He just drove the van. In 41 years as Elon’s golf coach, Bill Morningstar never pretended to do anything more. He recruited the best players he could, put them in a van, and drove them around.
He drove it right through Elon’s moves from NAIA to Division II, and from Division II to Division I. He drove the van with a Fighting Christians nickname, and he drove it with a Phoenix nickname.
He drove it to 16 NAIA national tournaments, including the one in 1982 at Alamance Country Club, where Elon won the national championship. He drove it to a coach of the year honor during Elon’s first year as a Division II school, and to six tournament titles since the school moved to Division I in 2000.
This is it, though. The 2013 season will be Morningstar’s last. He’ll head into retirement after more than four decades of service to his alma mater.
“All I can say,” Morningstar says, “is that it’s been great players.”
There’s truth in the humility.
Morningstar came to Elon as a basketball player. He helped the team to a 21-7 record his senior year. He went off for a few years, earned a master’s degree in education from Lynchburg College, and returned to Elon in 1972 to become the assistant basketball coach. The athletic director at the time, Red Wilson, and head basketball coach, Bill Miller, told him the job came with an addition – he also had to coach the golf team.
“They said, ‘Oh by the way, you’ve got golf,” Morningstar remembers. “I said, ‘I don’t know anything about it.’ ”
They gave him a $500 budget and told him to go.
The first year, Elon finished third in its conference. That helped him believe he might have a future in this. So he went out to recruit players. During the next 19 years, Elon would advance to the NAIA national tournament 16 times – placing in the top 10 on each trip.
He also became the head basketball coach in 1979, and continued with that job through 1986. He won 101 games in the process.
His biggest prizes, though, came in the sport he didn’t know anything about.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, he recruited one of his best golf teams.
One of those players was Daniel Thore, a Reidsville native who won the state championship with his high school team as a senior in 1980. Morningstar told Thore in their first meeting that he wanted to win a national championship. He told Thore that he’d be a big part of it. Thore joined the team.
And in 1982, Morningstar’s team won the title on the home course at Alamance Country Club. After that tournament, Thore says that an ACC coach approached him about transferring. Thore struggled with the decision. He thought about transferring. He went to his coach and told him he was considering it.
Morningstar replied like this: “When I started recruiting you, my goal was to win a national championship, and we accomplished that,” Thore remembers. “If you need me to make a phone call for you, I’ll do it.”
Thore was surprised that his coach would be so gracious.
“That made up my mind right there,” Thore says. “I wasn’t going anywhere.”
Thore stayed at Elon through his final year in 1984, and then turned pro in 1986. He now works as the head professional at Dick’s Sporting Goods in Danville. He still remembers the 1982 championship.
“It was a big part of all of our lives,” Thore says. “It was a dream come true.”
Morningstar, meanwhile, kept winning.
And kept picking up more jobs. During his time with Elon, he also started the women’s golf program in 1996, and served as the head men’s and women’s cross country coach.
He worked every job with the same philosophy: best results win.
In golf, Thore said, the players qualified for the team by playing 12 rounds of golf – six on Alamance Country Club and six on Indian Valley Golf Club. They threw out the highest score on each course, tallied the results, and the best golfers made the team and the others didn’t, every year.
“He had his way of doing things,” Thore says. “It was black and white.”
In the late 1980s, the coach who once knew nothing about golf found himself investing in it. He bought a driving range in Burlington where Alamance Regional Hospital is currently located. Later, he’d sell the driving range and buy a golf course in South Boston, Virginia. He still owns the course; it’s called Green’s Folly Golf Course. It’ll be one of his many retirement projects, along with, “laying around on the beach,” and going to visit one of his favorite spots in North Carolina, Lake Junaluska.
The past 13 years have been interesting for Morningstar, as Elon moved into the top level of NCAA golf. Morningstar’s teams have won six tournaments since the move. The current team placed third at the Davidson Invitational a few weeks ago. The Phoenix will play in the Coca-Cola Invitational in Spartanburg, S.C., on April 15-16, and the Southern Conference championship in Daniel Island, S.C. on April 21-23.
The players today are different, Morningstar says, but the changing game allowed him to stay on board through the Phoenix’s move to the top level of college golf.
“Years ago, they just loved to play. They’d just grind it out and learn,” Morningstar says. “Now, most of the kids come in with swing coaches.”
So right up to the end, Morningstar has been able to do what he does best – find good players, play the best of them, and sit back and watch.
On that, though, there is one other thing that’s changed in all that time: The trips are bigger. During spring break this year, Elon’s men’s and women’s golf teams flew to Scotland for a week to play several courses, including Royal Liverpool, which will be the home of the 2014 British Open.
So on March 22, the coach who started driving the van 41 years ago took his final team to Scotland on an airplane.