Second youngest NCAA Division I coach makes history with debut season
Story and photos by Ryne Rickman
A new era of the UT Martin golf program began March 1 as head coach Austin Swafford (‘17) and the Skyhawks ventured to the Gulf Coast Collegiate in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. The tournament marked the head coaching debut for Swafford, who at age 26 is the second-youngest head coach in all of NCAA Division I golf (trailing only Wagner College’s
Nick Drago by 59 days). He joined Jerry Carpenter (2002-20) and Grover Page (1961-75, 1981-2002) as the only men to ever lead the UT Martin golf program.
The Skyhawks were nine shots better than any of the other 11 teams in the first round of the season-opening tournament, eventually taking home the team championship.
Two weeks later, UT Martin seized the team championship once again in its second tournament of the season – the Bobby Nichols Intercollegiate in Sevierville. The Skyhawks additionally boasted the individual winner, completing the sweep of the top hardware awarded for the event.
Fast forward to the National Intercollegiate held in Lake Oconee, Georiga, March 29-30 and there was UT Martin on top of the leaderboard once again, both in the team and individual standings. That included a record-setting individual round that had only been accomplished once before since the program joined the Division I ranks in 1992, as the Skyhawks took a remarkable 12-stroke lead into the final round.
The regular season ended with a bang as UT Martin won yet another tournament – claiming top status at the TSU Big Blue Intercollegiate, April 12-13.
History was made in the Skyhawks’ next tournament as UT Martin earned its second Ohio Valley Conference championship in school history, outlasting the 11-team field in the three- day, 54-hole event in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The Skyhawks not only claimed the top spot on the team leaderboard but on the individual side as well as UT Martin produced its fourth OVC medalist in the last seven years.
A league championship, five team tournament victories and three individual winners in seven tries to start Swafford’s coaching career. It’s safe to say that Skyhawk athletic director Kurt McGuffin made the right choice in tabbing the UT Martin alum to lead the program for many years to come.
“I truly believe that Austin is one of the top up-and-coming golf coaches in the country,” McGuffin said.
“When Coach Carpenter approached me with his intent to retire in the fall of 2019, we both instantly agreed on Austin as his successor. I’ve been here for four years now and I’ve never heard anybody say one bad thing about Austin. Given his vast knowledge of our program and his recruiting ties throughout the state of Tennessee, it really was a no-brainer to trust Austin to lead our golf program.”
Carpenter, who groomed Swafford as his coach-in-waiting during the 2019-20 season, echoed McGuffin’s sentiments about the former All-OVC honoree.
“I had worried for many years about finding a replacement for our program who would be a fit,” said Carpenter, who is still a part of the Skyhawk program as a volunteer assistant. “I knew we didn’t need someone to come in and try to re-invent our program – it is on a solid foundation. Austin was a natural as our next coach – I am thankful every day that he is our head coach.”
If you take a wide-range look into Swafford’s background, it may seem as if he was destined for the job. His father Larry is a golf pro and a retired member of the PGA of America while his mother, Cindy, is also an avid golfer. The two have been fixtures at Skyhawks golf tournaments since their son joined the program as a student-athlete in 2013, traveling thousands of miles to show their support.
“I have grown up around the game my whole life – I’ve had a golf club in my hand since I could walk,” Swafford said. “It’s something we did as a family growing up so that makes it special for me. There is no other sport like it – I find it fascinating how golf can be so different from one day to the next and how important the mental aspect can be for a player. I love that about the game and how it challenges you as a person.”
Following a standout career at Gallatin High School, Swafford found immediate success at the collegiate level – becoming just the second player in school history to win OVC Freshman of the Year accolades. A four-year starter, he helped UT Martin claim its first-ever OVC golf championship in 2016 and followed that with an All-OVC campaign as a senior.
After graduating with a degree in finance in 2017, Swafford stuck around to obtain his Master’s degree and start a dual graduate assistantship with the golf program and athletic marketing/Skyhawk Club offices.
It was during that two-year stretch where Swafford found the desire to be a coach.
“As I got older, I thought a career in collegiate athletics would be awesome but coaching never really crossed my mind until I was wrapping up my graduate assistant spot,” Swafford said. “This job has given me the opportunity to be around the game I love. I think about the people and coaches who have helped guide me to this point in my life and now I have a chance to impact the lives of younger players just as my coaches did for me.”
That chance for Swafford to pass along knowledge and life lessons to his current roster leads back to his relationship with Carpenter, who spent the previous 18 seasons at the helm of the UT Martin golf program.
