‘He always gave it his best’: UCLA’s Derek Freeman ready to tie bow on coaching career
When Derek Freeman interviewed to become O.D. Vincent’s successor at UCLA in 2007, he was asked if he’d coach in a dress shirt and necktie. Such attire had become tradition at the school, an ode to the days of Eddie Merrins, the championship-winning Bruins coach and longtime head pro at Bel-Air Country Club.
Freeman, who had served one season as Vincent’s assistant, didn’t waste any time answering.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Every round.”
Freeman got the job, and for the next 15 years, he didn’t break his promise. This week at the Pac-12 Championship at Aldarra Golf Club in Sammamish, Washington, Freeman will tie what figures to be his last half Windsor.
Freeman, 51, announced back in November that this season would be his final one. UCLA now enters its conference championship, which begins Monday, ranked 85th in the country and needing to win what would be an improbable Pac-12 title to qualify for regionals.
Barring a major surprise, Wednesday’s final round will not only mark the end of the Freeman era in Westwood, but it will also close the book on Freeman’s two decades as a college golf coach.
“I’ve had such a great career, we had a lot of success, I love college golf, and I love being a coach, but I just felt like now is a really good transition for me,” said Freeman, whose UCLA career was highlighted by the 2008 NCAA Championship. “There’s a lot of change going on with name, image and likeness, social media, and it’s not that I’m an old-school coach, but now was the time to make the change and move into something new.”
IT WAS THE MID-1980s, and Mike McGraw, now the head coach at Baylor, was in the early stages of his coaching career, at Edmond Memorial High School in Edmond, Oklahoma. One day he was notified that a family was moving in from Weatherford, a small town about 70 miles west of Oklahoma City, and the family’s son was a rising freshman interested in joining the golf team.
“I remember seeing the kid, and he was really small, I mean, really small,” McGraw recalled. “He had a different action, but it was good. He was gritty. I thought, he’ll be a nice player for us someday.”
That kid was Freeman, and four years later, in 1989, he helped Edmond Memorial win the state high school championship by 36 shots, finishing fourth individually. Later that year, he’d cap his prep career by winning the All-State tournament.
“All I know is he fights, and he doesn’t ever give up, and he gets a lot out of what God gave him,” McGraw once told Oklahoma head coach Gregg Grost, who ended up offering Freeman a scholarship to come to Norman.
Freeman’s four seasons at Oklahoma played out similarly, with Freeman maximizing his talents to become a three-year captain and an All-Big 8 selection in 1994. He also helped the Sooners to four NCAA Championship appearances.
“He was one of these little gamers,” Grost said. “He wanted to compete at everything. He was extremely organized, hard-working. He walked into a team with a lot of talent, and he just kept getting better.”
Though Freeman tried his hand at professional golf before a rib injury quickly dashed those hopes, he knew he wasn’t good enough to make a living in the play-for-pay ranks. In college, Freeman was considered the brightest on his team. He was tasked with collecting rent and maintaining order at the off-campus house shared by members of the golf team. He also was savvy at trading stocks and bonds, so much so that his teammates’ parents used to ask Freeman for tips.
So, naturally, he ventured into the financial world for several years, working for his dad. But while the money was good, Freeman still wasn’t satisfied. Another passion burned within, and in 2002, Freeman accepted a volunteer assistant-coaching position at Oklahoma City University, a top NAIA program.
“They allowed me to fundraise for my salary, and there was a cap, and they kept part of it, so I had to pay them to work there,” Freeman said with a chuckle. “But that was OK, I just wanted to be a coach.”
Oklahoma City won the national championship that spring, and Freeman was then hired as the school’s head women’s coach. His team finished second at nationals in his first season. The next year the Stars won the 2005 NAIA title by 49 shots, and Freeman was tabbed as coach of the year.
Freeman’s success earned the young coach an opportunity to return to his alma mater as an assistant under head coach Jim Ragan. The Sooners won the Big 12 title in 2006, but also during that season Freeman had met Vincent at an AJGA event in Mobile, Alabama. Vincent was in the market for an assistant coach, and Freeman was interested.
