News & ToursOctober 16, 2014

A college golf storyline that has not happened for more than a decade -- if ever

With victories in its first three events of the 2014-15 season, the Illinois men's golf team is off to its best start since the school's 1988-89 squad (led by Steve Stricker) won four tournaments during the fall schedule. The perfect record gets tested one last time this semester when the Fighting Illini compete next week at the Tavistock Collegiate Invitational. And as the players prepare to tee it up at Isleworth C.C. outside Orlando, they will do so for the first time as the country's No. 1 ranked school according to the GCAA/Nike Golf coaches' poll.

Related: Stricker hits shot from football stadium scoreboard

That Illinois has risen to the top spot of the college golf world in and of itself isn't a surprise considering the work coach Mike Small has put in to building the program into not just a Big Ten juggernaut (five straight titles from 2009-13) but a national contender since taking over in 2000. The school was runner-up at the 2013 NCAA Championship and finished in the top five at nationals in 2011 and 2014. Twice since 2010 the program has had the NCAA individual champion on its roster (Scott Langley in 2010, Thomas Pieters in 2012). And this season Small returns three All-Americans in senior Brian Campbell (shown below with Small), junior Charlie Danielson and junior Thomas Detry, as well as bringing in a group of four freshmen (led by Dylan Meyer and Nick Hardy) that provide a mix experience and depth.

loop-illinois-mike-small-brian-campbell-518.jpg

Still, there's a historically significance to Illinois being ranked No. 1 that shouldn't be overlooked. This marks first time in at least 14 years -- and possible ever -- that a northern school has claimed the top spot in a nationally-recognized poll voted on by a panel of coaches during the regular season.

Dating back to when Golf World had a coaches' poll starting in 2001-02 (working several of those years in conjunction with the GCAA), 11 different schools earned the No. 1 ranking in the 112 polls that were published (see the breakdown below). Previously the school from the most Northern latitude was California, but you'd hardly hear anybody referring to the Golden Bears as being from a "northern" school.

table { }td { padding-top: 1px; padding-right: 1px; padding-left: 1px; color: black; font-size: 12pt; font-weight: 400; font-style: normal; text-decoration: none; font-family: Calibri,sans-serif; vertical-align: bottom; border: medium none; white-space: nowrap; }.xl63 { font-size: 10pt; font-family: Calibri; }  

 Oklahoma  State  26    Georgia  21    Alabama  16    Florida  11    Clemson  9    California  8    Texas  7    Georgia Tech  5    UCLA  4    Stanford  3    Auburn  1    Charlotte  1    

table { }td { padding-top: 1px; padding-right: 1px; padding-left: 1px; color: black; font-size: 12pt; font-weight: 400; font-style: normal; text-decoration: none; font-family: Calibri,sans-serif; vertical-align: bottom; border: medium none; white-space: nowrap; }

Golf World conducted coaches polls in the 1970s and 1980s, but the records aren't complete and except around the time when Ohio State won the NCAA title in 1979, it's unlikely a northern school ever rose to the No. 1 ranking in the regular season.

While Minnesota won the NCAA men's championship in 2002 -- the last time a northern school claimed the national title -- the Golden Gophers were an upset winner that was unranked entering the tournament. Amazingly, the school had announced earlier that spring that the program was going to be cut after the season due to financial reason. After winning the NCAA title, a groundswell of support surfaced to raise money and keep the team around.

"To be ranked No. 1 by the coaches is a pretty big deal," Small said. "It shows a level of respect for what we're doing here and it shows that the work the kids have put in is recognized by coaches out there. Now we've just got to keep things going."

Photo courtesy of Illinois athletic department

Follow @GWCampusInsider

More from The Loop