Their turns: Trio of top assistants get their chances to lead their own programs

·15 min read

The month of June was a big month for three of the top assistant golf coaches in the country.

Arizona State’s Armen Kirakossian, Pepperdine’s Blaine Woodruff and Texas’ Jean-Paul Hebert were all hired as head coaches – Kirakossian at UCLA, Woodruff at Chattanooga and Hebert most recently at UNLV.

All three were past finalists for the Jan Strickland Award, given annually to the best assistant coach in country. Kirakossian won the award in 2019 while Hebert received the honor a year later.

Now, after learning under highly successful head coaches, it’s their turns to lead programs.

Kirakossian
Kirakossian

MORE THAN A DECADE before being named the head coach at UCLA, Armen Kirakossian was a young, aspiring professional golfer. One summer day in 2014, he was driving home to McAllen, Texas, back from a mini-tour event near Dallas with his wife, Ale, when his phone rang. On the other line was Chris King, the athletic director at his alma mater, Texas-Pan American, where Kirakossian graduated in 2010 and was currently serving as a volunteer assistant coach.

During Kirakossian’s senior year, King had made a comment that Kirakossian would make an excellent coach one day. This time, he was calling to offer Kirakossian the head-coaching job.

“I was like, ‘Thanks, but no thanks,’” Kirakossian said.

But after Kirakossian hung up the phone, he had second thoughts. He quickly dialed back King, and said, “I’d love the job if it’s still available.”

It was. Less than a month before the start of the fall semester, Kirakossian was hired.

“Originally, I was thinking I could play with the guys and maybe get back into playing competitively again after a few years of coaching,” Kirakossian said. “Really after about six months I was just hooked on coaching. I hung up my clubs competitively, and I was never going back.”

In his first season at Texas-Pan American, a Division-I program that has since merged to become Texas-Rio Grande Valley, Kirakossian coached an individual to a WAC title and NCAA regional appearance. Freshman Nicolas Platret of France led the regional in Lubbock, Texas, entering the back nine before tying for 14th to miss out on an NCAA Championship berth.

The instant success caught the attention of Pepperdine head coach Michael Beard, who ended up reaching out to Kirakossian after the season and hiring him during his interview. Kirakossian spent two seasons at Pepperdine, before being hired as the assistant under Matt Thurmond at Arizona State, where he’d been up until taking the UCLA job.

Kirakossian soaked up both experiences under two coaching stalwarts, and he was named the nation’s top assistant in 2019 while helping Arizona State to the NCAA final this past season. He’s learned from Thurmond’s ability to bring out the best in people, whether it’s his top player, or No. 10 player, or assistant coach. And he’s learned from Beard the importance of conveying a vision for a program’s success and finding the right fits to fulfill that vision.

“When I interviewed at Pepperdine, they had been ranked 80th the season before, but you would’ve already thought they were a top-5 team,” Kirakossian recalls.

He hopes to recreate that feeling at UCLA, where he replaces retired head coach Derek Freeman, who led the Bruins to the 2008 NCAA title in his first year as head coach. Kirakossian has already reached out to current and former Bruins to pick their brains about what made their teams successful and their college experiences memorable. Keeping former UCLA player Patrick Murphy on as his assistant was crucial as well.

“I know finding those right fits are super important,” Kirakossian said, “and I’ve gotta get that right.”

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Kirakossian, who is half-Armenian and whose wife is Guatemalan, has always appreciated diversity of cultures within a program. He arrives at UCLA, which boasted players from five different countries last season, including Spain, Mexico, Japan and China. At Arizona State, he’s learned the importance of diversity, and he’s prepared with how to coach players with different backgrounds.

Though he’s determined to quickly turnaround a program that has advanced to nationals just once in the past five years and finished last season ranked 81st in Golfstat, he's got one simple short-term goal for his team: to ensure that his players’ time at UCLA is the best time of their lives.

“If guys are really enjoying competing, really enjoying their time at UCLA, they’re really have good relationships, then the golf will get better,” Kirakossian said. “Winning is a big part of that, and that might take some time, but in the meantime, we want guys to have the best experience possible. … Obviously, we’d like to also get back to the NCAA Championship. We need to get back on the biggest stage. That’s super important for the program. That will increase the relevancy again and put UCLA and L.A. golf back on the map.”

And with that, Kirakossian’s interview was over. In just a few hours, he’d be on a flight to New York for one of the top AJGA invitationals of the year, the Polo Golf Junior Classic at Bethpage Black.

His first recruiting trip by plane, and one of his first chances to find those proper fits for the future of UCLA golf.

