Chatting with America’s Caddie: Howard coach Sam Puryear on HBCU golf, equality and Steph Curry

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Sam Puryear wants HBCU golf to be on equal footing. And the coach at Howard University knows what it will take to get there. After winning a national championship at Stanford, then a Big Ten title with Michigan State, the golf coach, with an assist from NBA champion Steph Curry, literally started from scratch at Howard two years ago.

So he sat down with America’s Caddie, Michael Collins, to talk about how opportunity, how he got Howard, the goal to compete and win and so much more.

Collins: What’s the most important thing you want people to know about HBCU college golf?

Puryear: I think one of the most important things you can tell people is, No. 1, we’re out here to compete. We’re not out here asking for an advantage. We’re out here asking for equality. We’re out here ready to compete, and we want to compete at the highest level.

I want young people that want to be uber successful. That want to work hard. That want to play the best competition. That want to improve their golf IQ. That want to have that opportunity where, if they do have that golf dream, it can come true. From where I sit today, everything is inside of me. I’m putting it out on the table. I am giving everything to help these young people and their dreams come true.

HBCU golf is, in my estimation, not looking for a handout. We’re looking for an opportunity.

Collins: That’s something you and I talked about before. Not asking for an advantage, but asking for equal footing.

Puryear: If I’m a corporation reading this now, I would say, “OK, what are the things we can provide that would put you on an equal footing.” That’s how I look at it.

Collins: It seems easy, but people assume because you have a college golf program that every kid gets fitted and you have 8 Trackman systems. (Puryear laughs at this). You laugh, but how do you fix it?

Puryear: My philosophy on that, and I’ve had it since I was a kid, if you’re a coach, you got to have a short memory. All great athletes have short memories. Michael Jordan shoots the ball. He misses 15 times. But guess what? Those last three [that he makes], win the game. He didn’t think about the other ones he missed. Because they’re not important. I heard [Jack] Nicklaus with my own ears say he never missed a short putt.

It’s all of mindset. As a golf coach, in my perspective, I’m coming to this job, this opportunity, with no preconceived notions that life is going to be easy, life is going to be a great, life is going to be fair. Because I still know I have to raise money. I have to call 45 people to get two to consider my salt. I have to send out 100 inquires in order to get 10. I know that means I’m going to have to work harder. I’m going have to work longer. But guess what? I’m the coach. To me, HBCU programs should see what the big schools are doing. They mimic the flavor of the coach. I’ve been coaching a long time. My goal? I’m not coming here with any other expectation other than to build something on solid ground and to win. I know I’m going to have to outwork everybody else. If I think they’re getting up at 8:30 [in the morning] I’ve got to beat them by two hours cause I don’t have the same budget as them. If I think they’re lazy and going to stop at 5 or 6, I’m going to work til 9. Because I have to be willing to bleed, to sacrifice, in order to get better. You just have to do the extra. You have to call that extra guy, you have to email that extra lady, in order to get that Trackman.

Collins: Where did this career path start for you?

Puryear: My father introduced me to the game. My dad had been a small-college All-American back in 1965.

When I was born, my dad was going to the golf course every week. My mom would tell this story as I got older: My dad became a principal and my mom was a teacher. But what I didn’t realize is, until I got much older, educators were essentially 10-month employees. So my dad would use a lot of those summers playing golf to make the mortgage. My mom said, “Yeah, but the good thing is your dad doesn’t lose.”

Collins: Your dad was a hustler!?! Those summer months, when no paycheck was coming from school, that’s how he paid the mortgage?

Puryear: My dad would play. He’d play that golf — that’s why he stopped playing, guys stopped betting him. You know how it works on the golf course when guys realize they can’t beat you. They stop betting you.

Collins: I guess growing up seeing your dad play, you started young. Ever have aspirations of going pro?

Puryear: Initially, I did. I loved it. True story: My dad would never tell me no if I asked him to go to the golf course. I would say, “Hey can I go?” He would say, “Absolutely.” He was out there playing, but he didn’t want me around all that gambling. He would give me money and say, “OK, you got some money for some grilled cheese sandwiches, some treats. If you want a lesson from the pro, I’ll take care of that too. Other than that I’ll be back here in a few hours.”

As I got older I’d go down on that range and beat balls. I’m talking about till the cows come home. I wanted to be great. I would sneak out and watch my dad a little bit just so I can learn how [to play] when you’re playing for a couple of coins.

Collins: What happened?

Puryear: I went off to college and I realized, ‘Wait, there’s a missing component here.’ The missing component was not having a ton of [Black] tour players. I noticed that there was a piece of the bridge missing to get people to that point. Where are the teachers, where are the coaches getting these kids prepared to go play college, prepared to go pro?

Collins: So you knew pretty early you weren’t going pro?

Puryear: My mom reminded me of this when I became the head golf coach at Michigan State. She called me and said,”Do you remember what you told me at 12 years old? You told me you were going to change the game, make it look more like you.” Even as a kid I saw things [for Blacks] were off. The numbers were flawed. As a kid, I vowed I was going to even the playing field some day. At that point, playing pro golf never became that important to me.

Collins: You graduate from Tennessee State, how do you get into coaching from there?

Puryear: I get a call one day from Eastlake [Academy in Atlanta] and they want to bring in a director of golf to build up what they had started about a year before. I go take the Eastlake opportunity.

In my humble opinion, going to Eastlake was me trying all of my methods out on kids that had never even held a golf club.

From making them lift weights, eat properly, the integrity piece (of golf). To me, they had nothing to with anything but golf. I made sure they got the educational piece, that they were good people (first), the whole nine yards. So by the time the opportunity opened up to go to Stanford [as an assistant coach], I took the model I had built at Eastlake to California.

