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Small’s Influence Felt Far and Wide
by Fred Kroner
Mike Small’s name is synonymous with Illinois golf.
Before he agreed to a contract extension in September that boosted his annual salary for coaching the University of Illinois men’s golf team above $300,000, before he guided the Illini to consecutive top five finishes nationally from 2013 to 2016 and tutored two individual NCAA champions, before he played in more than 50 PGA events (including 11 majors), before he played for the Illini on a Big Ten championship team, former National Coach of the Year Small had already established a legacy in the sport in his home state.
He was a member of Danville High School’s 1981 IHSA Class AA state championship team. He was a sophomore on a team with one junior and four seniors, a squad that ran the table in the postseason, winning district, sectional and state titles.
“Danville was a great golf town,” Small recalled. “We had five courses in a town of 40,000.”
Small downplayed his role for a team which won its championship nearly 35 years ago, on Oct. 17, 1981, at Peoria’s Kellogg Golf Course. “The seniors carried the team,” he said. “I was relegated to the bottom.”
Coach Steve Birky’s team had multiple contributors. Small and Jeff Landskroner had the team’s top finishes at the Savoy District, shooting 80s at the UI Orange and sharing third place individually.
At the Spring Creek Sectional, in Peru, Brett Springer won a playoff for medalist honors after carding a 74. Brad Leighty and Small were a stroke behind and teammate Chris Heeren tied for a sixth with a 76.
At state, Leighty posted the school’s best first-day score (77), Springer shot the best second-day round (76) and Landskroner registered the top 36-hole total, tying for eighth individually with a 155.
“The key to the whole thing,” Small said, “is we enjoyed being around each other. They were unique. They were characters. They were wild, fun kids who loved to play. It was fun being a part of it.”
The state experience was an anomaly. “We had never played in a two-day tournament until state,” Springer said.
Following the Day 1 action, Danville found itself in a sixth-place tie with Homewood-Flossmoor, but 10 shots behind the 1980 runner-up team, Naperville North.
“At the hotel (Friday night), we were disappointed, but we heard the (Saturday) forecast was for rain, and lots of it, and we said, ‘Bring it on,’” Springer said.
“We played better in adversity,” Small said. “That was a positive mental boost for us.”
Danville compiled the second day’s best overall score, which was enough to edge DeKalb — which it also beat to win the sectional — by one stroke.
The success was something the squad expected throughout the two-month season. “We thought we were good, and had high expectations,” Springer said, “but I don’t know if we had reason to. I don’t know that we won anything (in 1980) as juniors.”
Golf became more than a hobby for Small, and his comrades. If someone had asked him as a sophomore what he wanted for his life, Small said: “it would have been something in the golf industry.”
He’s not alone in staying with the sport. Squad members Mike Shirey and Heeren now co-own Turtle Run Golf Club, in Danville. Springer has coached the high school team at his alma mater for 15 years and is a six-time city champion in Danville.
“Golf has changed so much in 35 years,” Small said. “It’s a whole different animal as far as the number of players, the equipment, the junior tours. “Back then, high school golf was pure fun. I didn’t know a drop of what I know now. It was total euphoria. Whatever you learn about golf at that age is all brand new.”
Both Small and Springer said Birky — who enjoyed a 20-plus-year tenure with the Vikings — wasn’t one to over-coach. “He was a smart coach,” Small said, “and didn’t make things bigger or create problems. He cared about the kids and wanted to win, but sometimes the best coaching you do is when you don’t say anything.” Added Springer: “He was as carefree as you could go. It was a fun time.”
Small said he has learned how a coach can influence his players, either in a positive or a negative manner. “High school coaches are underappreciated,” Small said. “High school coaches have the opportunity to grow the game (nurturing attentive beginners) or turn them off so they never play again. High school golf is the most pure fun kids will ever have. The time with friends should not be taken for granted. High school coaches have an opportunity to be a magnet for those kids. They are valuable for the future of the game.”
Small is always on the look-out for talent for his future Illini teams. He plans to attend the opening day of the 2016 boys’ state tournament, even though his team has a scheduled late-day flight to Florida, where they will compete in a tournament at Windermere. “I try to go (to state) every year and see as many kids as I can,” Small said. “I owe it to the state. I owe it to the kids.”
When he scouts, Small said, “I look at everything, the total body of work, the speed of the golf swing, how they treat people, how they handle adversity, who has the ability to shoot a low score from time to time and do they share in the work ethic I can go compete with the next four years.”
The ability to play the game and do so consistently is an important consideration. “If you can’t compete highly at one level and have success, the chances that you can play well at the next level are greatly reduced,” Small said.
As for Small’s impact on golf, whether as a player, ambassador or coach, Springer can’t think of a better role model.
“In the state of Illinois, I’m not sure who you could put above him,” Springer said. “Mike turned out better than all of us.”