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IT WASN’T LONG AFTER Pepperdine had lost to Arizona State in the NCAA semifinals that reality finally set in for Blaine Woodruff.

The Waves assistant, who was hired in 2018 and helped build Pepperdine into a national power again, had already accepted the head-coaching job at Chattanooga. He and his wife, Katie, an assistant for the USC women’s team, had finished moving their belongings into their new home as well.

But as far as official announcements went, Woodruff chose to wait until the Waves’ season was over.

“Anytime I thought about what I wanted to go ahead and do and begin here [at Chattanooga], I just wrote it down on a piece of paper and put it to the side because I wanted to be fully engaged with the team we had [at Pepperdine],” Woodruff said. “I felt like we had a legit chance to win again, so I didn’t want anything that I did to be a distraction to those guys. Having a chance to win another national championship, it’s so rare to have that opportunity.”

When Pepperdine’s bid for a repeat came up two victories short, Woodruff and the rest of the Waves gathered on Grayhawk’s practice green and let their emotions out.

“There were a lot of tears shed on that practice green,” Woodruff said. “I just remember us standing there as a group – Michael’s crying, I’m crying, the guys are crying; it just hit me all at once that that was it.”

Woodruff and his wife, who met during Woodruff’s time at Pepperdine, didn’t even fly back to Los Angeles after the defeat, instead immediately starting their next chapter by hopping on a plane to Nashville, Tennessee, and then driving down to Chattanooga. Woodruff is familiar with the area; he grew up in Acworth, Georgia, less than two hours south, and his parents still live there.

So, he knew how crazy the city is about amateur golf, including the Mocs program.

“That was part of the reason why this job was so attractive to me,” Woodruff said. “But being here now, it’s even more than I expected. It’s been really cool the amount of support in the community. Everyone’s excited about the future of the golf program here.”

Woodruff’s first order of business has been getting to know the current players, though it’s been a challenge as he’s only been able to talk with them over the phone. He’s eager to get everyone in the same room, figure out the team dynamic and how it can be improved, and establish a standard and expectation for being great.

He's learned from one of the best at doing just that in Pepperdine head coach Michael Beard, who from the day Woodruff was hired gave his assistant every opportunity to prepare himself for this next step.

“When I first got the job at Pepperdine, he asked me, ‘What do you want to do after this?’ And I told him, ‘I want to be a head coach,’” Woodruff recalled. “So, he said everything we do here is going to be training you for that role when that time comes.”

Woodruff arrived in Malibu with no prior experience in fundraising. It wasn’t long before Woodruff was organizing the program’s annual fundraiser and planning alumni events across the country. Woodruff also eventually took the lead with Pepperdine’s home event, the Southwestern Invitational.

“Michael was the guy, but he allowed me to be just as big of a part in that process,” Woodruff said. “He never micro-managed me. Everything he did, I did. It was the perfect balance of him teaching and training me, but then also letting me figure out my way of doing things and giving me the rope to do that.”

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As a result, Woodruff, who played college golf at South Carolina but never turned pro, feels fully prepared to hit the ground running with the Mocs. He hired Nick Robinson, whom he coached while an assistant at Wisconsin, to be his assistant.

Now, it’s time to lead Chattanooga back to national prominence. Under former coach Mark Guhne, the Mocs advanced to eight straight NCAA regionals from 2007 to 2014, and they finished the 2007-08 season ranked 14th by Golfstat. That period also included a pair of NCAA Championship trips, in 2009 and 2012, both teams led by current PGA Tour player Stephan Jaeger. Steven Fox, the 2012 U.S. Amateur champion, was on that latter team.

This past season, however, Chattanooga ended up No. 135 in the country and didn’t qualify for a regional.

“This program has been great before, so I think a lot of it is getting the guys to buy into my vision for the program, which I think a lot of them have already, and creating a new standard of what’s expected and where we should be as a program,” Woodruff said. “I’m not going to set a rankings bar or a certain number of wins that we need to meet this year. It’s going to be the little things that make us great … and if all our guys can bring that to the table, we’re going to get better. And I don’t know what that looks like results-wise or rankings-wise in Year 1 or Year 2 or Year 3, but I do know that if that’s what we focus on and everybody is engaged and believes in that, then we’re going to get better each year.”

Hebert
Hebert

AFTER GRADUATING FROM TEXAS, where he played alongside Justin Leonard for four years ending in 1994, Jean-Paul Hebert set off for the professional ranks. He jokes that he competed on every tour except for the PGA Tour, and for nearly a decade he tried to forge his own path to the bigtime, with a stint as a teaching pro at Garden City Country Club – not the golf club – on Long Island splitting up that playing career.

