Meet Jake Harrington, the coach leading UNM golf back to the NCAA Championship

May 23—In the mid 2000s, UNM men's golf coach Jake Harrington had all but turned in his tees for ties when he received a phone call that would change his career trajectory.

The path has led Harrington and the Lobos to the brink of a national championship. UNM will be one of 30 teams teeing off Friday at OMNI La Resort and Spa in Carlsbad, California.

The phone call that would ultimately keep Harrington on the golf course came from his former college head coach, T.L. Brown. South Mountain Community College in Phoenix was going to need a new coach soon and Brown thought Harrington, a former golfer for the Cougars, would be a perfect fit.

There was one catch, though: Harrington sent one of his six siblings, Daniel, to play for Brown, then the head coach at South Mountain. If he ended up getting the job, Harrington would be a first-time coach trying to figure out how to run a program — with a potentially unhappy brother in tow. It wasn't hard to see how things could go wrong, so Harrington picked up the phone.

"I said, 'Daniel, this is your team,'" Harrington remembered in an interview conducted with the Journal in October. '"This is what's happening. They want me to throw my name in the hat. But if you don't want me, I won't — because it's your team.'

"And he was all for it."

If he said no, there's a chance Harrington never would've gone to South Mountain, where he won three NJCAA national titles over six seasons. Or that he wouldn't have parlayed that success into a historic, painstaking rebuild at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock.

Or that Harrington, the Mountain West Coach of the Year, would have the Lobos back in the NCAA Championship for the second straight year, another in a career he wasn't initially sure he wanted.

"You can never take it for granted," he said in a media session on Tuesday. "You can't take tomorrow for granted — we're not promised tomorrow ... but, you know, we're gonna be ready to go. And we know how hard it is, but we're gonna enjoy this journey as well."

Few know the importance of that better than Harrington.

Raised in Phoenix, Harrington was coming off his freshman year at Utah Valley University when his body gave out during a year-long mission in Ecuador. At 6-foot-5, Harrington couldn't stand for longer than a half hour without collapsing; doctors later found that he developed an allergy to bananas, likely due to a virus he contracted abroad.

Upon returning home, Harrington was completing physical therapy when his younger brother, David, grabbed his green and yellow Utah Valley golf bag bearing the older Harrington's name — "a hideous bag," he remembered — to go play a round. Brown was out that day and recognized the name, if not the face.

Upon finding out he wasn't actually speaking to the older Harrington, Brown started to ask questions:

"Well, what's he doing?" Brown asked.

"He's at home and he can't really walk right now," the younger Harrington responded.

"Well, tell your brother when he walks, he's playing for me."

Harrington played one season under Brown at South Mountain and finished his collegiate career at now-defunct Holy Names (California) University. His brief dreams of turning professional were abandoned after his financial backers "disappeared." Even with that disappointment, he found himself with a greater perspective on golf — if not life.

"That's part of what I feed into these guys as a coach, just expectation management and understanding that, at the end of the day, it's a game," he said. "All those things — like it's just a shot, so just go hit the shot."

After Harrington completed his master's degree through the University of Phoenix, Brown reached back out. At the time, Harrington wasn't far removed from being turned down for positions with the CIA and Border Patrol but a promising career in industrial supply sales was beckoning. He wasn't sure if he would even apply until a phone conversation with his dad swayed him.

"He goes, 'all these jobs you're trying to do (are) because you want to make a difference ... 17- to 22-year-old boys, (that's) when they become men," Harrington remembered. "And that is the most difference you can make in somebody's life.' And I said, 'dad, you know what, you're right.'"

Harrington was eventually offered and accepted the job, and success came in droves: South Mountain won three national titles in 2010, 2012 and 2013. But even with a top-ranked program for five years running, he struggled to gain traction with Division I schools for head and assistant coach jobs until the University of Arkansas-Little Rock came calling in 2013.

Harrington was tabbed as the Trojans' third head coach in as many years, inheriting a talented but uncommitted roster.

"They figured I'm gonna be gone the next year as well — what's the difference for me?" he remembered. "They may have a fourth coach ... (but) I didn't want those guys to have a fourth coach in four years. "And so going through that, it was tough, but it was worth it."

Harrington's steady rebuild eventually culminated with the program's first NCAA Championship appearance in 2021, the fruits of a dramatic comeback that saw all five Trojans birdie the final hole of an NCAA Regional to earn a qualifying spot. About two years later, he was hired to replace a close friend in Glen Millican at UNM.

Three years later, he's back in the NCAA Championship.

"We've won (two) times, we've had four runner-up finishes (this season)," he said on Tuesday. "But the season just started again this week."