In need of a new head coach, the Gophers’ men’s golf program didn’t have to look far; former player and associate head coach Justin Smith was named the new head coach on June 24.
For Smith, becoming head coach realizes a dream that many collegiate athletes have, coaching for their alma mater.
“I knew I always wanted to be a head coach. You certainly never know when and where that opportunity comes and fortunately it’s here for me right now,” Smith said.
Smith attended the University of Minnesota from 2000-2004 and was a star golfer for the University at that time, in what was perhaps the peak era of Minnesota golf. He helped lead the Gophers to winning Big Ten titles in 2002 and 2003, but is best remembered for hitting the clinching putt in the 2002 NCAA Men’s Golf Championship, giving the University their first and only national title. In 2014, he rejoined the program as an assistant coach, but he always had head coaching aspirations.
For the last two seasons, Smith has been with the team as the associate head coach. He worked along with the director of men’s golf, John Carlson. Smith focused on the day-to-day tasks of the team, while Carlson handled administrative duties. Carlson resigned in May to pursue other opportunities, according to Star Tribune reporting.
Now, as head coach, Smith hopes to replicate the success he saw in his days playing for the Gophers. Minnesota hasn’t won a Big Ten championship since 2014, and while there were some encouraging signs from this past season, Smith acknowledges there’s always room for improvement.
“That’s kind of the one thing we wanted to change, our standards, our expectations and our goals,” he said. “We’re really going to raise that bar and really going to push hard to achieve some special things.”
And while Smith cautioned against having too high of expectations too early, he did cite his knowledge and familiarity with the program as giving him a bit of a head start on transitioning into this new role.
“You don’t feel like you’re starting at zero. You certainly feel like you can hit the ground running,” he said. “We feel like we can really make big strides here pretty quickly.”
Smith’s aspirations for the team go beyond just success as a program. Along with returning the team to its championship ways, Smith hopes to expand the reach of the golf program, both in the community and across the state.
“We are the only division one school in our state, so we have an obligation to make sure everyone is really, really excited about Gopher golf,” Smith said. “I want our supporters, [and] all those, hopefully soon-to-be supporters, in the community to really know Gopher golf.”
Smith’s dedication to the program is one thing he believes makes him the man for the job. He’s more than up to the challenge ahead of building a successful program in Minnesota.
“There’s no one out there who’s going to be able to put more passion and effort into this program, to get it back going in the right direction and get it back to its championship ways. I feel so invested and roots are so deep here in Minnesota,” he said. “This is my number one job in the country, it’s a place that means more to me than anything professionally.”