“We have a great relationship,” Swafford said. “It was always a dream of mine to play golf in college and Coach Carpenter gave me that opportunity. He believed in me as a player, then as an assistant and now as a coach. He has done so much for our program and for myself – I would not be in this position today if it weren’t for him. I know that we both have the program’s best interest in mind and to me, that’s what coaching is all about – developing your players and setting them up for success on and off the course.”
Although Carpenter was already aware of Swafford’s abilities from his days as a student-athlete, he saw firsthand that Swafford had what it took to be a high-level coach.
“Austin always had outstanding demeanor on the course and possessed remarkable character both on and off the course,” Carpenter said. “During his second year as a graduate assistant, I asked him to develop some of our practices and I let him run the team in tournament competition. He did a first-class job.”
In addition to being the second-youngest Division I head golf coach in the country, Swafford was the second-youngest head coach in UT Martin history when he officially took over on July 1, 2020. Last season’s shadowing of Carpenter in all facets of the program allowed him to get a head start before the 2020-21 season got going. That paid off in a big way as Swafford was tabbed as the 2021 OVC Coach of the Year by his peers, becoming only the second man in league history to garner that award following an All-OVC mention as a student-athlete. He was also just the fourth first-year head coach (first since 1984) to earn that title in the 60-year history of the award.
“Being so young means I have a lot to learn,” Swafford said. “Last year helped tremendously simply by being on the coaching side of things and talking with other coaches. If there is any advantage with my age, I would have to say it is the ability to relate to the young men on the team. It wasn’t long ago that I was in their shoes and dealing with all that comes with being a student-athlete. So being able to share my personal experiences with them helps us grow as a team and a family, which gives us faith and trust in one another.”
Ross Redmont, a redshirt senior from Memphis, has a rare relationship with his head coach. He is one of three members of the Skyhawks’ active roster who spent time as Swafford’s teammate, playing alongside his coach from 2015-17. As a result of a medical redshirt and the NCAA granting an extra year of eligibility since last season was cut short because of the COVID-19 global pandemic, Redmont has received the opportunity to play under Swafford.
“You could always tell Austin was a leader,” Redmont said. “He was never the loudest person in the room, but you could tell everything he did was measured and deliberate. He is trustworthy and somebody you could go to for anything – he was going to tell you whatever you needed to hear whether you liked it or not. I think these qualities have helped make the transition from student- athlete to coach pretty easy.”
The conversion from player to graduate assistant to head coach has brought a new set of demands for Swafford. There are a lot of duties behind the scenes that go into each and every day.
“There’s a lot more to being a head coach than meets the eye,” Swafford said. “Most of the time we will leave on a Sunday morning and get home late on a Tuesday for our tournament. On top of that, we have to find time to practice and qualify for each tournament so it’s definitely a process. Most importantly, we have a strong academic reputation to uphold so I’m always monitoring our guys to make sure they are on top of their schoolwork. Just figuring out the best schedule and plan for each week that sets the team up for success has been the most challenging thing so far.”
Having been on both sides of it, Swafford offers a unique perspective in describing the nerves and raw emotions of playing in a collegiate golf tournament as opposed to coaching in one.
“As a player, I wanted to do well and have my score count to help the team,” Swafford said. “As a coach, I’m nervous for them because I want them to do well and have their hard work pay off. The nerves are still there but they are for wanting our players to succeed. As a coach, I do my best to stay calm and even-keeled throughout the tournaments. I try to never get too high or too low so hopefully the team can do the same.”
With that said, Swafford admits that his reaction to winning a tournament in his first try as a head coach may not have been so neutral. It was truly a moment he will never forget.
“I was thrilled for the team,” Swafford said. “It had been almost one full year since our last tournament, so to come out and have that happen at our first event was so awesome. The guys have embraced all the challenges of having last year cut short and then being postponed this fall. They have continued to work hard and prepare, so to see them be successful right out of the gate was very rewarding. We enjoyed it for 24 hours and then got back to work and started preparing for the next event.”
It’s that mentality to enjoy the moment but always keep your sights set on the future that has Swafford primed for success. Being his alma mater, holding the title of UT Martin head golf coach means a little extra to the Swafford. He’s made plenty of memories here, including meeting his fiancée Kristen Hutcherson (‘21) on campus. He and their golden retriever, Sadie, have adopted Martin as their new home for many years to come.
“The Martin community makes the college experience so meaningful,” Swafford said. “That was evident during my campus visit back in 2012 as a recruit and still is to this day. They just have a way of welcoming you and showing an interest in who you are and why you came to UT Martin. I think we have the facilities, resources and results to recruit just about anyone we like to come play golf here.”