being the only program to have its regular season home invitational, the Western Intercollegiate, televised live on The Golf Channel, and both programs having a storied legacy and the benefit of a new world class golf practice facility, it was important that our messaging and narrative be broader than just the pars and birdies of any individual golfer.


As we share the same administrative building with Coach Dormann, meeting location is largely just a function of which end of the hallway one feels like heading towards on any given day. It’s a casual and comfortable, yet professional, working relationship. We do try to get out to the Spartan Golf Complex with regularity and usually attend one non-home tournament each year, along with the team’s postseason competition(s). In general, overseeing women’s golf is unique on account of the nature of the game and the relatively small size of the squad. You get a chance to meet and know each of the program’s student-athletes. In competition, the team is usually spread out over the course of several holes. Practice rounds are held at nearby courses, but not necessarily “on campus”. At San José State, supervising women’s golf is a privilege on account of the program’s rich tradition, current competitive success and academically accomplished student-athletes.


Darrin Spease – Deputy AD – Charlotte


We never lose sight that our primary focus is supporting our coaches and student-athletes first and foremost. While I love the interactions and engagement with our young people, I don’t insert myself in the team dynamic. I’m there to be supportive in any way I can, but we hire our coaches to coach. My role is to have a good pulse on the overall health of the program, both on the course and off. I also try to help the coach navigate the University’s systems, allowing them to concentrate more on coaching the team. It is important to me that as sport administrators we are able to provide sound mentoring advice to our coaches and be an asset to their programs.


Probably more hands-off, but with a willingness to help at any time if the staff or student-athletes need assistance. As noted before, I don’t insert myself into the team dynamic. I try and make several appearances at the course during the year, but as a fan and supporter. Since we don’t have a home event, I am likely to show up at a regionally located tournament and/or the conference championship tournament.


Because of our office geography, I tend to pop in regularly in our coach’s office. But my door is always open if she needs something or simply needs to talk.


Not often. Our facility is off-campus and our practice options take us all over the Charlotte region during the course of the week. For me, I have found very few. We have only been competing for 2.5 years, and to see this program end the fall ranked inside the top 25 has been amazing. The young people in our program have a lot of pride in their accomplishments and their intrinsic desire to be exceptional on and off the course has been refreshing. Three of the sports that I administer have very viable professional career options, so in some cases working with those student-athletes is different than those that essentially conclude their sports careers at the college level.


With heightened awareness on mental and emotional well-being of student-athletes, what tools do you & the larger support staff use to maintain an understanding of each student-athlete’s overall health profile? Are there times during the season that necessitate more attention on these important topics?


Holder (Oklahoma State): This is a huge part of coaching and I trust our coaches to look after the well-being of their students. If the coach has a good relationship with the athlete, that is the most important thing in helping with mental, emotional, or physical problems.


Eigenbrot (South Carolina): Our athletics department has really done a lot to position itself as a leader in this space. From taking part in discussions about our mental health offerings in Senior Staff meetings to seeing it in action with our student-athletes through the resources of our Gamecock Sport Science Network, I am proud of where we are. But it’s really not enough to just provide the resources, you have to try and push yourself to bake it into your culture, which takes time and a serious commitment. For us, that’s what the network represents. It’s resources to help you train and recover both physically and mentally, and by wrapping it all together and giving it a name, it helps send the right message about these kinds of services.


Luckily for us, we’ve got a pretty successful alum in Hayden Hurst who plays in the NFL and has dedicated himself to making an impact in this area, and we’ve also got Ryan Hilinski and the things he and his family are doing with Hilinski’s Hope to bring attention to the mental health space. When you combine those things with the resources we can provide, you’ve got a shot, but you still need to commit to making it more than a fleeting thought for a student-athlete once a semester. 


