April 24, 2012
Roots is a series that profiles Vanderbilt student-athletes and coaches, and reflects back on their lives, forming a roadmap that guides readers through the early years of their lives to where they are today.
Roots: Jeremy Organ
If you were to layout a prototypical career path that would eventually lead you to becoming a head coach in a given sport, the road map would not resemble anything like the route Vanderbilt Head Women's Golf Coach Greg Allen took. In fact, Allen's route to where he is today is so far off the beaten trail not even the use of a compass, an atlas or a GPS could guide him down the path from where he started to where he is today.
Look at a U.S. map and you will see dots of varying sizes. The biggest dots represent cities such as New York or Chicago and the dots so small you may mistake them for a speck of dust represent towns such as Beechmont, Ky. (pop. 793), where traffic lights cease to exist. It is here, 47 miles northwest of Bowling Green, where Allen was raised. "It makes Mayberry look like New York City," said Allen. But it is not his humble, small town beginnings that tell all to his story.
Unlike coaches who cut their teeth playing their sport for most of their lives, Allen did not. Golf was not offered at Hughes-Kirk School, a K-12 school everyone in the town attends. Instead the only two options were baseball and basketball, which was just fine with Allen.
"My dream was to someday play basketball for the University of Kentucky," said Allen, who also played baseball growing up.
His introduction to the sport of golf came when he was 15 and he and his older friends would drive to a nine-hole course that looked more like an open pasture with flags sticking out of the ground every few hundred yards. "You hear people describe golf courses as a goat ranch and that truly was what this was," Allen said. "It was somebody's farm that they turned into a golf course."
Allen enjoyed the sport, but did not play it at a serious level. Basketball was still his passion, but as he grew older, he began to realize that his dream of one day playing basketball at Kentucky was just that, a dream.
Although he was not talented enough to play Division I basketball, he wanted to stay around the game, and hoped to do so at Murray State, where he enrolled in their communications program.
"I went to Murray State University because they had a really good communications department so then my dream went from playing for Kentucky to writing for Sports Illustrated," Allen said.
He wrote for the student newspaper and covered the Racers' men's basketball team, which was led by future NBA forward Popeye Jones. It was through his work with the student newspaper that led him to discover the sports information department at Murray State. He eventually moved from the student paper to the SID department as a student assistant. As a student SID, Allen covered a number of teams, writing recaps and feature stories, creating media guides, managing statistics and coordinating publicity efforts.
It was as a student SID that that Allen was first introduced to a communications internship with the American Junior Golf Association - the AJGA. In the summer of 1992, he interned with the AJGA and traveled throughout the Southeast from town to town putting on golf tournaments. He enjoyed the internship so much that he returned to the AJGA the next summer, but this time as an operations intern, working the western states in the U.S.
They were only internships at the time, but Allen's work with the AJGA would open doors for him into the golf world that he could not imagine at the time.
Soon after Allen graduated from Murray State in December of 1993, he was working full-time with the AJGA as a tournament director. At the time, coaching didn't seem all that realistic to him. However, his outlook on coaching began to change by 1996 when Chris Haack, who helped begin the AJGA and was the assistant executive director, received the men's golf head coaching job at Georgia. Haack has since won two national titles.
"The thing that I learned real early is that the AJGA is the place where all the college coaches go to recruit," Allen said. "It is kind of like the junior PGA or LPGA Tour. Coaches were at these tournaments all the time and I got to know them."
By being in contact with coaches, Allen became connected in the industry and it was only a matter of time before he started to receive overtures from head coaches looking for an assistant coach.
"I began to think that maybe I should look into coaching," Allen said. "I had a couple of opportunities in 1997 to go to Arizona as the men's assistant, to go to UNLV as the men's assistant, but it just didn't feel right."
Finally, the right opportunity came along in the summer of 1998 when John Fields became the Head Men's Golf Coach at Texas and needed an assistant. The two had met through AJGA tournaments and struck up a friendship.
"I really felt like I would be with him for 3-5 years, felt like that was the time frame of an assistant in college golf," Allen said. "My dream was to get back to the University of Kentucky and be their golf coach. After one year, they hired a really good coach and he got their program up and going in the right direction, so there went that dream of being at Kentucky."
After two years as an assistant at Texas, Allen was approached to be the head women's golf coach at Arizona by former Athletic Director Jim Livengood. Allen was still very inexperienced in the coaching profession, but he took a chance on the opportunity.