“It was one of those things where the two of us connected almost instantly,” Vincent said. “I ended up hiring him early that next summer.”
For an Oklahoma boy like Freeman, it was a chance to step out of his comfort zone. So, he and his wife, Stephenie, and their two sons, Bentley and Palmer, packed up their things and headed west, moving into a small apartment in Valencia. The cost of living was high, the traffic was astronomical, and yet so was the opportunity. Even more than Freeman could’ve imagined.
By the following summer, Grost’s phone rang. On the other line was Merrins. Vincent was leaving UCLA to take a job at Duke, and the Bruins suddenly needed a new head coach.
“What can you tell me about Derek Freeman?” Merrins asked Grost.
“Well,” Grost replied, “if I was coaching, he would’ve been my assistant.”
Merrins: “You would hire him?”
Grost: “Yes, sir, I would.”
Merrins: “Well, that’s all I need to know.”
“A few days later,” Grost recalls now, “they hired Derek.”
FREEMAN INHERITED A SQUAD that was coming off a seventh-place finish at the 2007 NCAA Championship in Williamsburg, Virginia. Returning were senior leaders Kevin Chappell and Craig Leslie, and arriving was hotshot freshman Philip Francis. Expectations were high, and there would be no time for a learning curve.
In fact, Freeman was quickly met by adversity. Less than a month into the fall season, tragedy struck: Chappell’s 24-year-old brother, Casey, unexpectedly died of complications from diabetes.
“That was really difficult,” Freeman said, “me being a young coach and having to figure out how to help this young man deal with such a loss.”
Yet, the Bruins rallied around Chappell, who ended up as the Haskins Award winner that season and led UCLA to four wins entering the NCAA Championship at Purdue’s Kampen Course in West Lafayette, Indiana. It was there that the straight-driving Bruins, on one of the toughest championship venues still to this day, edged Stanford by a shot at 46 over.
Leslie birdied two of his last three holes while Chappell chipped in for a clutch bogey after rinsing his tee ball on his penultimate hole to set up a closing par that not only secured him the NCAA individual title but UCLA its second national championship.
“He put his mind to it, picked up the team and carried them,” Freeman said of Chappell.
Added Chappell: “He was there for me during some tough times and some high times, and I’ll always appreciate our relationship. He was there for my family and I when my brother passed, and then he was there to give me a hug immediately after winning the national championship.”
There were hugs and tears.
“I remember crying like a baby because I was so happy for those guys and I was so happy for Derek,” Vincent said. “To see them win … it wasn’t my team at that point; it was Derek’s team, and he deserves 100% of the credit for coaching that team to a national championship because that’s what he did.”
Freeman’s UCLA teams won 28 total tournaments, including that national championship and three regional titles. In 2011 at Karsten Creek, the Bruins captured the stroke-play portion of the NCAA Championship to spark a run of four match-play appearances in five years. Freeman also produced 20 All-Americans and two players of the year, Chappell and Patrick Cantlay, the reigning FedExCup champion.
“He did a good job of finding players who were like him,” McGraw said. “And he found some really great ones, too, but he also tried to find kids who had that bulldog, alley-cat, fight-till-the-end attitude. He definitely looked for guys who had grit, and he found them.”
IN RECENT YEARS, UCLA has been unable to replicate that early success under Freeman. In the past six seasons, the Bruins have won just three tournaments and advanced to the NCAA Championship only once, in 2018.
A lot of that can be attributed to bad luck: injuries, surgeries, illness, canceled seasons and tournaments. Last spring, after finally being cleared by the Pac-12 to compete, UCLA was forced to withdraw from three events for COVID-related reasons.
“We were never in sync, we never had players who could play,” Freeman said. “But I still felt like we should go out there and play, and we got beat up pretty good.”
Even after another injury-riddled campaign this season, which has seen fifth-year standout Devon Bling miss most of the spring after re-aggravating his surgically repaired right wrist, Freeman won’t dwell on the disappointments.
