Serving as Johnson High’s basketball coach for the past 11 years, Jeff Steele always assumed if he won any type of coaching award it would be for his work on the hardwood.
His other job of 11 years, the Knights boys golf coach, was always something he did because he simply enjoyed the game of golf and couldn’t bring himself to turn off his desire to coach during basketball’s offseason.
“(Golf) was a personal hobby of mine that I used as a stress reliever after basketball,” Steele said. “The coaching job just presented itself. There was an opening for it when I started as the basketball coach, so I took it.”
This season, Steele led the Knights to a Region 7-AAA golf championship and into the state tournament for the first time in school history.
At the state tournament, Johnson finished in a tie for fourth place with an overall score of 303.
For his efforts, Steele has been named The Times 2010 Golf Coach of the Year.
Admittedly, Steele wasn’t all that sure he knew how to be a golf coach when he started.
“To be honest, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing then,” he said. “But you live and learn.”
One thing Steele has learned over the years is how to schedule the season in a way that helps get his players ready for region and state competition. Instead of playing matches with one or two other schools, usually nine-hole events which Steele states “sometimes aren’t as serious,” the coach began entering his team into 18-hole tournaments.
Those tournaments are structured more like region and state competitions, which are also 18-hole events with a dozen or more schools.
By doing this, Steele believes that “the kids get more comfortable” with the format.
“There are usually 20 or 30 other teams at the tournaments, and that seems to get you ready for region and state,” he said.
“The change in format is what’s turned things around.”
Turning things around with a sports program also requires taking a different approach to teaching the student-athletes how to compete.
In the past, Steele has structured his golf practices around simply going out on the course and playing as many holes as possible.
But recently, Steele has changed the way in which his boys practice, putting a stronger emphasis on “working (with) and developing players.”
“We’ve started doing drill work instead of just playing,” he said. “Putting, pitching and driving drills, that sort of thing.”
Such drills involve repeating the same motion many times to create muscle memory and, hopefully, making the motion automatic when it comes time for competition.
The drills seemed to have paid off.
The three low scorers for Johnson at the state tournament were all within two strokes of par. Grant Cagle and Clint Reeves both shot a 1-over 73, while Josh Foster shot a 2-over 74. Those are pretty good results considering none of the young men had ever played at the state tournament before.
Two of the three, Cagle and Reeves, are seniors, along with two other members of the six-man team.
Losing more than half of his team has Steele “a little concerned,” but the coach feels that his team will still be in a good position to compete.
“We still have (good players) coming back and moving up, so I think we’ll be OK,” he said.
Steele also credits part of the team’s recent success to the support the Knights have received from “good parents” and a “booster club that is solid and eager to help.”
“With everybody pulling together and the hard work of the kids, I just feel honored to be the coach,” he said.