Dan Brooks prefers a different measure of success than the obvious comparison.
“I seriously do not like conversations that go there, that go between Coach K and me,” says Brooks, inducted earlier this month into Duke’s sport hall of fame. “At the same time that I’m proud of what we’ve done and take nothing away from my program, I don’t put us in the same category. I just don’t.”
Still, it’s hard to resist pointing out that the six NCAA titles achieved by his women’s golf squads exceed the total of any coach in Duke history, including the man who made Cameron Indoor Stadium a national sports landmark. For further perspective note that, with 18 ACC titles in 32 years, Brooks’ teams arguably have dominated conference competition more thoroughly if less famously than those of Mike Krzyzewski, credited with 13 ACC basketball championships in 36 seasons.
Brooks’ reticence to contrast achievement in his decorous sport with the hurly burly of high-level basketball isn’t a matter of false modesty. Rather, it’s a realistic appraisal of the far greater pressures and demands with which Krzyzewski has contended for decades. Good coaches temper aspiration with sober analysis; the low-key Brooks is quite content to simply savor the “incredible hard work by my players” that fuels the remarkable success of his golf program.
Duke’s national titles came across three decades: in 1999, 2002, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2014. Last season’s team reached the NCAA semifinals.
Brooks has coached a wealth of extraordinary players, among them Brittany Lang, winner of the 2016 U.S. Women’s Open; sophomore Virginia Elena Carta, the 2016 NCAA women’s individual national champion; and junior Leona Maguire, the world’s No. 1-ranked amateur golfer. His teams produced 24 All-Americas including national college players of the year Liz Janangelo, Amanda Blumenherst, Lindy Duncan, Celine Boutier and Maguire. Blumenherst recently suspended her LPGA career; Maguire is expected to go pro soon.
“He’s not only an amazing coach, he’s also an amazing leader and an amazing role model,” Blumenherst, these days a Golf Channel analyst, says of Brooks. Under his tutelage, the Blue Devils won an NCAA-record 125 tournaments entering their 2016-17 season, which began this weekend. The previous career mark for tournament wins by a coach was 91.
Along the way Brooks has won six national and 14 ACC coach of the year awards, and in 2001 was elected to the National Golf Coaches Association Hall of Fame. “I certainly wouldn’t put myself as the cause of it,” says the Oregon native. “It’s the people that are doing it that win you the awards.”
Lately, Brooks’ corps of players has taken on a uniquely international flavor – this is the fourth consecutive season every team member hails from outside the United States. Over the past half-decade 10 different nations were represented on the Duke roster, which Brooks normally limits to five or six players. The six women on the current squad hail from India, Ireland, Italy, Slovenia and South Korea.
Brooks insists his group of gifted global golfers coalesced as much by happenstance as design. Word-of-mouth did much of the work to attract top players, an ideal scenario for a coach. He’s taken just three overseas recruiting trips to date.
“A lot of my recruiting I do by listening to the players that are on my team,” Brooks says. “They tell me who they think is good, who they like to be around. I can find out whether somebody’s a good player or not, but they tell me about character. And since they’re foreign, they’re going to know people who are foreign. So it just becomes a foreign team after a while.”
Despite ambient unease about non-Americans entering the U.S., Brooks is unapologetic about his roster’s worldly composition.
“Philosophically, I believe in diversity. I think it strengthens us as a country, and so I have no problem bringing foreigners on my team,” he says. “Yes, that scholarship doesn’t go to some American kid. But, in a little bit bigger scale, we gave a person from another country a chance to see what we’re about here, and if we’re really proud of who we are then let’s have some messenger, let’s have somebody be here for four years and be the messenger for us.”
Needed a job
Brooks, 58, describes his background as “one of those sort of left-leaning kind of guys who were going to change the world,” but did nothing about it. Armed with a history degree and considerable student debt after a golf career at Oregon State, he insists he “just wandered into the golf business because I needed the job.” He wanted to be a teacher, and in the process learned to love coaching.
A key understanding was how women are apt to process setbacks on the golf course. “When somebody’s mentally not where they belong, not where they need to be, it’s going to be less obvious on the women’s side,” Brooks says. “You’ll learn to see the signs. They’ll tend to be more down than more visibly angry. Being down doesn’t help you any more than being visibly angry. In fact, anger is a better way to be. Down is a killer.”
Brooks has been reading the signs as Duke’s head coach since he was 25. “I’m not married, don’t have any kids. This is the shooting match for me,” he says of his program. “Raising kids starts at age 17 or 18 for me, and ends at age 22 or 23.”
That parental attention is appreciated by players residing so far from home. Gurbani Singh, from New Dehli, India, cites Brooks’ willingness to drive a teammate to the airport at 3:30 a.m. on a recent Saturday as indicative of his supportive nature. “I think he really cares and he’s really invested in his job,” she says, “and he always goes beyond what’s expected of him.”
Brooks notes that golf’s norms afford players comfort within familiar bounds, easing the transition to life in a foreign land. Teammates are mutually supportive as well, their status as outsiders a common denominator. “We talk about how it’s done differently in each of our countries and make fun of our accents, stupid things like that,” Singh says.
Like most teams, needling each other helps the bonding process. “We try to keep the humor as light as possible,” observes Lisa Maguire, Leona’s twin sister. “We spend a lot of time together, so we know each other pretty well, we know where each other’s weak spots are, and where we can poke for a little fun, especially on the long van rides.”
Where to eat, a matter decided by majority rule, is a frequent source of discussion. Asian and Italian meals tend to predominate, Singh says. “We don’t go for Indian food much,” she laments.
Brooks observes that players often arrive from overseas with preconceived views of Americans that find confirmation in the ubiquity of large, gas-guzzling vehicles and the hefty food portions routinely served at restaurants. “They just can’t believe the plates that are laying in front of them,” he says with a chuckle.
The stereotypes cut both ways. Residents of Ireland eat more than potatoes, beef and cabbage, Lisa Maguire gently insists. Such pigeon-holing has not colored her experience here, however. “Everyone has been very hospitable, very welcoming,” she says. “We couldn’t ask for more.”