Coaching Character: J.T. Higgins
USC men's golf head coach J.T. Higgins has never played competitive golf a day in his life.
"When I have free time, I don't spend it on a golf course," the Hall of Fame coach said.
Higgins has never enjoyed playing the game because his high expectations fuel frustration. He had planned on pursuing a career in basketball or baseball, both of which he competed in at Eastern Oregon University, but the time he has spent on a golf course has produced 27 All-American athletes, and counting.
It all started when Higgins was offered a $5,000 raise and a new car. He had been working in the sports information department for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, for football, men's basketball and men's golf when an assistant position opened up on the golf team. The head coach liked how Higgins treated golf like he did football and basketball and had a good rapport with the guys, so he offered Higgins the job. But Higgins was chasing a dream to work in sports PR for a professional baseball team, and he had never played golf at that level. The thought of coaching was crazy.
He said no three times until the final offer came in.
"A lot of my decisions early in my career were financially based. I was young, hungry and willing to work … [to] support my family," Higgins said. "They ended up being decisions that turned into doing things that I love –– working with the kids, recruiting, getting to know families and players."
They also resulted in four seasons as head coach at University of New Mexico before settling down at the helm of Texas A&M, where he made 17 NCAA tournament appearances in 19 years. Under Higgins, the Aggies sent nine players to pro tours and won the golf program's first national championship in 2009.
"I coach golf like I would coach a baseball or a basketball team," Higgins said. "It's a little bit different than more traditional coaches that grew up playing the game. But it works, so we go with it."
He uses the golf environment to teach men how to be leaders. Days start with early mornings in the weight room, and those workouts set the tone for Higgins' structured program. Ideally he never has to be the one to discipline, because his athletes hold each other accountable with honest communication.
"We don't know for sure if they're going to be PGA Tour players, but we do know that they're going to have to go out in the world and be leaders in the community. People are going to be counting on them, so we're trying to develop that as much as we are the golf," Higgins said.
hile he may not go to the driving range on a Sunday morning for fun, Higgins loves coaching. He finds joy in watching the game and helping his athletes achieve success by establishing a positive team culture, and he leaves the swing and other mechanics up to his assistant. Most of his success as a coach begins with his favorite part of the job — recruiting. The goal is to bring in the best in the world, and then fine tune them.
"If you're starting out with great players, you're not teaching them how to play golf. You're teaching them the way you want them to play golf which is much more mental, with course management and strategy, than it is physical," Higgins said.
Higgins has always had a knack for recruiting. His personable nature is what got him into coaching in the first place, and he can tell if guys have the attitude for his team or not. Once he has the right student-athletes in his program, Higgins works them hard and tests their toughness.
"We might not always be the most talented team, but we're going to fight you until the end," the three-time Conference Coach of the Year said.
Higgins' Aggies finished at No. 6 in the nation when COVID-19 cut the 2020 season short. They were regional champions in 2018 and 2019, and finished the NCAA tournament tied for fifth place both years. Higgins had planned to close out his career at the university that was home for almost two decades and even graduated his three children. There was more work to be done in College Station, Texas.
"The thing about A&M is that no one ever really leaves," Higgins said.
He thought he would be no exception, until USC offered him a chance to return to his California roots.
"I'm leaving my dearest friends in the world over there," Higgins said. "It was difficult, and I really think that USC is the only place that I would have even considered." He always knew he would return to California after growing up in West LA and moving to Idaho at 13 years old when his mom remarried. He keeps fond memories of running all over Culver City and Venice Beach.
As the USC men's golf head coach, he can now do what he loves in the place dearest to him.
"I don't think there's too many places like [USC] in the world," Higgins said. "[Student-athletes] compete at the highest level of collegiate golf and ... get a world-renowned education that will serve them well anywhere they go for the rest of their lives. Kids would be crazy not to at least consider USC if they had the opportunity."
He himself can't wait to be a Trojan. Higgins loves getting to know his players with normal day-to-day interactions and bonding over the 24/7 travel schedule in the spring, but the global pandemic has placed restrictions on team practices. For now, Zoom calls will have to do until he can return to the course and continue developing top tier talent and character.