After retiring from competitive golf, he moved into jobs with both Golf Channel, where he worked as a producer for live tournaments, and UT Golf Club, the Longhorns’ home course in Austin, where he was an assistant pro.

It was at UT Golf Club where he had breakfast with Texas head coach John Fields one morning in 2010. During their meal, Fields had a proposition for Hebert: He wanted him to be his volunteer assistant.

“I’m like, OK, I’ll maybe practice with the guys one or two afternoons a week,” Hebert recalled, “and he’s like, ‘No, I’d like for you to travel with us to every tournament, help me run our alumni event and help me with a sophomore on our team named Cody Gribble.’

“So, that’s how I got started in this. I thought it could be a really good fit and could open up a whole new life for me.”

Hebert ended up accepting the offer, and two years later Hebert was a part of the Longhorns’ 2012 NCAA title-winning squad, the program’s first in 40 years. And that week at Riviera, Gribble, a senior, went 3-0.

Two years after that, Hebert replaced Ryan Murphy, who accepted the head job for Texas’ women’s team, as Fields’ official assistant, and in 12 years total with the program, he helped guide the Longhorns to two NCAA titles (including this past season), six top-5 national finishes and five Big 12 titles. He also coached the likes of Jordan Spieth, Scottie Scheffler and Dylan Frittelli, among other future PGA Tour pros.

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Hebert certainly had been a unicorn when it came to assistant coaches and spending a decade-plus with one school, but being a part of the Austin community for so long, it would take a special opportunity to pluck him away.

“It was hardest decision probably of my life, not only leaving the university of Texas, but leaving my comfort zone, family, friends,” Hebert said. “But that’s also part of the reason why I thought it was a good idea: to change things up, evolve more as a person and a coach, and really just broaden and deepen myself and my experience in this game.”

One benefit to being around the Texas program so long was being exposed to the tutelage of Fields, considered one of the coaching legends in the men’s game. One of Hebert’s biggest takeaways from coaching under Fields is how he considers himself not so much a golf coach but a golf mentor.

“Coming to school to play college golf, it’s a really important stage in these players’ development … and we, as coaches, don’t want to get in the way,” Hebert explained. “We want to enhance this part of their life. It’s their journey, it’s their game, it's their life; we’re like, in a way, not even a coach but more like a golf mentor or golf advisor through this period of their life. Working with Coach Fields for 12 years, it’s about doing things the right way, working hard and trying to create that environment for these guys to be able to thrive in, and that’s what I’m going to try and do here at UNLV.

“I’m really excited and thankful for the opportunity to come and be entrusted with this job and this role. Being able to be in this situation, involved with young people in the game, it’s the greatest job in the world.”

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After a long search by UNLV, Hebert was announced on June 24 as the successor to hall-of-fame coach Dwaine Knight, who retired before last season after 34 years in Las Vegas (former Rebels player A.J. McInerney served as the interim coach for a year). He’s still looking for a place to live and his first recruiting trip isn’t until Junior Worlds later this month, but he had already gotten started establishing relationships with the Rebels’ home clubs, which include Southern Highlands, Shadow Creek and Las Vegas Country Club.

Hebert also held his first team meeting last week, over Zoom, and introduced himself to his new players and assistant coach, McInerney.

“It might not be what most coaches would do is hire the guy that was there,” Hebert said, “but I thought for me, given his experience here in this area and his connection to the city and to the players and the perspective he has around here, I thought it was really important for me to hire him and enable us to really get going a little quicker. He helps me hit the ground running, helps me answer a lot of little questions that are unique to Las Vegas and UNLV.

“This is a proud golf program here, and I know that they love their own, so that’s another reason why I thought it was great for me to hire one of their own.”

UNLV advanced to 31 straights NCAA regionals until that NCAA-record streak was snapped in 2021. The Rebels didn’t advance to the postseason this past season either, finishing a disappointing 96th in Golfstat.

Hebert knows success doesn’t come overnight, but he also knows what it takes to win a national championship.

“If I had a single goal [for next season], it’d be to qualify for the NCAA Championship,” said Hebert, whose Rebels will host a regional in 2023. “Immediately, though, we just need to do the little things that great teams do: recruit, improve our schedule, have great relationships around town, and really try to be recognized – I know we already are – but really strengthen our recognition as the Las Vegas golf team, and eventually become that national golf program again that I know that we can be.”