Winning in a Hurry

April 28, 2011

Editor’s Note: The following first appeared in the University of Iowa’s Hawk Talk Daily, an e-newsletter that offers a daily look at the Iowa Hawkeyes, delivered free each morning to thousands of fans of the Hawkeyes worldwide.

IOWA CITY, Iowa — The challenge of turning a struggling Division I college golf team in a northern climate to a national contender sounds like a long, drawn out process. That process was put in fast forward when Mark Hankins came to Iowa City.

Hankins, who came to the University of Iowa four seasons ago after being named Big Ten Coach of the Year twice at Michigan State, has turned the Hawkeye men’s golf program from a team who had never appeared in the national rankings into a program that makes its living among the nation’s best.

In 2007, the UI hired Hankins to take over the Iowa golf program that was ranked 155th in NCAA Division I golf. Jump ahead to 2011, and Hankins has his Hawkeyes ranked 13th heading into this weekend’s Big Ten Championships. The team climbed as high as No. 9 during Hankins’ fourth year at the helm.

Hankins didn’t waste any time in getting Iowa on the national map.

Hankins’ first season saw the Hawkeyes jump from 155th in the national rankings to 105th, the highest ranking for an Iowa team at the time. The Hawkeyes finished 10th at the Big Ten Championships in his first season.

What a difference a year can make. Iowa’s recruiting class in Hankins’ second season consisted of Chris Brant, Barrett Kelpin, Brad George and a transfer named Brad Hopfinger from the University of Kansas. Throw in sophomore Vince India, a youngster that showed huge potential, along with a senior leader in Cole Peevler, and Hankins had something special in the making.

Iowa captured its first tournament title under Hankins in 2008-09, the Landfall Tradition, and finished sixth in the Big Ten Championships. The Hawkeyes received an at-large bid into NCAA Regional competition for just the third time in school history and the first time since 1995. Iowa wasn’t satisfied with just an NCAA Regional berth, firing an incredible eight-under par on the final day of play to qualify for the NCAA Championships. Iowa went on to finish 17th in the nation at the NCAA Championships.

Current Hawkeye golf fans know names like Kelpin, Brant, George, India and Hopfinger, but Hankins credits Peevler, the lone senior on the 2008-09 team, with turning around the attitude of the program.

Cole Peevler was the beginning of Iowa golf as we know it now,” Hankins said. “He was the one that taught these guys how to be competitive every day in practice. He was the one that came out to Finkbine and shot 66, 67 and 68 every day. He believed Iowa golf was great, he was a huge Hawkeye. Everyone else started to believe what Cole was saying.”

Peevler set the tone for Iowa golf and his teammates responded in 2009-10. The Hawkeyes finished the season with a national ranking of 36th, finished second at the Big Ten Championships (their best finish since 1992) and once again qualified for NCAA Regionals, missing the NCAA Championships by a single stroke.

Hopfinger took over as a leader, recording the lowest single-season scoring average in school history at 72.5. He was co-medalist at the Golfweek Conference Challenge with Florida State’s Drew Kittleson, who finished second at the U.S. Amateur and played in the 2009 Masters. His tie for first was Iowa’s first individual medalist since the 2000-01 season. Hopfinger played in all nine stroke-play tournaments during the season, finishing in the top 30 in all nine events, including six top-15 showings.

“No one is going to out-last me here at the golf course. The players are going to come and go, but I’m out here all the time. The players are out here practicing for two hours, but I’m here from noon until 8 p.m. I need to be flexible in my program, for their benefit. That’s the only way for us to bridge the gap between being an average team and being where we are now.”
UI head coach Mark Hankins

Hopfinger, now a senior, is glad to be a part of the group that helped turn Iowa golf into a national name.

“That’s a big thing that the program has turned around since we have been here,” Hopfinger said. “That’s something special to be a part of. Knowing that we have put in a lot of time and effort during the year… it’s a special feeling knowing that we were part of this group.”

The 2010-11 campaign is heading into postseason, but Hankins’ squad has already put together the best season in Iowa golf history. The Hawkeyes have been ranked as high as No. 9 nationally and won an unprecedented four-straight stroke-play tournaments in the fall, along with the Hawkeye-TaylorMade Invitational title this spring.

