News & Opinion

Gaston seeks to shift college power

If there were a Mount Rushmore of women’s college golf, Andrea Gaston likely would be part of it, alongside such legendary coaches as Arizona State’s Linda Vollstedt, Tulsa’s Dale McNamara and Duke’s Dan Brooks.

Gaston generated a jarring wave atop the usual tranquil waters of women’s college golf last week, leaving Southern California, a program that she had built into a women’s golf powerhouse in postcard-ready SoCal, for Texas A&M, a team that finished 13th out of 14 squads at this spring’s Southeastern Conference Championship.

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Andrea Gaston leaves Southern Cal and its NCAA-championship tradition to try to resolve this question: Why aren’t the best players coming to Texas A&M?

COURTESY OF UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
Andrea Gaston leaves Southern Cal and its NCAA-championship tradition to try to resolve this question: Why aren’t the best players coming to Texas A&M?

Gaston had been at USC for 22 seasons, and success seemed, well, almost automatic. The Trojans have made it to NCAA postseason play for 21 consecutive years, and they won three NCAA titles (2003, 2008, 2013) under Gaston’s watch. She coached five NCAA individual champions. Even this season, when two top players left school to turn pro after the fall schedule, Gaston guided an inexperienced cast of four freshmen and one sophomore into the match-play semifinals at the NCAA Division I Championship at Karsten Creek Golf Club in Stillwater, Okla. 

Given what challenges the Trojans overcame, Gaston would call 2017-18 “one of her favorite seasons,” and Golfweek named her its women’s college coach of the year. And now comes a completely different hurdle: Trying to build sustained success at Texas A&M, which parted ways with coach Trelle McCombs after failing to advance through an NCAA regional for a third consecutive year.

In the tiered, competitive landscape that is women’s college golf, USC and Texas A&M are separated by far more than the 1,500 miles between Los Angeles and College Station, Texas. That’s what makes Gaston’s move so intriguing. For one, it’s rare that established coaches jump programs in women’s golf, especially leaving a power program for an unproven one. (“This was a shocker, no question,” saidGolfweek’s Beth Ann Nichols, who follows the women’s college game as closely as anyone.) Gaston enjoyed the process of being recruited by Texas A&M athletic director Scott Woodward, and she is no stranger to the excellent golf facilities at A&M. She brought USC teams to College Station and highly touted Traditions Golf Club (designed by Jack Nicklaus and Jack Nicklaus II, opened in 2004) for an NCAA regional and for the 2011 NCAA finals, where the Trojans tied for fifth.

“I’ve always kind of wondered ... I thought the golf courses were fabulous and kept thinking, Why aren’t the best players coming to Texas A&M? It’s a great place,” Gaston told Texags.com, a website that covers the Aggies sports programs. (Gaston did not respond to a text from Morning Read requesting an interview.) I’m looking forward to that opportunity,” she said. “I know it’ll be a challenge.” 

That it will be. Gaston was the third significant hire for Woodward in seven months. He lured football coach Jimbo Fisher away from perennial power Florida State (in a deal reported to be for 10 years and $75 million) and hired Laura “Bird” Kuhn, an assistant from Kansas, as A&M's head women’s volleyball coach. She was part of a staff that transformed Kansas women’s volleyball into one of the nation’s top programs.

The financial resources of an SEC school abound at a place such as A&M, and the golf facilities are top-notch, but can Gaston reinvent her model of success at a school that may not be as aesthetically attractive to players as USC and the glitz of L.A.?

Then again, Gaston never has been one to back down from a challenge. After competing at San Jose State, Gaston left the game for 14 years because of putting woes. She figured things out with a new grip and in 1995, at age 37, turned professional. She had climbed the amateur ranks and was playing professionally on the Futures Tour when USC came calling with a coaching opening that she accepted. 

When Gaston’s move to Texas A&M initially was reported by Golf Channel last week, it moved one top women’s coach to quip, “Welcome to the real world.” The inference was that recruiting top players to a school in a rural and remote part of Texas will be an entirely different experience from her previous situation. 

Gaston’s immediate plan will be to get to know her new players and examine the culture of the existing program, study the team dynamic, and learn how the team was training and practicing. As she weighed pros and cons, leaving behind her young team at USC that had done all she’d asked was the most emotional part of the equation, and not easy. But after dealing head-on with life during the past couple of years – first helping take care of her late father, who had dementia, and then being diagnosed with uterine cancer in early 2017 – it was detected early, and she proudly says she is cancer-free – perhaps making a jump in jobs and addresses isn’t all that intimidating.  

“It’s a very exciting opportunity for me,” Gaston said. “I’ve had a lot of success at USC. I’m really proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish. But this is a tremendous opportunity to take my experience, wisdom and knowledge and to try to build another powerhouse at Texas A&M.”

Can she do it? Winning at A&M can only elevate Gaston’s legacy. The small but dedicated college golf universe will be watching, with great interest. 

Jeff Babineau is a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America who has covered golf since 1994, writing for such publications as The Orlando Sentinel, Golfweek and Golf World. Email: jeffbabz@att.net. Twitter: @jeffbabz62