Mark Hankins probably would be nearing legendary status if he had the same success coaching football or men’s basketball at the University of Iowa as he’s had coaching men’s golf.
There aren’t many rebuilding projects in the history of Iowa athletics that are more impressive than what Hankins has master-minded over the past seven seasons.
The Mount Pleasant native has lifted the Iowa men’s golf program to unprecedented heights, most recently a sixth consecutive NCAA competition appearance.
Iowa will compete in the NCAA Regional on Thursday through Saturday at The Club at Old Hawthorne in Columbia, Mo.
Northwestern and Illinois are the only other Big Ten teams to be selected for NCAA Regional competition in each of the past six seasons.
“It’s definitely a goal every year and almost an expectation now,” Iowa senior Steven Ihm said of making the NCAA Tournament. “We’re ranked right in there every single year and it’s really the place to be at the end of the season.
“Not a lot of teams can say they’ve made it to the last six NCAA Tournaments. So we’re lucky to be here and we’re looking forward to it.”
Many of the non-revenue sports at Iowa have struggled to sustain success. Men’s golf was in that dubious position when Iowa Athletics Director Gary Barta convinced Hankins to leave a stable situation as coach at Michigan State to build the Iowa program.
The Spartans were coming off a Big Ten title in 2007 when Hankins took on the challenge of trying to turn Iowa into a winner.
“I knew what Hankins was capable of in recruiting and building teams and I wanted to be a part of it,” said Ihm, who has earned first-team all-Big Ten accolades in each of the past two seasons.
Iowa has won 11 tournaments since 2008, had 13 individual medalists since 2009 and produced three all-Americans since 2008. Iowa was ranked 155th when Hankins took over the program in 2008, but has since been consistently ranked in the top 60.
“I keep reminding people that it’s not easy,” Hankins said of sustaining success. “You look around at the teams in the Midwest and it’s still the same three; usually it’s us, Northwestern and Illinois. We’ve got a team this year that’s well-balanced.”
In addition to Ihm, Iowa’s lineup features juniors Brian Bullington and Ian Vandersee, and freshmen Raymond Knoll and Carson Schaake. This will be Iowa’s fourth consecutive tournament using the same lineup. And like with any sport, continuity and stability are crucial to a team’s success.
“We’ve really caught a little momentum here at the end of the spring,” Hankins said. “These guys are still getting used to playing with each other because we had in our first five tournaments of the year, five different lineups, and then still kept rotating a little bit in the spring until we got on this lineup.”
What makes Iowa’s rise to power under Hankins more impressive is that it’s happened without the luxury of competing and practicing in a warm-weather climate on a regular basis. Hankins has rebuilt the program mostly by recruiting golfers from the Midwest, who are used to coping with the long, cold winters.
Iowa’s five starters come from three different Midwestern states: Iowa, Illinois and Nebraska.
“It’s tough competing in the north with our tough winters,” said Ihm, a native of Peosta. “You see guys from other schools hitting balls in December just working on that grind and we have six inches of snow on the ground.
“It’s cool in the fact that we can say we can compete with them. And we’re really proud of that.”
Iowa is seeded sixth in its regional, which has Iowa State among the 14 teams. The top five teams, along with the top individual not on a qualifying team will advance to the NCAA Finals, which will be held May 23-28 at Prairie Dunes Country Club in Hutchinson, Kan. Iowa is shooting for its fourth berth in the NCAA Finals in the last six years.
Ihm, who plans to turn professional this summer, knows that the best way to help his team be successful is to help his own cause.
“Golf is kind of unique in that if you take care of your own business the team stuff takes care of itself,” Ihm said. “Every one of us is out there just trying to save shots for our own individual performances. And in doing that it’ll help out the team.”
Category: Iowa men's golf