Coaching changes don't seem to be made very often at UCLA. David M. Atchison is only the school's third head coach in men's golf since it became a team sport in 1948.
Nevertheless, when Atchison took over from Eddie Merrins in July, it was still considered a radical departure from tradition. Atchison, who was head coach at UC Santa Barbara for the past seven years, will be UCLA's first full-time men's golf coach.
UCLA's first men's golf coach, Vic Kelley, served from 1948 through 1974, but he had to squeeze in time for the team when he was not attending to his full-time job as UCLA's sports information director. He retired from sports publicity in 1981 and is currently director of the UCLA Athletic Hall of Fame.
Merrins, who was with UCLA from 1975 through this season, served as a volunteer coach (unpaid, that is) and gave Bruin golfers as much attention as he could spare from his full-time job as head pro at Bel-Air Country Club, five minutes from the UCLA campus. And he gave the team a lot of attention.
It would probably be accurate to say that Merrins, known as the Little Pro because of his small stature (5-7), worked full time at three jobs for the last 14 years. He not only taught and supervised at Bel-Air, but he also did a yeoman's job of raising the money to make golf a first-rate program and brought UCLA its only NCAA golf championship in 1988.
But the UCLA job took up more time as the years passed, he said, and he thought it would be a good idea this year to "turn it over to a fellow like Dave, who can devote his full time and energy to it."
Merrins said he will remain as executive director of the Friends of College Golf, which raises money not only for the UCLA team but also for other college programs. He said that he recommended Atchison for the head coaching job.
Atchison, 35, seems confident about the future of UCLA men's golf--and he has good reason. Merrins leaves Atchison with a full cupboard.
Four of five regulars will return from the UCLA team that finished eighth in this year's NCAA championships: Rob Sullivan, Ken Tanigawa, Scott Schrader and Greg Garbero. Three other lettermen will also be back: Steve Haynes, Kent Weise and Tim Cruikshank. Clinton Whitelaw of South Africa and Judge Little of Mississippi, top junior players recruited by Merrins, will be freshmen.
Atchison also raided the cupboard at UC Santa Barbara. He said that Patrick Brownfield, UCSB's No. 1 player as a freshman last season and a second-team All-Big West Conference selection, is transferring to UCLA and will be a redshirt next year. He said Southern California prep stars Kevin Claborn of Brea-Olinda High and Tom Nixon of Loyola High, whom he recruited for the Gauchos, will instead follow him to UCLA.
He doesn't think that UC Santa Barbara athletic officials have hard feelings toward him because the three players had decided to go to UCLA instead of UCSB.
"They looked at me as a bonus up there. I was a full-time coach but was paid as if I were a part-timer. I took (the team) from what was basically a club program to a very strong national ranking. We were ranked 18th nationally one year.
"They weren't angry because I also did a lot of fund raising and the recruiting and gave golf lessons (on campus in addition to his teaching chores in a couple of courses). I turned B players into A players."
Atchison thinks his task at UCLA will be more like making A-plus players out of a straight-A team.
"I have a real good young squad to build on," he said, and perhaps more time to build than Merrins could spare from his duties at Bel-Air. He said that he will be able to supervise every team practice and to attend every tournament, and "I think that will make a big difference in their performance."
Atchison, 35, did not want to appear brash and acknowledged that Merrins had been a master builder at UCLA. Before the Little Pro came to UCLA, the Bruins had never been to the NCAAs as a team; under Merrins, UCLA went to the nationals 10 times.
But a building with strong foundations and a handsome facade can always use a good interior designer, and Atchison thinks he can add some finishing touches.
How can the team improve? By striving for more consistency, he said. "We ought to win two to four tournaments a year and finish among the top three or four teams the majority of the time. The consistency level I'm looking for is the type achieved by (college powers such as) Oklahoma State and Arizona State."
Born in Austin, Tex., but a resident of Santa Barbara since he was 5, Atchison has worked consistently in--and at--golf since he was a youngster.
He lettered not only in golf but in football and basketball at Dos Pueblos High School. He was a member of the golf team at the University of Wisconsin, where he majored in business administration, and he attended two business schools run by the Professional Golfers Assn. He has been a teaching professional since 1976 and was the head pro for two years at Ocean Meadows Golf Course in Goleta.