You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who predicted what's become one of the more compelling story lines of the college golf season, including the man who's been writing it the past eight weeks.
OK, so Jay Seawell did have a feeling his Alabama men's golf team was ready to make a statement this fall, as most of his players were stringing together solid performances on the amateur circuit this past summer, including four who successfully qualified for August's U.S. Amateur Championship. It's just that as the jovial 40-year-old coach prepared his squad for the 2006-07 campaign, he wasn't quite ready to say he had the best men's golf team in the country.
Three wins and a fourth-place finish later, the Crimson Tide are just that -- the nation's top-ranked program in the newest Golf World College Coaches' poll. Not bad for a school where football is king, and golf seemingly has been the court jester.
"It's pretty satisfying," Seawell says. "During the winter, I'm sure we'll look back and really digest what we've accomplished."
Five of the six Alabama players who've teed it up this fall (the team has one remaining tournament, the Aloha Purdue Collegiate in Hawaii in November) are sporting stroke averages of 72.17 or better. Juniors Gator Todd (71.0), Michael Thompson (71.42), Joseph Sykora (70.17) and Mark Harrell (72.17) have all posted top-10 individual finishes that helped the Crimson Tide claim the team titles at the Carpet Capital Classic by six strokes, the Shoal Creek Intercollegiate by six and the Jerry Pate National Collegiate by seven, the most consecutive tournaments won in school history and the most in a single season since 1972.
Mind you, to call Alabama an overnight success would be misleading. Since Seawell left Augusta State (after developing it into a nationally respected program) to come to Tuscaloosa in the fall of 2002, he has spent numerous hours trying to change the mind-set of a program that's won just one SEC title in its 56-year history and made only nine NCAA Championship appearances.
The efforts have included beating the bushes for players who wanted to get in on the ground floor of something that could be potentially special, attracting kids who might otherwise have gone to other SEC programs. Simultaneously, he tapped Jerry Pate himself, the school's most famous golf alum, to help build a $1.3 million state-of-the-art practice facility in November 2004 that could level the playing field with rival SEC schools.
"It wasn't that Alabama didn't have the resources to become a top golf program," notes a coach at another SEC school. "It's just it didn't have anyone to get everybody on the same page. That's what Jay has done."
The first true sign that Seawell was on track came when he guided his squad to the 2005 NCAA Championship. Although the team missed the 54-hole cut at Caves Valley GC, the school's first trip to the nationals in 10 years gave Todd, Sykora and Harrell, along with current senior Thomas Hagler, a firsthand look at where the program wanted to be on a yearly basis.
After adding Alabama high school sensation Matthew Swan to the squad last fall, Seawell brought in Thompson, a transfer from Tulane, this past summer to give him his most talented roster to date. "I think the depth of our team is the key," Seawell says. "We don't have a superstar. We don't have a guy that's going to carry the whole team week in and week out. We have six really, really good players."
For a better glimpse at just how deep Alabama really is, consider that Sykora couldn't crack the starting lineup for the Crimson Tide's first two tournaments this fall. Once he did, he proceeded to shoot rounds of 67-67-65 at Old Overton GC in Birmingham to claim medalist honors at the Jerry Pate and now has the team's lowest scoring average. Meanwhile, junior Max Alverio has yet to make the travel squad this fall, even though he's good enough to be representing Puerto Rico at this week's World Amateur Team Championship in South Africa.
"What we've done is put them in an atmosphere to compete against each other," Seawell says. "We have a very balanced team all the way from one through 10. We just tried to put them in an environment to compete because when you compete it makes you better. And I think for the first time we have the depth where the competition has pushed them at home as much as it does on the road."
While seemingly everyone has had a hand in the success, the most unlikely contributor has been Todd, a 20-year-old from Florence, Ala. who has had four top-15 finishes, including two top-5s despite being the one player who was struggling with his game entering the fall. Todd was so frustrated with his play as recently as six weeks ago, he nearly decided to redshirt this season to work on his swing before a conversation with Seawell persuaded him otherwise.
"We talked the first week of September and I said 'Gator, are you going to be willing to watch us drive off in the van each week and do some successful things [without you]?' " recalls Seawell. "About a day later he said 'Coach, I couldn't do that.' And as soon as he made that decision, the light went on. He's played great. He has played great at home and played great on the road."
Suffice it to say Seawell has noticed a change in attitude among his players as the fall has played out. "The teams like Georgia and Oklahoma State and Florida and [the] Clemsons and UCLAs of the world have created an atmosphere within college golf and within their own team, when they come to a tournament there is an expectation level within your own team," Seawell says. "And when you're not in that little circle, that's the hardest thing to learn and to teach. And I think that's the part I'm most proud of with these guys. For the first time they feel they belong in that circle."
Commend Seawell all you want for the coaching job he's done thus far. The truth is, though, that the hard part has just begun. They don't hand out NCAA Championship titles in November. To his credit, Seawell appreciates what still lies ahead. "Our goals aren't to be a great team in the fall," he says. "It's to be a great team.
"We're going to work hard in the weight room a little bit and try to get a little stronger and we'll come back in January and just go back to the same formula we had."
And as for any prediction about the spring? Seawell says he'll remain quiet again, content with the knowledge that Alabama now means something different in college golf.
For more reporting on college golf from Golf World senior writer Ryan Herrington, visit his Campus Insider blog.