If golf teams kept a win/loss record, the Hawkeyes would be 80-10 this season.

Senior Vince India has emerged as Iowa’s leader, and is currently ranked as the third-best player in the country by and No. 7 by Golfweek. He has already earned three first place finishes in his final season, claiming medalist honors at the Golfweek Conference Challenge (along with Brant), the Royal Oaks Intercollegiate and the Hawkeye-TaylorMade Invitational.

India has played in all eight stroke-play tournaments this season, and has finished in the top-10 in every event. In fact, his lowest finish is a tie for seventh in two different tournaments. India is challenging Hopfinger’s single-season stroke average record, and currently sits at a 71.3 heading into the Big Ten Championships.

“For me and Brad, it’s just doing what you need to work on,” India said. “Recognizing what your weaknesses are at certain points. We are both really good at working on our short game when we need to. We don’t spend a lot of time banging balls, because we know that’s a good way to develop bad habits.”

Results speak for themselves, and the results under Hankins are eye-popping.

The UI golf team won a total of eight tournament titles between 1995 and 2007. Hankins has already won seven in his four years as Hawkeye head coach.

Seven of the top 10 single-season scoring average figures are Hankins-coached golfers, including four of the top five.

He has produced three NCAA Midwest Region award winners, one Golf Coaches Association of America all-Region golfer, six Academic all-Big Ten student-athletes and two Academic All-Americans.

Hankins’ comments about turning a program around echo the philosophies of two great coaches on the UI campus; Kirk Ferentz and Tom Brands.

Ferentz and the Hawkeye football team pride themselves in developing players from high school recruits to NFL draft picks. Hankins sounds similar to Ferentz when asked about his program.

“Our program prides itself on developing players,” Hankins said. “The simple fact they (India and Hopfinger) are seniors and have had years to develop in our program should put them at the top of the class. They should be the best players on the team if they have learned and gotten better.”

According to Hankins, golf is “an individual sport played as a team.” Individual results matter in golf. Brands wants as many individual national champions as he can fit on the team bus. Hankins mirrors those sentiments.

“I’m the only one worried about the team,” Hankins said. “The guys should only be worried about themselves. You take care of No. 1, that’s yourself, and the team stuff takes care of itself. The only way to lead on a golf team is by leading with your scores.”

Development and individual results are two key ingredients for Hawkeye golf, but Hankins believes organization, hard work and dedication make his program appear on the national map.

“The key is organization,” Hankins said. “Just making sure the players are doing something every day that is going to make them better. You can’t just leave kids to do their own thing and expect them to get better. There are too many distractions. They have school work, they have a social life. There are plenty of other things these guys need to do. The organization needs to be there.”

Successful teams often mirror their head coach. In terms of hard work, Hankins’ golfers are a spitting image.

Hankins often arrives at practice hours before his athletes, and stays until every last one is finished. It would be hard to find a golf coach who puts in as much time as Hankins.

“No one is going to out-last me here at the golf course,” Hankins said. “The players are going to come and go, but I’m out here all the time. The players are out here practicing for two hours, but I’m here from noon until 8 p.m. I need to be flexible in my program, for their benefit. That’s the only way for us to bridge the gap between being an average team and being where we are now.”

Being flexible is a two-way street, according to Hankins. He will be there for his players, but they need to put in their own time.

“We are allowed to practice 20 hours a week,” Hankins said. “We might only work out as a team for 13 or 14 hours a week. That’s all I make them do. They have to do the rest on their own. That’s how you get better.”

All the pieces of Hankins’ program seemed to fall into place this season. Records are falling with every birdie that a Hawkeye golfer drains.

“At some point I’ll realize what we accomplished this year,” India said. “It’s starting to happen now that I’m close to leaving.”

Assistant golf coach Tyler Stith spearheaded a project in Finkbine’s clubhouse earlier this year, turning one wall into a place that honors awards. Any time the team comes home with a tournament title or a player earns medalist honors or a special award; their picture is put on the wall.

At this rate, Hankins and the Hawkeyes are going to need their own clubhouse.