Aug. 23, 2012
By Matt Winkeljohn
Few can swing a conversation from walk-in-the-park status to a top fuel drag race as quickly as Bruce Heppler, and Georgia Tech’s golf coach did it again the other day.
He had cause.
Classes began Monday, his assistant coach has left the program somewhat unexpectedly, the Yellow Jackets will begin qualifying today for the first of their four big fall tournaments, and Heppler’s monster fund-raiser is rising on the horizon like Pike’s Peak – near Christian Newton’s new home as head coach at Colorado State.
This is no time of the year to be trying to hire even a traditional assistant golf coach, let alone a multi-tasker like the one Heppler seeks so . . . he’ll go it alone for now.
The first few seconds of Monday’s call went like this:
Caller: “Hi coach. Howya doing?”
Heppler: “Very busy.” Pause.
The coach who never stops moving, talking, teaching and philosophizing rarely answers in a single-digit word count. So, this somber introductory segment was cause for pause. The dragster was idling in the garage.
It is not just in conversation that the man goes full bore. Tech’s golf program has come to routinely stampede the ACC and compete at the highest level nationally with Heppler providing countless pounds of thrust.
The program’s unique office/workout room in Bobby Dodd Stadium, memberships at East Lake and the Golf Club of Georgia, the Jackets’ practice facility, their superb housing arrangements at the ACC Tournament and their many great schedules are all traceable to the head coach’s ability to raise money and coalesce agendas.
Heppler has flown solo before, but he was a younger lad and it was more the norm then. Asked about going it alone and whether he ever had, the dragster smoked his tires and began to race down the track.
“Back when I got hired, you could only have one coach on the road recruiting. Back in 1995 there weren’t many assistant coaches,” he said. “I was young enough at 35, in shape, energized in a head coaching job to where I felt like I could compete seven or eight straight weeks in the summer [recruiting] by myself.”
At the same time, Tech’s program, “was in a bit of disarray with the fund-raising.”
Here, the crux of the matter comes.
Over time Heppler configured his staff in different ways at different times. For a while, he had administrative help. At another juncture, Tech was a staff of three with one of the other two chiefly a recruiter/swing coach and the third an administrator.
By his design, there’s two halves to the Georgia Tech golf program’s brain: in no order, there is coaching/recruiting and there is the task of constantly finding ways to pay the program’s freight (ie raise money).
Newton, 33, may have eventually checked off all of the above boxes although he had a learning curve in five years at Tech after assisting at Alabama and Georgia Southern. As Heppler said, “he didn’t know how to do some of that stuff and . . . worked a lot of hours, and learned how to do some of that stuff.”
Not long ago, it looked like Newton would do it for a sixth straight season as the standard hiring season passed. Then, the Colorado State head coach took a job at Kansas in early July, and Newton applied with the Rams.
Last Monday and Tuesday, he caddied for Tech sophomore Ollie Schniederjans in the first two rounds of the U.S. Amateur in Cherry Hills, Colo. Wednesday, he interviewed in Fort Collins, Colo., while Heppler caddied for Schniederjans.
“Had Ollie won [his match play] on Wednesday, Christian would’ve gone back on the bag Thursday or Ollie would’ve said I was the best caddie ever,” Heppler said.
Newton became CSU’s head coach shortly thereafter. It surely helped that he learned so much about how a head coach gets dirt under his nails while working under Heppler.
“It could be a while. It’s a different position. This place is not the same as an SEC school or other schools,” the coach said. “We will not rush to hire someone, and it’ll be a long fall.”
Don’t think that this has or will slow down Heppler or the Jackets.
“We worked out this morning, and we’ll start qualifying Friday,” the coach said of the process of choosing five golfers for the season-opening Carpet Capital Collegiate near Dalton in a couple weeks.
James White is the only golfer not back for Tech. He graduated. But where the last three freshmen to enter the program – Schniederjans and Anders Albertson last year, and Richard Werenski the year before that – all “gray-shirted” by entering school the previous winter and then began competing the following fall, it’ll be different this go-round.
Freshmen Michael Hines of Acworth/Kell High and Shun Yat Hak of Hong Kong/Lake Mary Prep (Fla.) are newish to The Flats. They entered school this summer, and will compete for playing time beginning at the end of the week.
Heppler won’t be doing much differently than he was; he’ll just be doing more of it with an empty sidecar unless you count Traci Heppler as a potential passenger.
“A lot of guys just do a little recruiting and show up at practice,” he said of a typical college golf assistant. “Because of the skill set I’m looking for, I’m not going to rush. My family understands. My wife may drive down a couple days and help me.
“I’ve just got to get up early, stay late and get the job done. The reality is, right now I can’t stop to do that [kind of a search]. We’ll see who’s interested. The word isn’t really out on the street yet, and my reputation may be so bad that nobody will call.”
There, a sanity check in the form of a little self-deprecating sense of humor from a dragster suddenly caught in a marathon. Worry not.