VanDamme finally getting his shot

BROOKINGS, S.D. – Casey VanDamme is finally getting a chance to lead a team, and it appears the feeling is mutual that employer and coach have found the right it.

VanDamme, a Perkins native, was recently introduced as the the second men and women’s golf head coach in program history at South Dakota State University.

VanDamme comes to the Jackrabbits amidst much fanfare. He was the directory of instruction and player development at the University of Tennessee, one of the premier college golf program’s, for the last five seasons under head coach Jim Kelson, but as VanDamme said, the SDSU offer was a position he aspired to.

“It’s a big opportunity. An opportunity to be a head coach,” VanDamme said Thursday when reached by phone. “There’s very few places that can offer a small-town feel, like we’re used to in the U.P., with big time athletics and resources. I wasn’t looking hard but my wife and I were looking at specific things – good schools, a good community.

“I was fortunate to be an assistant at Knoxville, but I feel I found a special place at SDSU. It came out of the blue to be honest.”

VanDamme said it was SDSU that contacted him, based on his work with the Volunteers at Tennessee.

“A friend told me about the position, but I thought the job was already filled,” VanDamme said. “I talked to someone and then they contacted me.

“We’ve had some success at Tennessee. Jim Kelson the head coach there is a great guy. He gave me a lot of responsibility. If people were looking at an assistant, I was one of the last one’s standing. Five years is pretty long to be an assistant.”

The Jackrabbits were thrilled to announce the hire. One can feel the excitement reading the lengthy press release on the school’s website, which quotes a number of people including Becky Iverson and a former athlete VanDamme coached at UT. South Dakota State was specially looking for someone to lead their rising golf program who understood the challenges of playing in a northern climate and had the teaching ability to refine an athlete’s game.

“I would rank Casey as one of the world’s premier instructors. One of Casey’s greatest strengths is his ability to enact significant change in a player’s technique through subtle and simplistic instruction,” Kelson said in the press release. “Additionally I felt Casey was an exception coach as it related to on-course instruction. I have told several individuals that I felt like Casey could caddy for Tiger Woods. I think he is that good at course management.”

VanDamme excitedly described the outstanding facilities at South Dakota State as well as the people he works with.

“They were Division 2 until 2007 when the became D-1. South Dakota’s economy has been booming for the last 6-7 years and North Dakota State and South Dakota State both went D-1 at the same time. It’s a little bit of an arms race,” said VanDamme.

“They just built the largest indoor football practice facility with a track here. There’s a lot of money here and they want to be relevant in D-1 sports. It’s an exciting time to come here.

“The campus is really cool. There’s 12,000 students, so not too big or small. The basketball arena which my office overlooks is a cool little place, but what impressed me isn’t the campus but the people, and the people running it. They’ve done incredible things raising money. It’s a professional staff with a cool vision for golf. It’s going to be a neat thing to be on the ground floor of.”

Leaving Tennessee didn’t come easy for VanDamme after having much success in Knoxville. He had many opportunities there, including coaching Mike Nagy of Manistique, who he’s watched grow up through the game of golf.

“It was a really hard decision. I consider Mike like a little brother. I’ve known him since he as 10 years old,” said VanDamme. “Tennessee is the best place for Mike to be. I know he’ll do well. I talked with him before making the decision. He understands that it’s the best thing for my family and I. He’ll do just fine and I’m only a phone call away, and he can call anytime. But it wasn’t just Mike. I had close relationships with a lot of the guys there. It’s always something where it’s never going to be a good time if you’re going to leave.”

VanDamme outlined a number of adjustments and challenges for him as he segues from one of the top Division-1 programs to a school that’s still closer to the beginnings of their program.

“One obvious difference is the budget,” he said. “At Tennessee, not that there’s not a budget, but money is never a consideration when you’re doing things. Here, there is a little bit, but on the other hand, the money and boosters here are pretty incredible as well.”

Another obvious difference is the change in climate, whereas the golf season in South Dakota is more in line with the season in the Upper Peninsula rather than the warm weather climate of Tennessee.

“Part of the reason they wanted me here is there’s very few golf instructors, maybe a handful that are used to being in a northern climate. It’s seen as a disadvantage but I think I can flip that to being an advantage,” VanDamme said. “You have time to work on your game and make skill improvements. When you’re playing hard to do those things, you’re worried about your score the next day. I think that’s what sets me apart.

“I’ll have more time to work on individual skill development. Number one, players won’t be as good as at UT. With Nagy we didn’t try to change too much. He’s really good, it was more mental. Here, there’s less technical work for these young men and women, so I get to work on that a little more and build their technique. By not playing for a month, you can really do that because there’s nothing else to do. You can grind on that and make bigger improvements.”

The golf culture in South Dakota has already made an impression on VanDamme with many quality courses in the area.

“Brookings Country Club is an amazing course,” he said. “We play all over the state and the region. There’s a nice course 40 minutes away in Marshall, Minn. and Sioux Falls is 40-45 minutes away and has every type of golf course. It’s a really good golfing area about the size of Green Bay.”

VanDamme was in the midst of his first week at SDSU Thursday and it’s already been eventful with the new head coach contacting recruits around the clock and attending meetings. The golf season begins at the end of the month and players will be arriving shortly. VanDamme couldn’t hide his excitement for the program and the University’s athletic program in general.

“(South Dakota State) is an up and comer,” he said. “I don’t think people want to play them in football and basketball. They’re hungry”