For Clay White, being able to coach at Penn represents a dream long in the making. But the path to achieve it took 30 years, crossed among three sports, and began over 3,000 miles away.
In high school, White played volleyball. When he got to Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif. in the early 1990s, he worked with the school’s softball team.
“I was an undergrad student, assisting with the softball program more as a manager,” he said. “Then I kind of started helping the coach a lot.”
Afterwards, White went back to coaching volleyball at the College of the Redwoods, a junior college in nearby Eureka, Calif. He held that position from 1997 until 2000, during which he was also Humboldt State’s assistant athletic equipment manager.
It was also at the College of the Redwoods that White played the only competitive golf of his life.
“The extent of my competitive golf career is one semester of junior college … while I was the head volleyball coach,” he said.
After two years at Ohio University, White arrived at Seton Hall in South Orange, N.J. in 2003. When he first came to the school, he was the equipment manager, but soon after that, he became the Pirates’ head golf coach.
To hear White tell it, though, becoming the golf coach came down to happenstance more than anything else.
“I guess the full story behind me becoming a golf coach is I was just in the right place at the right time, essentially,” he said. “My volleyball coaching experience maybe had a little bit to do with it.”
But over his 18-year tenure at Seton Hall, White proved he could belong. The Pirates came in second in the Big East in 2017, losing to Marquette by just one stroke. And in 2022, White led Seton Hall to its first conference championship in 22 years.
It was also there that White developed his coaching style. Above all else, he prioritizes recruiting “good players that are great people,” he said.
“I’m not gonna take a 76 player and create a swing that will [make him] a 74,” he continued. “That’s not who I am. I’m not a swing coach. I’m not a PGA professional.”
This humility also extends to what White includes in his pitch to recruits. “I’m very transparent in my recruiting,” he said. “I feel like I recruit the weaknesses of a program, more so than the strengths of a program.”
This commitment to not overselling prospective players on his program is best summed up in a situation involving a new facility at Seton Hall. Despite the money and plans being in place, White didn’t promise the facility in pitches, opting to only say that “it should be done by the time you get here.”
White thinks that this approach benefitted him and the Pirates, noting that “what I found is that kids want someone that’s just straightforward with them and doesn’t try to tell them they’re the greatest player ever.”
It was also during his time at Seton Hall that White’s eye came toward the Penn job. His ambition to coach for the Quakers, and in the Ivy League more broadly, began on the course.
“I’ve gotten to know the other Ivy coaches, being in the Northeast and having coached at Seton Hall for so long,” he said. “And I just had really enjoyed their camaraderie.”
But what White finds so admirable about the Ancient Eight goes deeper than some on-course banter among coaches.
“I feel like the Ivy League is one of the last conferences that still puts being a student before [being an] athlete,” he said. “The purpose of being a student-athlete is to have that aspect of it, and I think it’s getting a little lost in today’s landscape, about why kids are playing college sports. So I think the Ivy League is just … always going to put, at least in my opinion, being a student first.”
So when the Penn job opened up after Jason Calhoun stepped down in late July, White saw his opportunity. And it didn’t take long for his talent at Seton Hall to come through in the interview. Senior Associate Athletic Director and Golf Sport Administrator Kevin Bonner explained that despite other candidates applying for the job, White stood out from the pack.
“Clay impressed the interview committee by conveying his vision for the future of the program and why he would be the best fit in the position,” Bonner said. “We are thrilled to land a proven and successful head coach with Clay’s experience.”
But once White got the job with the Quakers, the real work began. There was about a week between when White started at Penn and the team’s first competition, held in Hamilton, N.Y. over Labor Day weekend. Despite the Red and Blue placing 11th out of the 14 teams in contention, White thought that the first day went “decent.” He also said that the week leading up to the tournament was “pretty crazy,” with time for only two practices as players were “trying to figure out the classes and their schedules and get cleared.”
Despite the slow start, the team has already shown improvement, finishing tied for fourth out of 16 schools at a tournament hosted in Berlin, Conn and third out 12 teams this past weekend at a tournament in Plymouth Meeting, Pa.
As his tenure with Penn continues this fall, White is optimistic that his approach to coaching won’t change much. He still plans to focus on recruiting, and will probably spend more time explaining the downsides of the Quakers’ golf program than its positives.
“I want to bring a similar philosophy to Penn, because it worked well at Seton Hall,” White said. “Obviously, what I’m going to tell kids is going to change. But the manner in which I communicate with kids, I’m hoping will not change.”
This attitude about recruiting students is representative of White’s entire coaching philosophy. He knows he can’t magically make a golfer shoot several strokes lower. But what he’s ready to do is give guidance on what to improve and advice on how to get there so that his players can “put in the work … be prepared to go to tournaments, and be prepared to compete.”