No play, big gain

SJU golf coach watched, learned and built team into powerhouse

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June 16, 2011

By Mike Killeen

Bob Alpers, SJU golf coach

Since the very first days of his tenure as golf coach at Saint John's University, Bob Alpers has made sure there is one less golf bag packed away for each trip.

His own.

This small but "culturally changing" move during the 1993-94 season helped pave the way for the Johnnies' successes under Alpers since 2000. The Johnnies have qualified for 12 consecutive NCAA Division III championships, winning national titles in 2007 and 2008 and finishing third two other times, including this past spring.

"When I started coaching, most coaches parked the van, we hopped out and we were more worried about OUR tee time. There was a starter's time before the players started, so we (coaches) got to play. And, I played all the time, every time we went to a tournament," Alpers recalled.

But all that changed when the Johnnies played a spring tournament at Northfield (Minn.) Country Club.

"The boys were talking about their round. And I was talking about my round. I went, 'Something is really wrong here when I'm a little more concerned about how I played than I am about how the players played.' So, I stopped playing," Alpers said.

"I wanted to make sure that I was out there with them, and I had a lot to learn. I had to learn from them," he said.

Alpers made one other change.

"After we finished playing, I'd send the guys out to practice and I'd go out and watch some of the better teams. Our players weren't excited about having to stick around, but that was a cultural thing. As soon as you finished, you left. I wanted to see what the other guys did," Alpers said.

"I mean, you don't leave at halftime of a basketball game, you don't leave after the fifth inning of a baseball game. You congratulate the winners," Alpers added. "We started getting better. Part of the deal was I told them what's going to happen - we'll be in those last groups real soon. Once we are, we're going to expect and hope that people show us the same courtesy and kindness as we're trying to show."

It didn't happen overnight. In Alpers first six seasons, the Johnnies finished no higher than third in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference tournament.  Since then, the Johnnies have finished no lower than second and have won nine league titles.

Not bad for a coach who spent his playing days on the basketball court as a post player for Coach Jim Smith, and then served 20 years as Smith's assistant.

Alpers, who was inducted into the Golf Coaches Association of America Hall of Fame in 2010, takes a "less is more" approach to teaching the game.

"I ask the guys what they're trying to do. I know my guys' swings pretty well. And, I know what they're trying to do," Alpers said. "I think because we spend so much time with them in that regard, I feel pretty confident that we can help our guys.

"You can critique every little single thing and try to cookie-cutter kids, but you can throw 10 kids out on the driving range and you won't see two with the same swings," Alpers said. "I don't know if that's the best way to do it, but it's worked OK for us to try and get to know the boys, get to know what they do and what they're trying to do and what kind of ball flight they're trying to use. We also work with them on being creative and not just relying on one type of ball flight, but being able to hit a cut or a draw.

"I often tell them if they believe in themselves half as much as I believe in them, they'll be unstoppable. They're great kids - that's what does it, ultimately."

His kids have succeeded on both the course and in the classroom. In Alpers' tenure, SJU has produced more All-America Scholars (23) than athletic All-Americans (22). That's all pretty heady stuff for a coach whose goal is simply to be "competitive and wanting to matter" each season.

"More recruits know about the success some of their peers (have accomplished) on the course and in the classroom," Alpers said. "Kids and parents look at that and they say, you don't have to compromise. It's OK to be smart and play good golf. It's OK to do that. And that's our culture."

Like not taking the coach's golf bag to a tournament.