He’ll instead remember the championships and the people who helped win them.
The players who went on to star on Tour, and the young men who grew into great husbands, fathers and businessmen.
The laughs in the team van, and the times when he would challenge his guys to be better, whether it was by reading a new book or trying new foods.
“These guys are really bright, well read, they have experienced a lot of life, so you can have some really good in-depth conversations and it’s fun,” Freeman said. “We all come from different backgrounds, we have different parents, your style was different in how you were raised, you might believe different things, you might have a different religion; all of that is fine, and there’s no one right way to go through life, but we need to appreciate each other, get along with each other, help each other, be good human-beings toward each other, and that’s been something that I’ve always challenged my teams to do.”
Senior Eddy Lai remembers when Freeman used to make his players qualify with fewer than 14 clubs.
“He wanted us to work on our feel under pressure,” Lai said. “He’s pretty creative.”
Bling recalled one time when Freeman handed him 10 golf balls and challenged him to hit eight of them in a nearby box. Only Freeman got to pick the club, and if Bling failed, he’d have to run. Sure, he got some extra steps in, but Bling appreciated Freeman’s approach.
“He always made the right call, and I’ve always trusted him,” Bling said. “He’s been a good mentor to me, and he’s taken care of me, and helped me, and pushed me to get better. I’ve battled injuries, been down mentally, gone through swing issues, but the one thing that he has done is he’s always kept it positive with me. He let me know that we are all human-beings, and things like that are going to happen, but it’s how we react to it and how we do the little things every single day to make ourselves better.
“He’s just a great coach and a great human-being, and I know he always gave it his best.”
Grost has always admired Freeman’s organization and people skills, noting his uncanny ability to fundraise and serve as a diplomat among UCLA’s many stakeholders, even as other top programs have constructed state-of-art golf facilities to entice top recruits, a luxury that UCLA, because of its location, doesn’t have.
Vincent noted other qualities: integrity, knack for evaluating talent, engaging in conversation, not afraid to ask why, internally motivated, and possessing a high set of standards and values.
“I just hope my legacy is a I did it the right way,” Freeman said, “and that my players always felt like I was behind them, helpful to them through an important part of their life, and that they were successful and became better men from their freshman year to their senior year, and that they learned something that will allow them to grow in life. … You want to continuously to grow, to get better, to achieve to more, and hopefully I set the program in a way where someone can do that.”
Added Vincent: “If you coached for 15 years, and you won a national championship, coached multiple Tour players, including the current PGA Tour player of the year, and touched that many lives; anyone who doesn’t look back on that and consider that an incredible success, I don’t know what measure they are using.
“To me, that’s just an amazing career.”
BEFORE ANNOUNCING HIS RETIREMENT, Freeman phoned Grost, now the executive director of the Golf Coaches Association of America.
“When did you know it was time?” Freeman asked Grost, who retired from college coaching in 2000, at age 44.
“When it became a job,” responded Grost, who then offered more advice, which had been given to Grost by his college coach, the legendary Jimmy Clayton:
When you turn in the keys, walk away, and don’t let yourself come back.
Freeman is ready to do that. Bentley is already in college, and Palmer, a junior in high school, is verbally committed to play golf at UC Davis. As for his next career, Freeman hints at some exciting new ventures. He loves wine, and after taking viticulture classes at UC Davis, he decided to become a winemaker himself. His brand, Overshare, started shipping its first two vintages, a 2018 Syrah and 2019 Syrah, in January.
“I made my decision last fall, and I’ve felt great ever since then,” said Freeman, who will wrap up his four-year term on the NCAA Division I Golf Committee in June. “And I haven’t questioned it one bit.”
While the tie that Freeman wore for UCLA’s national championship hangs on display inside the school’s hall of fame at the J.D. Morgan Center, the rest of Freeman’s neckwear will be relegated to his closet. He doesn’t plan on breaking them out much.
Right now, his plan is to undo a couple of buttons, pour himself a glass of red, and enjoy whatever lies ahead.