Dec. 7, 2013
By Matt Winkeljohn
There is no way that Bruce Heppler thought that he would be where is now, in Las Vegas, about to be inducted into the Golf Coaches Association of America Hall of Fame. That happened Monday.
But there Georgia Tech’s coach is, with his family, about to be honored by his peers for a career that remains a gale force. Since former athletic director Homer Rice hired Heppler in 1995, the Yellow Jackets have won or shared nine ACC championships and finished national runner ups three times.
He has steered every Tech team but one to the NCAA Championship tournament, and had his squads finish in the final eight 10 times. More than the success on the course, he values the relationships he has cultivated.
“This is not why I got into this,” Heppler said last week of being honored.
His has been a rich life, a life not envisioned when he graduated from Brigham Young and became a certified public accountant. He has taken a few turns along the way since growing up in St. Georges, Utah.
“As a high school player, I was really small. As a senior, I was 5-6 and 105 so I maxed it out the best I could,” Heppler said. “So I stayed home and I went to my local junior college, Dixie Junior College in St. George.”
After playing and going to school for one year, Heppler went on a two-year Mormon mission to South Africa. He grew inside and out. Soon after his return to Dixie, the golf program was canceled.
“We were of the kind of financial background that the only reason I’d ever been able to play was that I’d either picked up the range and cleaned clubs in the golf shop or I was on a school team,” he said.
“That really cut off all of my access to the game as far as green fees and whatever. I just decided it was time for me to move on, and that golf was not in my future.”
After graduating, Heppler, 53, enrolled at BYU, took up accounting as a major and began grinding at that.
“I don’t want to be a doctor, don’t want to be a lawyer, and I’ll just go be an accountant. They seemed to make pretty good money,” he explained. “No real reason.”
After graduating, Heppler in the fall of 1985 passed the CPA exam on his first try. He became an accountant.
“Didn’t really enjoy that a whole lot,” he said. “I went down and met some people at BYU about administration and they said it’s as old boy, school as anything there is and if you don’t know somebody you’ll never get a job. There are two graduate programs. I applied at Ohio University, and the other one was UMass at Amherst.”
So, he and his new wife, Traci, “loaded up the Ryder truck, the whole shebang, and headed to Massachusetts.”
While in graduate school studying sports management at Amherst, the men’s and women’s golf coach took a sabbatical. Heppler raised his hand in 1987 and took over both Division III teams. They had success, and when the time came for him to gain an internship he landed back out west, at UNLV in ’88.
From ’89-’91, he helped coach. UNLV head coach Dwaine Knight, who is still there, hired him. It was tough for a while because Heppler was a “restricted earnings” coach making about $12,000 a year. Among other duties, Heppler was a manager of sorts for the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels basketball teams coached by Jerry Tarkanian.
Next stop, Oklahoma State from ’91-’95 working under one of the sport’s legends, current OSU athletic director Mike Holder.
Three days after Rice hired Heppler at Tech, the new coach was on the recruiting trail, in Florida, pursuing Matt Kuchar among others in the Sunshine State.
“We passed each other on the street,” Heppler recalled.
Soon, his relationship with Holder became strained. His mentor explained, “we want the same players, we want the same national championship.” Friendship was put on hold.
Now that Holder is no longer coaching golf, he and Heppler are cordial again.
Bruce, Traci and their children, Zakary and Moriah, are in Las Vegas. While there, they will visit the grave of their first child, a daughter who passed away after just three months of life while Heppler was at UNLV.
“I get out there just about every year for a tournament, and lay flowers on the grave,” he said. “But Traci doesn’t get to go very often so this will be nice.”
There is another detail, and it is not small.
Heppler’s three siblings have all remained out west. His parents, who are considerably older, will see a validation of sorts for their son’s moves east. His mother, in particular, has always had difficulty processing that.
They’ll be at the GCAA Hall of Fame banquet Monday.
“I’ve told her this is where my life has carried me,” the coach said. “This is a chance for them to see in a way why. This is special, very special.”
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