This is one in a series of stories celebrating 100 years of the IHSA Boys Golf State Finals. Click here to view the other stories and here to order commemorative 100-year state final gear and pin flags.
Interview with Coach Mike Nisen
by Matt Troha
Mike Nisen, affectionately known as “Big Bird” for the all-yellow rain suit that covers his 6-7 frame at the IHSA Boys Golf State Finals, has been involved with high school golf in Illinois for over 50 years. That time includes 35 years as a coach (six at Prospect High School and 29 at Rolling Meadows) and nearly 30 working the state final tournament. As the IHSA celebrates its 100th state final, we thought it would be fitting to talk with a man who has been involved with large school (AA and 3A) golf in the state in some capacity for the past 52 years.
How did you become “Big Bird”
Marty Hickman (former IHSA Executive Director) gave me that name and Jim Thompson, the state final manager when the tournament was at Crestwicke in Bloomington made it stick. I bought that yellow Gore-Tex suit in 1986 for riding my bike in the elements. It’s come in handy at the state tournament many times and now it’s a tradition, and I think some of the coaches would be disappointed if I didn’t wear it.
Any thoughts on the best team in large school tournament’s history?
I tend to separate the great teams by the various state final courses they played. When we were at the University of Illinois course in Savoy you had the dynamic Belleville West teams in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They had the Haas brothers and won three state titles and finished second twice in an eight-year span. Sacred Heart-Griffin had two really great teams that won back-to-back titles (1979 and 1980), but that was also on their home course, The Rail, so as coaches we always wondered how much of an advantage that gave them. What St. Viator accomplished winning three consecutive state titles in 2007, 2008 and 2009 was remarkable at the time. To their credit, I believe they were a few students shy of Class 3A and petitioned to play up to defend their crown. Now Hinsdale Central has come along and won four in a row, including the second-best score ever at The Den (585 in 2014), exceeded only by the 583 St. Viator shot in 2008. Certainly University High School’s (Normal) teams in 2004 and 2005 stand out as well, as they set new scoring records in back-to-back years (596, 587).
Any particular finishes that stick out to you?
A lot of people may not know this, but in 1994, Erik Ciotti from Barrington had actually tied D.A. Points on the 16th hole. We started about two hours late that Saturday due to rain that day and then when they were on the 16th hole, it started to pour again and it was called, so Points, who shot a 74 on Friday, was the state champion. It makes you wonder what might have happened if they had been able to finish. Ciotti came back and was the state champ in 1995. Ironically, Eric’s wife Jodi is one of the top golf officials in the state and has worked this tournament for many years. Any time we have weather, wind, rain or cold, those state finals tend to standout to me. This game is hard enough as it is, so I am always so impressed by how many kids persevere to shoot in the 70s. We have some good mudders.
Any other memorable moments from your career?
It wasn’t at the state finals, but it certainly had an impact. At the Champaign Invitational in 1969, a group of coaches were talking about how as many as five or six teams in our regionals could win the state tournament, but that it was a shame that only the regional winner advanced to the state finals. We brainstormed and decided to create the framework for a proposal to use a regional to sectional to state final tournament structure. Glenbrook South coach Mac McMillion took the lead and submitted it to the IHSA and it was approved for the next season. Ironically, the next year was my final year at Prospect High School and we won the regional, but luckily we finished second or third at the sectional and made it to state. Champaign Centennial’s John Macek, Galesburg’s Roger Soper and Pekin’s Delmar Davis all deserve credit for their role, but Mac was definitely the leader.
What are some of the biggest changes to the sport you notice from when you started coaching to today?
Kudos to the greens keepers and owners of the courses. The courses today are in much better condition and most have grown longer to keep up with the equipment. The equipment changes are a natural evolution, but it still impresses me to see how far and straight the kids hit the darn ball.
What are your feelings on the class expansion in golf?
I’ve been through it all, one class, two classes and now three classes. Reflecting back, I think it’s nice any time you give more opportunities for kids to compete for a state championship. The best players at the small schools can compete with the best kids in the larger classes, but they generally don’t have the team depth that the larger schools produce.
What has kept you coming back to work the tourney year after year?
It’s the kids. Having coached all that time, I know how excited the kids get about playing in the state tournament. I want the tournament to be as professional and well-run as possible. I want them to have the best tourney experience possible. Many players and parents have come up and said thanks at the end and that keeps me coming back too.