For women’s golf, it varies a little bit based on our institutional calendar, but almost every spring, final exams line up almost on top of the most important part of their season. Our girls have traditionally fared very well in the SEC Tournament, which results in a really draining five days and invariably that stretch, or NCAA regionals, will butt up against their spring exam schedule. Knowing what we know about college students and the stress around final exams, understanding that their championship segment will make this time even more stressful, we really need to focus on building good relationships and having open dialogue throughout the year. We are also lucky to have a lot of smart kids in our program, and lots of times the stressors come from family or personal situations that just pop up, so it is really important that they know we have professional people they can speak with, and it’s perfectly healthy to do that.


O’Brien/Daley (San José State): The topic of mental and emotional well-being is a departmental (and even institutional) priority for us, going well beyond just the women’s golf team. We are actually in the process of making organizational/structural changes within our department and looking to add staff who will be able to place heightened emphasis on all facets of student-athlete well-being. In addition to the department and campus resources that are presently available to all student-athletes, our women’s golf program has hired a private consultant to help the team better stay in tune with their mental health needs throughout the entire year. Recognizing the dynamic and the sometimes unpredictable nature of mental health issues, there is no one season that necessarily deserves greater attention than any other. The academic term and golf season each present their own assortment of “high stress” times, but even those can pale in comparison to any individual’s personal life circumstances. We encourage our coaches, trainers and sport administrators to remind our student-athletes of the many mental health resources available to them.


Spease (Charlotte): We have always invested heavily in the physical well-being of our young people, but the real investment growth today is in making sure that mental health needs are met. We employ mental health and sports psychology professionals, as well as work with our campus wellness team, to make sure that we are proactively identifying any issues that present themselves. We are very transparent about the services that we can provide and have found that more and more young people are willing to seek these services. We are blessed on our campus to have great partnerships with qualified medical experts that can immediately be accessed for any needs. We do ask mental health questions during our physicals and provide educational collateral in our training rooms, academic center and locker room spaces to help share the services available. Mental health awareness is something that is year-round. That said, women’s golf doesn’t vary much from our other programs. Freshman acclimation, exam periods, personal life-impacting events, injuries and competitions can all play a role in varying levels of need throughout the year.


Women’s Golf includes a high concentration of international student-athletes. What positive impacts does that roster diversity bring to the sport and your school?


Holder (Oklahoma State): When you want to be the best in the world it goes without saying that you need to recruit internationally in a global sport like golf. This exposes the university to a much broader audience and helps educate the world as to why the United States is the greatest country in the world.


Eigenbrot (South Carolina): Our golf program’s diverse roster provides learning opportunities not just for those on the team, but also for the student-athletes in other programs, as well as our athletics staff and campus community. Our athletics department provides many programs that bring our student-athletes together, whether it be leadership education, life skills, academic enhancement or community service. These initiatives provide a platform for our student-athletes to learn from each other, growing and developing from the unique perspectives and backgrounds of their peers. Our women’s golf roster might be small, but it has student-athletes with roots on four different continents and I really feel like that diversity, and the bonding and the learning opportunities that come with it, speak to why the program has been so successful under (Women’s Golf Head Coach) Kalen (Anderson’s) tenure here.


O’Brien/Daley (San Jose State): Our women’s golf program currently has two international student-athletes among a roster of seven. Their unique life experiences, cultures and perspectives contribute greatly not only to the diverse fabric of our women’s golf program, but also to that of our entire student-athlete and student body communities. Given the global nature of the sport of golf, its growing popularity and San José State University’s commitment to educating domestic as well as international students, the “high concentration of international student-athletes in the sport” aligns very well with our program’s recruiting efforts. Moreover, the combination of being recognized as one of the more storied women’s golf programs in the country, possessing one of the finest practice facilities in the country and being situated within the heart of Silicon Valley, a global center for business and innovation, makes our women’s golf program a particularly attractive destination for many prospective international student-athletes.


Spease (Charlotte): Any campus is enriched by having diverse opportunities to interact with different cultures. Each brings a uniqueness that is valuable to the program. Work ethic, attention to detail and the drive to be exceptional have been the hallmarks of our group of international student-athletes, and our program has blossomed with their presence. The LPGA tour reflects this same global diversity, so I find that aligns with the composition of our roster.


