By Jeff Shearer
AUBURN, Ala. - Melissa Luellen had taken calls like this one before. From someone in the profession on the other side of the country, conducting a coaching search, making sure they weren't overlooking any potential candidates out West.
The someone was Kim Evans, Auburn's legendary golf coach, assisting Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs in hiring Evans' successor.
"And then Coach Evans said, `Well, what about you?'" Luellen remembers. "I said, `What about me? I'm great where I am.'"
Luellen was well-established at Arizona State. In 13 seasons coaching the Sun Devils women's team, she'd won two conference championships and the 2009 NCAA championship.
It took "a mix of things at the perfect time to make me even think about looking elsewhere," she says.
Her impression of Auburn was favorable after two previous visits for tournaments.
Arizona State's golf course was about to be dug up and developed, requiring a move to an off-campus facility, and more fundraising requirements. Not a positive development for someone who loves to coach.
Her husband, Mark, was on board with the prospect of a new adventure.
"If I chose to come to Auburn, I'd have this amazing support staff," Luellen says. "Full-time director of operations for golf. And I get to come and coach. When I started looking at why I coach, it actually made it a little bit easier."
So last summer, Luellen left ASU to replace Evans, who retired after 21 seasons and 8 SEC championships.
"There's nothing that's missing here," she says.
Quality of education, facilities, location, support, community, safety. All selling points Luellen shares with prospects.
She also shares her own story of winning NCAA individual and team titles at Tulsa as a senior in 1988, then playing more than a decade and winning on the LPGA Tour.
"I feel that at Auburn, everything's in place," she says. "If someone really wants to play at the next level, this is a great place to come and experience and get all of those necessary elements."
Taking over for a highly successful coach is a challenge Luellen has accepted before. Twice.
"It seems like everywhere I go, I've filled big shoes," she says. "My mom (Dale McNamara), who was a Hall of Fame coach at Tulsa, 4-time national champion coach. When I went to Arizona State, Linda Vollstedt was a Hall of Fame coach. Six national championships."
Success at Auburn, however, was not immediate.
"Last year was really tough," she says.
The Tigers finished 61st in the nation, missing out on an NCAA Regional for the first time in her 16-year coaching career.
Luellen took out her frustrations on the garden plot she and Mark share.
"It kind of evoked emotions that I hadn't really felt," she says, recalling a session with a rototiller. "It made me feel angry. It made me feel my competitiveness. Oh, it's still there.
"I also know that we worked really hard in recruiting my first year. We're continuing to work hard. Recruiting is going well. So, we just have to keep the faith. Not everyone is like Clint Myers who just turns it around with the same team. If he could bottle that up and sell it, he could be a gazillionaire. I know it takes time. Jay (Jacobs) knows it takes time."
To facilitate the turnaround, Luellen promises a worldwide approach.
"I will recruit the best talent wherever they come from," she says. "I will focus on in-state. I focus on national, and international, all three. I don't have a preference. I will recruit them from anywhere."
Luellen met with Auburn's returning team members, seeking their perspective and sharing hers.
"Telling them what we did last year wasn't good enough. `What do we need to change?' We've listened to what they said. My players' input is always huge," she says. "It feels like a fresh year. It feels exciting. Much like the football team, or the Cleveland Cavaliers, they have to earn it."
At the Tiger Tailgate, Auburn's annual kickoff event for student-athletes, Jacobs recognized several women's teams who enjoyed banner seasons in 2015-16, further motivating Auburn's women's golfers.
"And they want to be recognized and stand up at the Tiger Tailgate," she says. "I asked them, `What do you have to do?' It helps them really formulate exactly what they want to do. They know that they have to excel."
The coach who won championships as a player at Tulsa, and as a coach at Arizona State, now feels right at home on the Plains.
"I'm an Auburn Tiger and I love it."
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer