All in the Details: What It Takes To Coach National Champs

 

In the heat of the moment, John Fields stuck with his man.

As the NCAA Men’s Golf Championship was building towards its clinching crescendo, the hysteria swirled among Riviera Country Club’s eucalyptus pines as aggressively as the salty breezes from the nearby Pacific Coast.

Texas senior Dylan Frittelli walked off the 17th green all-square with Alabama’s Cory Whitsett, and a full throng of spectators and school supporters hiked the uphill 18th hole, anticipating a dramatic conclusion.

All except for Fields, the Texas head coach of 15 years.

With his ear attuned to the action a hole ahead, Fields remained on the 17th green, abiding to the heart and spirit that just earned him Golfweek’s Coach of the Year honor.

Of course, Fields knew that Frittelli was in the thick of battle, but he also knew that freshman Jordan Spieth just holed out for eagle on the 15th hole to all but clinch his 3 & 2 match play victory. And that left junior Cody Gribble on the par-5 17th, holding a two-up advantage over Alabama’s Scott Strohmeyer.

“(Gribble) is so significantly important to our team,” Fields said. “I knew he had a chance to close out that match, and I wanted to be there to give him a hug when he won.”

Through 25 years as a NCAA Division I head men’s golf coach, Fields has carved a reputation of heartfelt loyalty and patient persistence. In fact, Fields’ actions often speak louder than the soft-spoken mentor from Las Cruces, New Mexico.

He’s the coach who picks up his players before weekly 6:30 a.m. workouts in his suburban, “just like a carpool mom,” Gribble says. And during UT’s summer junior golf residential camps, Fields stays in the dorm with the campers.

“I have two children, too. I stay there because I want to make sure that if something happens, I’m right there,” Fields explains. “I don’t want to get any phone calls. I just want to be part of it.”

Fields demonstrated this through his commitment to Gribble, who committed to the Longhorns in eighth grade. He was a decorated left-handed young amateur, guiding Highland Park to a pair of Texas UIL Class 5A team titles as he also claimed individual medalist honors.

Gribble changed the dynamics of Fields’ program, specifically in recruiting. In a sense, Gribble set the stage at Texas for Fields and assistant Ryan Murphy to land freshman All-American Jordan Spieth.

But in his junior season, UT’s national championship season, Gribble struggled with confidence and even determination. His wedge play was a specific source of disappointment.

“I wasn’t sure what golf was doing for me,” Gribble says.

Gribble reignited his passion by grinding through it. By late spring, he’d visit the practice facility at the UT Golf Club early every morning, and Fields was a constant companion.

“He’d watch me hit putts, chip shots. It was just us really beating balls,” Gribble says. “He took off a lot of the pressure, because he let me know how much trust he had in me, and how he knew I was going to be great.”

Gribble fulfilled Fields’ prophecy on the final day of NCAA regional play, carding a 71 to help seal UT’s second-place finish and punch the Longhorns’ ticket to the national championship.

But it all came down to Gribble and Fields on No. 17 at Riviera. Golf is a game of memory, and it never forgets. It was only fitting that Gribble had an 85-yard wedge from the fairway on the par-5.

And with his confident coach on the green watching, Gribble stuck his approach within two feet for birdie.

“He helped me get my fire back,” Gribble says of Fields.

Once the Longhorns arrived in Pacific Palisades, Calif., for the national championship, Fields was in calm control of all his players. Julio Vegas says the best thing Fields did all week was nothing at all.

“He was the same, the same way he had been all year,” Vegas says. “He kept the rhythm the same.”

Fields brought with him a career of experience. He’d previously made 19 NCAA Championship appearances, with six top-10 finishes. And with each of them, Fields learned a lesson.

Some of them were simple, often overlooked details, like choosing the right place for dinner. Once, Fields had a team dinner that took too long – a long wait, followed by slow service – and they returned to the hotel late. When morning tee times arrived the next day, the team felt rushed, unprepared.

Another time, Fields let the emotions take hold, and his intensity and focus hyper-amplified an already pressure-filled stage.

“The good thing is we eliminated all those mistakes, and I arrived at a point where I could relax,” Fields says. “Maybe that gave my team just a little more confidence because they knew their coach really believed in them.”

During competitive rounds, Fields assigned himself the role of observant spectator. He walked in the galleries, and handed his team sack lunches as they made the turn from front nine to back.

For chemistry, Fields had Murphy and volunteer assistant Jean-Paul Hebert as his on-course coaches.

“Coach Fields did a lot of coaching at night, talking to the guys, getting them in the right mental frame for the rounds,” Murphy says. “A lot of what he had to say was the culmination of 25 years worth of experience. He really got those guys where they needed to be mentally. It was impressive.”

Fields coached the Longhorns to their first national championship in 40 years by making individual decisions that would positively impact an entire team, much the way a father cares for his family.

And so that’s how Fields found himself on the 17th green, wrapping Gribble in a giant bear hug, as the championship was about to be decided some 500 yards away.

Following Gribble’s birdie and 2&1 victory, Fields left No. 17 and started walking up the inclined fairway on 18. That’s where he was when Frittelli sunk the 30-foot birdie putt that will forever live in Longhorn lore.

Fields’ first championship memory won’t be a vision but a sound—the erupting roar of Longhorns as Frittelli’s winning putt disappeared into the hole.

But Fields still has a vision to remember. As his team and family flew back into Austin late that night, the pilot carefully took a tight turn around the Tower, UT’s famous campus landmark, which on this special night was drenched in burnt orange to commemorate the national championship.

“There’s no better feeling than that,” Fields says.

This story was first published on TexasSports.com.

 

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