A classy competitor: Tulsa coaching legend Dale McNamara dies at 86

Dale McNamara, who coached Tulsa to four national championships and was a pioneer of women’s college golf, died on Sunday. She was 86.

“An incredible mother, wife, coach, advocate, mentor and friend,” wrote McNamara’s daughter, Melissa Luellen, who is the head women’s golf coach at Auburn. “Never backed down to a challenge and would always fight for her girls – girls being my sister, Cathy, and me, and all of her Tulsa women’s golf players.

“She touched many lives and will live on in those she made a difference in.”

A native of Tulsa, Oklahoma, McNamara was a talented amateur player, winning the Oklahoma Women’s Amateur a record seven times, and loved college golf so much that despite Tulsa not having a women’s golf program when she was a student, she entered tournaments as an individual and became the school’s first women’s golfer to earn an athletic letter.

And when Tulsa finally added women’s golf, in 1974, McNamara volunteered to coach the team. When she accepted the position, not only did she not have a salary or office – her first desk sat in a hallway; she didn’t have players.

“The school didn't have any money for this,” McNamara recalled in 2018. “This was one of the hardships of adding new sports, but they knew it was the right thing to do.”

In 26 years as Tulsa’s coach, McNamara led the Golden Hurricane to four national championships, including the last AIAW Championship and first NCAA Championship, both in 1982, and five national runner-up finishes. McNamara’s squads amassed over 80 tournament titles and featured 28 All-Americans, most notably Hall of Famer Nancy Lopez, who was part of Tulsa’s first recruiting class.

McNamara's recruiting pitch to Lopez: Do you like challenges?

"Her personality was always excited; she was always up, positive, and I really liked that about her," Lopez said of McNamara in speaking a few years ago with Golf Channel.

McNamara once told Tulsa World that her coaching philosophy included the three A’s: atmosphere, attitude and ability; and the latter would not flourish without the first two.

“You need talented players, but there was more to it than that,” McNamara told the local newspaper in 2014. “I was always interested in their schoolwork, too, because I figured if they had all their academics in order and their game was good, that meant this was a young woman who had it all together. I knew the kind of girls that would flourish in our program. I recruited some that I knew we would butt-heads, too. But finding the right kind of people was very important to me. They had to fit. They had to have the right priorities.”

Legendary coach: Story of Dale McNamara

That included her daughter. In the early 1980s, Luellen was one of the top recruits in the country and highly sought after by several top programs, including Tulsa.

McNamara would often joke about the recruiting process: “I just told her she could have breakfast, or not.”

Adds Luellen: “She would tease me a little bit, like, ‘You want to go get a new outfit?’ And I'd be like, ‘Mom!’”

As legend goes, Luellen was on her visit to Stanford when she committed to the Golden Hurricane. The Cardinal were hosting a tournament that weekend, and Tulsa won.

“It took a while for me to decide whether it would even be good to recruit Melissa or not, whether it was the best thing for her,” McNamara would later explain. “And I thought, ‘Now that's ridiculous.’ We're sitting here with the No. 1 program in the country and if she wants to play for here, then that's it. … When Melissa came back [from Stanford], she said, ‘I've got the No. 1 program and I've got an awfully good golf coach and a great school. I'm coming to Tulsa.’”

Luellen called it a decision from the heart, and though her mom was tough on her as the coach’s kid, Luellen starred for Tulsa. As a senior, she led the Golden Hurricane to the 1988 NCAA Championship in Las Cruces, New Mexico, while also capturing individual title herself.

“She always was encouraging, would challenge me, would celebrate with me,” Luellen said. “She had it a lot harder than I did, and at the end of the day, I think she was a great mom and coach.”

Tulsa 1988
Tulsa 1988

Luellen still remembers the image of her mom and dad holding hands while walking down the fairway as she played her final hole at nationals in 1988.

"If they turned back and looked, I'm pretty sure they both had tears," Luellen said. "It was just a magical moment."

Dale met Jim McNamara during a rain delay at the 1957 Women’s North and South Amateur. Jim first introduced himself while Dale and a few friends were playing bridge in the clubhouse, and they danced so much that week that Dale blames her defeat on it.

“I made it to the semifinals and my legs just finally gave out on me, and I lost,” she told the Oklahoma Historical Society. “But I also had my first hole-in-one there.”

Jim McNamara, an estate planner, died in 2007.

“We were married for 47 years … had a great time – lots of fun, lots of golf together,” Dale said. “He helped me so much with the golf program. Just a heck of a time.”

When Dale retired in 2000, Luellen, who spent over a decade playing professionally, replaced her as Tulsa’s head coach. Since then, Luellen has gone on to have her own Hall of Fame coaching career, leading Arizona State to the 2009 NCAA Championship and more recently coaching Auburn to three straight NCAA match plays, including last year’s semifinals before losing to eventual national champion Stanford.

“We're in such a unique situation of being mother and daughter coaches, and national champions,” McNamara said in 2018. “It's a very rare thing. I told Melissa, it seems to me every time we take a breath, we end up making some history.”

Luellen's Tigers won the East Lake Cup last Wednesday with a dominating 5-0 victory over Texas A&M in the match-play final, which took place a day after McNamara, who had been battling cancer for a second time, was admitted to the hospital. Luellen strapped a stuffed version of Auburn's mascot, Aubie, to her golf cart. Aubie was wearing a sweater that McNamara had sewn.

"She's always there with me," Luellen told Golf Channel shortly after the win. "She just really taught me the ways of being a great competitor, always doing it with class and high etiquette; that was so important to my mom, and she handed it down to me, and now I'm handing it down to my players."

Aubie
Aubie

After coaching, McNamara remained heavily involved in the Tulsa community, notably with the Junior League of Tulsa, Gilcrease Museum and as a member of the Tulsa Park Board. Also, Tulsa's annual home women's golf tournament is named after McNamara.

Asked by the Oklahoma Historical Society last year how she’d like to be remembered, here was McNamara’s response:

“I would like to be remembered as loving what I’ve done and where I’m doing [it] and that hopefully some good has come out of it. … That saying that one does not live by golf alone – in other words, opening up to other people and other lives and other talents and so on has really meant a lot to me. It’s opened up opportunities that I would have never dreamed of. But it all started with golf and so many people involved with my life. And I’ve been involved with a lot of people and their lives, so it’s a wonderful circle.”

A celebration of McNamara's Life is planned for Nov. 28 at 3 p.m. at Sharp Chapel in Tulsa. In lieu of flowers, the family has requested that donations be made in McNamara's honor to Tulsa's women's golf program.