I was sad to learn Minnesota director of golf Brad James will be leaving the program at the end of the 2009-10 season, returning to his native Australia to take on the job of High Performance Director for Golf Australia and the Australian Institute of Sport. It's a prestigious post; the 35-year-old will be responsible for the oversight and management of Australia's men's and women's national teams, the country's rookie program, which develops young professionals as well as the junior development program.
Since I started working the college golf beat for Golf World in the fall of 1997, I get asked every now and then what's the best story I've ever covered. For the past seven-plus years, I've been quick with my answer because to me the choice is obvious: Minnesota's storybook victory at the 2002 NCAA Men's Championship.
Seriously, how can you top what James and his Golden Gopher squad did at Ohio State's Scarlet Course, considering the circumstances in which they did it? Minnesota's starting five were dead men walking, athletic director Mark Yodof having announced two months earlier that the school would be eliminating the program after 88 years to help offset the department's $21 million budget deficit.
In the aftermath, James, who played for the Gophers from 1993-96, worked to rally the state's loyal golf population (and the university's prominent golf alums) to try and get the school to reconsider the decision, while his players took matters into their own hands. Despite the storm clouds, the Gophers won the Big Ten title later in April. They then crafted one of the greatest comebacks in NCAA Championship history that May, vaulting from T-16 after two rounds (had there been a 36-hole cut as there had the 10 years proceeding, Minnesota wouldn't have heading back to Minneapolis) to first en route becoming the first northern school (and subsequently the last) to claim the title since 1979.
James told me that afternoon: "It's just hard to comprehend what we've done after everything that's happened. But I never doubted we could do this. None of us did. That's the reason we're here." Recall, too, he actually wasn't even the men's head coach then but rather the interim coach, thrust from his assistant's post after then coach John Means resigned the previous September.
Ultimately, Minnesota's title run saved the program (they were allowed to compete again in 2002-03 and raise funding to maintain the men's and women's teams) and James got to drop the interim tag. It also guaranteed that the NCAA Championship would NEVER AGAIN have a 36-hole cut (remember Minnesota!).
To James credit, he didn't rest on his laurels as a coach. His teams proceeded to win two more Big Ten titles and finished third and seventh at nationals in 2006 and 2007, respectfully. In 2007, he was promoted to director of golf, helping to oversee the women's program as well.
"Looking back it really is remarkable what Brad accomplished here and frankly he deserves the credit," said Minnesota athletic director Joel Maturi in a statement. "He overcame a lot during his time at the University of Minnesota to build a championship program, but most importantly I think Brad enjoyed the journey."
Not that it will get you much Brad, but so did I.