A coaching tradition
Arizona State coach Luellen learns from mother, Dale McNamara
TULSA, Okla. -- Bringing your golf team to the city where you grew up, went to high school and starred at your hometown university, breeds perks not associated with NCAA competition.
“I just love being here,” Arizona State head coach Melissa Luellen said. “It’s comfortable. I don’t have to use a GPS or get lost. It’s nice when you have a familiar feel.”
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But a deeper comfort surrounds the greens and fairways at host site Tulsa Country Club -- Luellen’s husband, Mark, whom she met while both attended Tulsa. A collegiate teammate, Maggie Roller, who coaches the girls’ golf team at local Jenks High School, and her daughter, Jenni. Other family members and college-opponents-turned-friends.
“I’ve been following them every day,” Roller, whose son, James, has applied to be the Sun Devils’ on-course scorer during Thursday’s third round, said. “It’s been just such a blast.”
Perhaps the deepest comfort comes from the older woman who zips along Tulsa Country Club’s paths in a special cart marked with her name -- Dale McNamara. Tulsa’s retired Hall-of-Fame women’s golf coach coached four national-champion teams, five runner-ups and 28 first-or-second-team All-Americans (including LPGA great Nancy Lopez) and still follows the game.
She’s Melissa’s mom.
“It is extremely special,” McNamara said of this week’s NCAA final. “It’s like coaching again. I couldn’t go to sleep at night, excited.”
Their mother-daughter juxtaposition is significant for more than legacy purposes.
McNamara’s 1988 NCAA team championship came on this same Tulsa Country Club course where Melissa also won low-medalist honors in that tournament. The woman who won multiple tournament titles, national and conference coach-of-the-year honors, also raised a four-time All-American.
“The year that she won nationals, that was really special, because that’s the first mother-daughter deal to have done that,” McNamara said. “It was exciting.”
“I knew that it would make it such a good thing for the city because this is such a great golf community,” Luellen said of Tulsa hosting this year’s Division I finals. “And the way Tulsa pulls together to put on a show. I think they’ve done a fabulous job. It’s exactly what I expected.”
Luelleb followed her mother’s footsteps almost by accident. She graduated from Tulsa in 1988 and competed in the Futures and Ladies European Tours before qualifying for the LPGA Tour in October of 1989. She spent 11 years on the Tour, winning the 1991 Stratton Mountain LPGA Classic and teaming with Mike Springer to win the 1993 JC Penney Classic.
“Wonderful, wonderful putter,” McNamara said. “And a really good brain.”
But after hanging up her professional spikes in 1999, Luellen faced a crossroads. Her mother encouraged her to consider coaching and perhaps not coincidentally, to the daughter’s thinking, McNamara retired the same year. The ex-LPGA professional found herself interviewing for her mother’s job, and getting it.
“Which is stunning,” Luellen said. “Osmosis does not make a good coach. I was gone from it. I didn’t think about team golf. I didn’t think about any of it, and my mom did so many things by just gut instinct.”
Luellen survived, and learned, leading her alma mater to seven tournament titles and back-to-back Western Athletic Conference and NCAA Central Regional championships during her 2000-2002 tenure. When longtime Arizona State head coach Linda Vollstedt, a McNamara contemporary, retired, Luellen was contacted and succeeded Vollstedt in 2002.
Now in her 13th season in Tempe, her resume is beginning to mirror her mother’s.
“I think she’s fabulous,” McNamara said. “I always thought she would be.”
Under Luellen, the Sun Devils have won the 2009 NCAA Division I title and two Pac-10 titles. Arizona State’s Azahara Munoz won the 2008 individual Division I title.
"Looking back, now that I’ve been in coaching for a while, to see what she did -- to not always take the No. 1 players and make them into a great team -- she was really good at that,” Luellen said of her mother. “Just so much of what’s in their heart. We have different styles. We’re similar in some ways, but we have different styles.”
Calm and congenial -- “stubborn from the get-go,” Luellen admits -- her vision of the Arizona State program is “one of the best -- family. A lot of love. Fun. Just always creating and living in an environment that we choose.”
Citing her’s mother foundation of ethics and respect, Luellen calls Vollstedt and Dr. Debbie Crews, an Arizona State assistant research professor of exercise science and physical education, her other career mentors, particularly on the scholarly aspects of the game of golf.
“I think you still have to be so clear about where you want to go, and everything you do centers around that,” Luellen said of the pressure of Pac-12 golf, which fielded six of the nation’s top-10 ranked teams entering this week’s NCAA national. “The tournaments you play in, what kids you invite to your family. My assistant coach [Melissa Farr-Kaye] is a huge asset to me. And the competition is so tough out there. You get your heart broken several times in recruiting.”
Luellen and her older sister, Cathy, grew up in the sport, shuttled around in their mother’s golf cart. Per McNamara, Luellen didn’t play her first round until age 11, but quickly absorbed it. A brief high-school flirtation with tennis wasn’t enough to deter her.
“My mom would like to spend more time with me this week, and my sister -- I’d like to spend more time with her,” Luellen said. “But if anybody knows that the team comes first, it’s my mom.”
McNamara hosted a pizza party for the Sun Devils when they arrived Saturday. She also hosted other retired coaches on Tuesday night. Now 78, she lives with her eldest daughter in a restored 1935 Tulsa cottage and snow-birds with Luella in Arizona. Vision problems and the 2007 death of her husband, Cathy’s and Melissa’s dad, meant shredding the big family home.
“The girls said, ‘we’re taking over your life,’” McNamara recalled with a smile.
But she’s as fiery and enthusiastic as ever this week, decked out in Arizona State gold, black and garnet, and unabashedly partisan.
“The idea of someone taking a flag stick and slamming it on the green just infuriates me,” McNamara said. “Little things like that. ... because it is the most awesome sport in the world, and most difficult. You’ve got to have a lot of character to play it, and I’m hoping these coaches are teaching that.”
“That I take from my mom because she was vehement on etiquette,” Luellen said. “She pulled me off the golf course. I slapped my leg when I was 12, and she was like, ‘if you can’t behave, then you don’t get to play.’ Put me in the cart, took me in -- I cried, stewed, got mad.
“Thought about it. And I expect the same from my young ladies.”