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How UALR Coach Jake Harrington’s competitive fire has fueled his Trojans to a 3rd straight NCAA regional

by Mitchell Gladstone | May 15, 2023 at 3:13 a.m.
The University of Arkansas-Little Rock will play in its third straight NCAA regional under Coach Jake Harrington (left) after going without a postseason trip between 2001 and 2021. (Courtesy of UALR Athletics)

Jake Harrington, then 27, hopped in his car for the 26-mile trip across Phoenix in May 2008. He cut north through the city before heading west on Interstate 10 to Palm Valley Golf Course in Goodyear, Ariz.

Harrington, in his first year at South Mountain Community College in Phoenix, had missed out on that year's National Junior College Athletic Association Division II Championship. But he was going to watch it live.

Fifteen years later, Harrington admits he tortured himself over those four days.

"I wanted to have that feeling of disgust," Harrington explained to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette earlier this month.

That feeling stayed with him for the next five years, a run in which South Mountain won three national titles while finishing third in 2009 and as runner-up in 2012, before making the jump to the University of Arkansas-Little Rock in 2013.

In the decade since, he's molded the Trojans with his competitive fire at their core, lifting UALR from the bottom half of Division I into the nation's top 50. This week, the Trojans will play in their third straight NCAA regional, eyeing the program's second-ever trip to nationals at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz. -- only miles from the places where Harrington spent much of his first 32 years of life.

UALR's success is first and foremost a product of the young men striking the ball. But it's easy to imagine many of them competing somewhere other than central Arkansas if not for the man helming the Trojans.

"He's just as competitive as the rest of us," UALR senior Jansen Smith said of Harrington. "He wants to show up to a tournament and beat everybody and make them remember Little Rock."

Big shoes

Harrington, now 42, didn't intend to become a golf coach. He'd played at South Mountain during the 2001-02 season before finishing his undergrad degree at Holy Names University in Oakland, Calif.

He then got his master's degree while trying to land a job as an undercover agent, interviewing over several months with the Border Patrol and CIA, ultimately hoping to end up with the FBI.

When life in the intelligence community didn't pan out, Harrington turned his sights to a sales job that would've taken him to Puerto Rico when T.L. Brown, his former coach at South Mountain, called in summer 2007.

Brown was leaving for the head coaching job at Chico State (Calif.) and wanted someone to build on the program he'd established from next to nothing -- including a 2004 national title and multiple runner-up finishes.

Brown tapped Harrington, one of his former players, as a potential successor. And Harrington's father told him he'd be an idiot if he didn't take the job.

"He goes, 'All you want to do is make a difference,' " Harrington said, recalling the conversation with his dad. " 'Seventeen-to-22-year-old boys, that's when they become men. The biggest difference you're going to make in anybody's life is as a coach.' "

South Mountain wanted to make Harrington the interim head coach. He countered and asked for the full-time job, telling the school it could fire him in a year while explaining he couldn't effectively recruit if prospects didn't believe he'd stick around.

And off he went.

"Everybody told him, 'Hey, you've got to fill [big] shoes,'" Brown said. "He was like, 'I'm going to take this program to the next level.'"

A half-decade later in 2012, Harrington was already in the mix for Division I head coaching jobs. He was a finalist for UALR's job but was passed over in favor of Chris Greenwood, who spent just one year with the Trojans.

When UALR went through the hiring process again in 2013, then-Athletic Director Chris Peterson already knew who he wanted. Harrington had more than proved himself at the junior college level, had established relationships around the globe as Team USA's coach at the Toyota Junior Golf World Cup and had a blueprint to get the Trojans on track in five or six years.

The UALR job had plenty of things that might have turned most coaches off. Harrington relished the Trojans' status as a relative unknown in the golf world and that the job didn't come with the cachet of being a big-time athletic program.

"This is a school that weeds out those guys that just want to come to have a name brand," Harrington said. "Guys here want to play golf and they want to be professional golfers, and that's what I love."

'The power of a team'

The Trojans' breakthrough took a little longer than Harrington perhaps planned. They were still hovering around the middle of the Sun Belt Conference into the 2019-20 season when the coronavirus pandemic cut their campaign short.

Then came 2020-21. UALR finished second in the Sun Belt in stroke play, reached the finals against Georgia Southern, and despite a loss, earned an at-large bid to the NCAA regional in Stillwater, Okla. -- the program's first postseason appearance since 2001.

It was already a momentous accomplishment in the program's ascent under Harrington. Yet, the Trojans managed to take things one step further.

All five players birdied the 18th hole at Karsten Creek Golf Club, lifting UALR into fifth place and a spot at nationals.

Although the Trojans finished last among the 30 teams at the national championship, it set up what was to come from Harrington and Co.

UALR brought in Smith, a transfer from Texas Tech, and continued to mine gems from abroad like sophomores Matteo Cristoni from Modena, Italy and Archie Smith from Reading, England.

The Trojans have now won back-to-back conference titles -- last year in the Sun Belt, this year in the Ohio Valley -- and will be playing in an NCAA regional for a third straight season after finishing one spot out of a return trip to nationals last May in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

As much as recruiting and schedule-building were the key tenets of Harrington's initial plan for UALR a decade back, he also identified a culture that wasn't right. Fifth-year senior Anton Albers has seen that evolve through "all the little things" the Trojans now do.

"Practicing together as a team, showing up at the same time, leaving at the same time, not having anyone left behind or not accepting that anyone would show up late for something," Albers said.

"Having the power of a team that is working together and working towards one goal as a team, not just having five players going for individual titles, I think that's what is a huge difference when you look at us."

That team approach is a direct result of Harrington, who prides himself on building relationships.

"There's no better thing to be called besides husband or father than to be called a coach," he said. "With that, I want to be one of the first calls when they have children, when they get married. I want to be at their wedding, I want to be able to celebrate their life accomplishments, and that's every single person that I've recruited -- even people that don't come here."

Those connections enable Harrington to find his players' breaking points, then push them beyond that, knowing they understand his intentions. It's Harrington's competitive fire at work, although he's learned how to channel that passion in high-stakes moments.

UALR is in a field of 13 teams that includes No. 3 Illinois, 10th-ranked Florida and No. 15 Texas. Not like a deep pool of talented opposition is going to stop Harrington from believing in his team.

"I want it bad for me, I want it bad for them," Harrington said. "I just want to validate what we've done here, and to me, people still overlook us. They shouldn't, but they do.

"It's nice to go to a regional and get announced. But how sweet would it be to win a regional? That's the message to the guys: Let's go win."

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