"When he called to ask if I'd be interested in being his women's golf coach, I went out there and looked at it," Allen said, "and it was just too good of an opportunity to pass up, even though in the back of my mind maybe I didn't feel like I was quite ready to be a head coach. It was too good of an opportunity so my wife and I jumped at it."
Allen spent seven years at Arizona, and did not think he would ever leave. His teams won two Pac-10 titles and finished runner-up at the 2002 NCAA Championships.
"We went out there and spent seven years and never dreamed of leaving," Allen said. "That was one of those jobs, you never see yourself leaving. It is a great place to raise a family, it is a great environment, it is a university that has a lot of good things going for it."
But in 2007, Vanderbilt called with an offer to be the Commodores' next head coach after Martha Richards had departed for Texas.
Richards and Allen served as assistant coaches together at Texas and she confirmed to Allen that Vanderbilt would be an excellent choice. "She told me how committed Vanderbilt was to athletics," Allen said. At the time, there was still trepidation surrounding Vanderbilt athletics, from a national level, following the restructuring in 2003.
Allen's fears were put to rest with Richards' assurance in addition to his interviews with then-Chancellor Gordon Gee, Vice Chancellor David Williams and Nick Zeppos, who was the provost at the time.
Beyond the positive vibes he received from his interviews and from what he saw in person, coming to Vanderbilt offered Allen and his family with a chance to come home so to speak.
"It was an opportunity to get close to family," Allen said. "At the time we had just found out that my wife was pregnant with our fourth child and all of our family is on this side of the Mississippi. We are two hours from where I grew up and four hours from where my wife grew up (Atlanta). So we jumped on it."
The rest as they say is history. Now in his fifth season, Allen has guided Vanderbilt to top 10 finishes in the NCAA Championships each of the last two seasons. The 2012 NCAA Championships will take place May 22-25 in Franklin, Tenn.
He and his wife have four children, each of which have been born in a different city. Finally, Allen feels like he and his family are settled. When he took the job at Vanderbilt in July 2007, his wife, Julie, was pregnant with their youngest child, Mabry Jane. For six months, she stayed back in Tucson, Ariz., to sell the home and watch the other three children.
"It was an extremely busy time for us," Allen said. "You talk about a wife who is a champion. She is a saint to do all that."
They finally sold their house on Dec. 3, and Allen returned to Tucson to help his family move to Nashville on Dec. 11. On Dec. 28, Mabry Jane was born. "I'm a huge believer that things happen for a reason," said Allen of the timing of events.
Allen has no idea where he would have ended up had he not started an internship with the AJGA or taken a chance on coaching. He now knows he made the right decision and that coaching is for him.
"The relationships are what I enjoy the most," Allen said. "I think the chance I have to develop the relationships with the players and to some extent with their families. I love to get to know them through the recruiting process.
"We now have a chance to build on the success that we have had the last couple of years and the foundation that Martha Richards built and the success she had."
For Allen, he believes the possibilities at Vanderbilt are endless.
"Phil Mickelson used to get a lot of grief for not being able to win a major. He would say, 'I'm not trying to win a major, I'm trying to win a lot of majors.'
"That's what we are trying to do here. We aren't just trying to win a SEC Championship or a NCAA Title, we are trying to win a lot. We've got great players on our team this year. I feel like we have a lot of good things going and really have some momentum behind us."
Who were your favorite athletes growing up?
When I was younger it was Kyle Macy and when I was older, it was Rex Chapman. He was from Owensboro and I never got a chance to play against him, but I watched him play in high school. I also loved Michael Jordan and Larry Bird so I will say they were my favorite athletes.
One golf tournament every golf fan should attend?
No doubt, it is the Masters. TV doesn't do that place justice for how beautiful it is and how severe the slope is on those greens. You really feel guilty walking on the grass because you are afraid you are going to mess it up. When I was with the AJGA, I went every year because we received passes.
If someone were to visit Beechmont, Ky., where would you tell them to eat?
There is really only one restaurant in Beechmont. It has changed names so many times that I don't even know what it is called today. It used to be called, The Tigers' Den because we were the Hughes-Kirk Tigers and it was right across the street from our high school. In Beechmont that is the only option.
If you could pick three all-time golf greats to play in a foursome with you, who would they be?
Byron Nelson, Freddie Couples and Bobby Jones. I've had the privilege of meeting Byron Nelson and I'd love to play with him because I have heard he is just the true gentleman of the game. I've always been a big Freddie fan and still am. Bobby Jones is a golfing legend.