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This is Our Deal

April 22, 2011

Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

– In the search for secrets behind a five-year stampede, it turns out some of what you find is to be expected. As the Yellow Jackets this weekend try to stretch their trampling of the ACC beyond half a decade, some other ingredients surprise.

Georgia Tech has been good at golf for a long time, pre-dating coach Bruce Heppler. He has, however, taken the Jackets to a consistent level beyond.

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There’s no way you do what he’s done – Tech has won or shared seven ACC titles, including four of the past five, in his 15 years and he’s guided the Jackets to the NCAA tournament every year since 1998 — without recruiting good golfers.

And clearly, there’s also collective brain-washing because, well, that’s part of golf.

Back stories are where real intrigue lies. Here, I point to the coach’s theories on housing and ping pong as hints of an approach that is not conventional. Add the coach’s relentless, can-do drive to create internal and external environment for players and there’s a rare formula intact.

You’re going to have to be patient today if you want to learn; Heppler’s never short on words, nor simplistic in method . . .

Funny the way this worked out, but while transcribing tape of an interview with Heppler (about 29 minutes and 3,200 of his words worth), the TV was on. An HBO “documentary” entitled, “His Way,” aired. It was about concert promoter, talent manager, and TV and film producer Jerry Weintraub, and his ways.

The sound was often muted, but every time I took a break from transcribing or writing, I’d turn the sound up.

And I heard about Heppler.

There is no coach at Tech who can touch his track record for raising funds, and he’s remarkable for making things happen.

Weintraub not only put Sinatra in Macon and made it work, but made it lucrative for all parties. He elevated John Denver from bumpkin to brand. And at one point he paired Sinatra and Denver. Are you kidding?

Heppler’s similar ability to conceive and execute explains, in part, the fancy golf “office” on the north end of Bobby Dodd Stadium. It has an elevator Heppler uses on football game days to woo recruits by taking them up to fancy seats. His office doesn’t leak, by the way, as Paul Johnson’s occasionally does.

His skill set also explains Tech’s ability to practice not only at a just-off-campus facility, but also at East Lake and the Golf Club of Georgia. He spearheaded (and spearheads) fund-raising moves to make this happen.

The Old North State Club at Uwharrie Point in New London, N.C., has become familiar to the Jackets not just because the ACCs are there. It’s like home in several ways.

“It’s a place that’s a lot like the Golf Club of Georgia from the greens to the fairways to the look,” Heppler said. “So we have a wonderful place all year long to get ready from the speed of the greens to the turf and everything.

“It’s a lot like where we play every day, and I don’t know that everyone in the conference can say that. The greens are fast like the Golf Club and even East Lake. If they want to say we have an advantage . . . “

Four of the five members are back from the Tech squad that won the ACC title last spring by 13 shots. Seniors John-Tyler Griffin, Kyle Scott and Paul Haley are joined by junior James White. Freshman Richard Werenski rounds out the quintet.

The Jackets love the place.

“We have a great place to stay, ping-pong tables, and it’s more like we’re just going away to hang out, not to play the ACCs,” Griffin said. “There’s a lot of wedges there, and we hit a ton of wedges. I think we’re one of the best wedge teams in the country.

“[The speed of the greens] is very important. I don’t think anybody else practices on what we practice on. There are hills, and a 15-footer uphill is better than a lot of 5-footers going downhill.”

So now we get to ping pong, and eventually external environment. In this, you’ll see some of Heppler’s recruiting theory and player management philosophy.

There is a ping pong table in the room just off Heppler’s office at Tech. It has a magnetic effect on his players.

“Anything that involves hand-eye coordination . . . our best putters through the years have played other sports,” Heppler said. “[Former Tech star Matt] Kuchar’s incredible. J.T., it’s ridiculous. You try to get them to think about playing golf the way they play ping pong.

“When [freshman] Ollie [Schniederjans] and J.T. are playing [ping pong], there’s no trying to just get one in there. You go ahead and hit a winner. What happens if you don’t hit the table with it? It’s 1-0, and you hit another. That’s the way you’ve got to play golf . . . you try to hit a good shot, not avoid hitting a bad one.”

That mindset has become collective at Tech because players have been conditioned not to worry about playing poorly because they’re confident their teammates are going to play well enough to pick them up in the event they don’t perform.

This is one of the twin foundations of modus operandi that has propped Tech to a No. 4 national ranking. The other half is about breeding a sense of entitlement.

“We’re going to try to go win the ACC every year,” Heppler said. “It’s not about making a big deal out of it; it’s just what you’re supposed to do here. Whether Bryce [Molder] goes away, or Matt [Kuchar] or Cameron [Tringale] . . . I’m sure there’s people who are predicting what’s going to happen at Duke when Kyrie Irving, [Kyle] Singler and [Nolan] Smith leave.

“I promise . . . in that program they’re thinking they’re going to be back in the Final Four because they’re wearing Duke uniforms. I really think that [mindset] is important for consistency, that your guys know that’s what they’re supposed to do.”

It helps that the Jackets know where they’re going to stay, in “The House.” In North Carolina, the old rental house, where some players had to sleep on the floor, had horrible karma. So . . .

“We did research and found a really nice house,” the coach said. “It’s got ping pong, pool, video games. It’s a perfect place after you’ve been through this experience of competing. They can go there for four or five hours and . . . it’s a place that allows them to get away from the tournament in a positive way.”

The Jackets shared the ACC title in 2006 and ’07, and won it outright in ’09 and ’10, so how long have they been in The House?

“Four years,” Heppler said. “The one we were getting really didn’t meet my needs, so we found a booster who knew somebody that has a really nice place. “There’s a confidence in them now. You go from a thought process of hoping, wondering, believing to flat out knowing. We’ve done well there even when we take a group of new guys. That will be the theme . . . this is our deal.”

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