Central Michigan men's golf, revived next year, gets welcome-back message from major champ

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Justin Rose, winner of the 2013 U.S. Open, was 4 years old the last time Central Michigan University fielded a men's golf team. This week, the No. 45-ranked player in the world welcomed the Chippewas back.

CMU will have a men's golf team starting with the 2022-23 season, after not having one since 1985.

"I just want to say congratulations to Central Michigan University on its decision to bring back collegiate golf," Rose said in a Twitter video posted Tuesday. "Fire up, Chips!"

Justin Rose, winner of the 2013 U.S. Open, welcomed back CMU golf in a video message.

The celebrity video caught many Chippewas fans by surprise, wondering what the connection was — or wondering if he'd been paid for the spot via some outlet such as Cameo.

Here's the truth: Rose, a 10-time PGA Tour winner and 11-time European Tour winner, is friends with a high-level Central Michigan donor, who called in the favor.

The decision to bring back men's golf has been long in the works, dating to previous athletic Michael Alford. He cut men's indoor and outdoor track and field early in the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, a move school officials say eventually will save more than $600,000 a year. That move also dropped CMU below the NCAA's minimum sports-offering threshold to remain Division I.

Cutting track and field dropped CMU to 16 sports, the NCAA minimum, and five men's sports, one below the NCAA minimum. The NCAA granted CMU a two-year waiver to get back in compliance, and this year new athletic director Amy Folan announced what long has been in the works: The school will bring back men's golf, which is expected to cost about half what track did. 

Earlier this month, the school hired Benton Harbor native Kevin Jennings to be the head coach. Jennings had been men's and women's coach at Prairie View A&M in Texas. CMU officials gauged interest from area golf luminaries such as Dan Pohl, Doug LaBelle II and Ryan Brehm, but all wanted to continue with their current career interests — while expressing interest in helping the program any way they can. Michigan State assistant coach Dan Ellis also was believed to be a target, but wanted to stay in East Lansing.

"I'm exceptionally excited about the opportunity," Jennings said. "It's great to return to my home state where I grew up and have so many family members, so many friends, so many memories.

"Central Michigan men's golf is a great opportunity because there is clearly a level of support from the community and the university administration.

"That support, along with experience, wisdom, and ingenuity will go a long way in making this a long-term competitive and successful program."

Jennings also has coached at Arkansas Pine Bluff, Talladega (Alabama) College and LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis, Tennessee. He was a volunteer assistant at Christian Brothers University in Tennessee and an assistant at Mississippi Valley State, and has been a golf instructor in Tennessee, California and Nevada. He is on the board of the Black College Golf Coaches Association. He also serves on the Golf Coaches Association of America's diversity council.

Jennings is Black. CMU took significant public heat for eliminating men's track and field, and replacing it with golf — swapping one traditionally diverse sport with one traditionally White sport. The ACLU of Michigan repeatedly has blasted the university for its decision.

Folan declined comment on the ACLU's statements, referring questions to university president Robert Davies, who has not returned messages from The Detroit News seeking comment.

CMU had a men's golf program from 1936 until discontinuing it in 1985, despite Mount Pleasant being a hotbed for golf talent, with the likes of PGA Tour players like Pohl, who finished second at the 1982 Masters, and LaBelle and Brehm, and LPGA Tour winners like Kelly Robbins and Cindy Figg-Currier.

The university hasn't yet decided what course will be to the men's team; the bidding process continues, a school spokesman said Thursday. The women's team plays out of Mount Pleasant Country Club.

While Jennings' top priority is putting together a roster for the inaugural season — the program will start with two or three scholarships — he also will be tasked with building upon CMU's partnership with First Tee-Greater Detroit.

"This a great addition to the CMU athletics program and I look forward to working with Coach Jennings and the men's golf team as our First Tee-Greater Detroit programs grow and serve more youngsters in Detroit and beyond," said Lawrence J. Burns, chairman of First Tee-Greater Detroit.

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tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984