Collins: Couldn’t have been that easy?

Puryear: It’s funny, the first thing I did when I got there when I talked to Conrad Ray, who was the head coach and a great guy, I said, “Conrad I have an idea: I want to do a development program for the students on this team that I have tried and tested.” The only thing he said was, “Hey Sam, you know how to do it? Are you comfortable?” I said, “It’s like the back of my hand.” He said, “Let’s do it.”

Collins: And?

Puryear: I put that development program in place at the beginning of the following year. We start out winning these tournaments and we win the national championship. People seem to forget sometimes, they think, “I have a great golf swing, that means I can be a great player.” Absolutely not. In order to be a great player you have to have a cadre of things that are built in and innate for some development that are going to help you get to that next point.

Collins: Had to be a few schools that knew what you had done?

Puryear: Well, once we won the national championship the telephone rings and I get a few offers. I took the Michigan State offer because I wanted to get back as close to North Carolina as I could. I loved it in California. The people were fantastic and the weather was great. The University was incredible, but I mean I’m a southern guy, you know. I was trying to get back as close to the East Coast as I could.

Collins: How did you know you had something special at Michigan State?

Puryear: It’s interesting. Again, I implemented the same plan. Went out to the players the same way and got the same response. What I really really enjoyed about Michigan State, I was able to talk to coaches in other sports. You’re sharing culture methodologies and philosophy. It wasn’t so much “Hey let’s talk golf.” No, I wasn’t talking golf at all. If I talked to [men’s basketball coach Tom] Izzo, he didn’t want to talk basketball, all he wanted to do with me was talk golf.

Collins: Funny how that works in our sport.

Puryear: Yeah. And because I love basketball, I wanted to talk to him about basketball. So it made for really nice banter, you know. For me, it was really growth — continuing to grow as a coach.

Collins: Win a national championship with Stanford, win the Big Ten championship at Michigan State … then what?

Puryear: Many years later I had gotten back to North Carolina. Started my own little golf company and was director of golf at a small school in Charlotte — Queens College. And after six years at Queens, I had won 4 conference championships. So the proof was in the pudding and I was comfortable (stepping away). If I step out now I can start trying to find those players that are serious about making it to the professional level. felt like at that point I had a blueprint. So that’s what I was doing for the last couple years.

Collins: Then Howard University called?

Puryear: Initially someone reached out and said they were representing Howard and wanted to talk to me about it. The irony is, before [Howard] called, I’d probably got, and I’m not exaggerating, 35 calls from people who said, “Man, I just heard about this opportunity! You’re the only person in America they could potentially hire to help them build the program, because you’ve seen the top of the mountain.”

When I sat back and thought about it, knew that Steph Curry was supporting it, I said, “You know, this man is a champion.” I had played golf with him before, so I knew he was uber competitive. With his support and drive as a champion, plus my to drive to win and experience and love to work with young people, there’s no way if they offer me the opportunity I can say no.

At that point, the interest, fire and burn to get back to the coaching, I was like, “Yeah, this would be the one spot to do it.”

Collins: That’s crazy so many people called you first. I’m sure you were probably like, “Come on y’all, calm down. What are you talking about?”

Puryear: That’s right. Because in the beginning I was, “No, you’re putting the cart before the horse. They’re probably not going to build anything special.” That’s the truth, that was my initial thought. So I never considered it. Until the story evolved.

Collins: And Steph was involved!

Puryear: Exactly. At that point you’re dealing with a champion. A champion of champions.

Collins: You have both men’s and women’s golf teams at Howard. I want to talk about the women. How do we get more young African-American women and girls to just start playing and learning the game?

Puryear: The thing you have to do in finding the African-American young ladies, and I know people are going to laugh when they hear this, but it’s so basic that it’s true, you’re going to have to work 10 times longer and harder than everybody else. Junior tournaments, you’re going to have to burn the phone up. Identify who’s playing well in that community. Reach out to the junior group. All of these groups where these young ladies are playing. You know, all of a sudden you can’t just go AJGA. You got to go to some of the smaller tours, junior tours, because the acclimation for the natural and normal African-American young lady is not the same. Because the numbers aren’t as large. But I’m going tell you what’s happening with the young Black girls. There are some really, really good young Black girls. Problem is, they’re so good that, of course, the Tennessees, Alabamas, and Texases … they want them.

I want be in a position where I can go to the same girl and say, “Hey, Yeah, you’re considering a great school. But we’re better. Consider us at Howard.”

Collins: We’re starting to see in tennis the residual of the Williams sisters. We know what Se Ri Pak did for women’s golf in Korea.

Puryear: You better believe it. It goes back to having a mentor or mentors.

Collins: A mentorship can be worth more than 1,000 rounds of golf.

Puryear: No question about it.

Collins: Five years from now, the dream scenario, where are you and where is the Howard golf program?

Puryear: Dream scenario for me is always where I am. That’s how I look at life. But Howard’s golf team, at that point, will be built on solid ground. The foundation will have been poured, nurtured and sustained. Mature to a point where you have incredible young student-athletes doing really well in the classroom — and they’re steady on the golf course. That would look like fantastic places to practice and play in the area. Great tournaments to compete in.

Students will have a chance to say, “Hey, every year we compete on the West Coast and the East Coast. We play some of the best teams in our region. We’ll also see some of the best teams in the United States. But at the same time we’ll also keep it culturally relevant and play some of the black schools when we get a chance. To me in 5 years, if a young person can walk away and say that, then I can lay down and say, “Sam, job well done.”

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