Do you foresee a movement in the near future to reassess the .500 rule for post-season access? 


Holder (Oklahoma State): It has worked for the men and it would help create more equity in scheduling for the women.


Eigenbrot (South Carolina): It seems that after taking a really thorough look at this, we landed in a good spot on this topic and women’s golf really benefits from not having the .500 rule in place. There are some really incredible fields in some of these elite tournaments in our sport and those are really important for our team to prepare for participation in the post-season. If you’ve got the .500 rule in place, I fear those tournaments start to go away and the make-up of those elite tournament fields is forced to change. There’s depth in the game, and that’s continuing to develop, but from a South Carolina prospective, it seems like revisiting the .500 rule is a long-term play that could put some real hurdles in front of us in the short-term.


O’Brien/Daley (San José State): The debate has long centered around whether introducing the rule would create greater parity in tournament fields throughout the year, thereby helping to grow the sport of women’s golf, or whether it would lead to weaker scheduling by some of the top programs, thereby undermining the sport’s growth. The case for greater parity and inclusion is often made by programs that have had difficulty finding opportunities to compete against the higher ranked programs throughout the regular season. Given the historic and current competitive success of our women’s golf program, we have been fortunate to receive invitations to tournaments with incredibly strong fields, but we remain supportive of initiatives that will give more programs the chance to flourish. The .500 rule remains a topic of discussion at the Women’s Golf Coaches Association annual meetings, but it’s unclear whether there is an impending “movement” to reassess the rule in the immediate future.


Spease (Charlotte): I spent 4 years on the men’s golf committee, so I know the impact it had on that side of the table. While I have seen good arguments on both sides of the issue, I have always felt the 500 rule was a net positive for the college game. I don’t know if I see or feel a movement to reassess on the women’s side, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see it back in play in the future. 


How is the Transfer Portal impacting Women’s Golf?


Holder (Oklahoma State): I wouldn’t think that it has changed the dynamic around transfers. Freedom of movement has existed for many years in the sport of golf. However, I believe every transfer, regardless of sport, should sit a year to allow them to reflect on their reasons for transferring and to concentrate on academics. Transferring should be the last and least preferred option when dealing with problems.


Eigenbrot (South Carolina): The Transfer Portal situation certainly seems to be an ever-evolving one. I fear that the need for immediate gratification is making it harder for our student-athletes to take advantage of the lessons to be learned from dealing with adversity and staying in a competitive situation that will ultimately make them a better person, competitor and golfer. It seems like making mid-year transfers not immediately eligible for competing at another institution in the spring is an improvement and can help manage the amount of traffic within the portal. When you compare it to basketball, which is the only other sport I work directly with, golf is already an inherently more individual sport which can further exacerbate the challenges of looking beyond one’s self and placing an emphasis on the team. Luckily, I know Kalen has had to anticipate potential roster changes from girls turning pro over the years, so while this adds another level of complexity to the issue, these sorts of roster changes are not something entirely foreign to our conversations. It’s just another thing you learn to deal with for the time being, as I certainly don’t see the trend reserving any time soon.


O’Brien/Daley (San José State): The rationale behind the Transfer Portal is to make it easier for student-athletes who are seeking the opportunity to transfer to a different institution to do so, and to provide institutions with another avenue by which to identify/recruit transfer student-athletes. It’s a good premise as we all want student-athletes to ultimately be at the institution that offers the best all-around fit for them. To date, it has not had that big of an impact on our women’s golf program. We had one player last year transfer through the portal who was seeking a different type of collegiate experience and it was helpful for her. Our coach has looked at a few prospective transfers in the portal, but has not brought any players into the program through that mechanism.


Spease (Charlotte): The transfer portal is impacting every sport, and women’s golf is no exception. Transferring between schools can be disruptive to any program, but it also aids both the school and the student-athlete in their search to create better matches. We have always had circumstances that could be aided by a change of scenery, and today’s student-athletes have the ability to better express that interest through the portal. Ultimately, a positive student-athlete experience should be a core outcome for every institution that fields intercollegiate sports.