Wheeler, Skaggs bond over love for kids, golf

May 7—MSSU golf coaches Mike Wheeler and Derek Skaggs have coached alongside one another the past five years.

But the two started to develop a bond early in Wheeler's time on campus. This is Wheeler's 14th and final season coaching the Lions golf teams, and he started to understand something important early on — something that he learned Skaggs could really help him with.

At the time, Skaggs worked as dean of admissions for MSSU. Even before he began coaching, Skaggs was instrumental in the recruiting process.

"That's a real important aspect of this job, recruiting well," Wheeler said. "He was a key to that."

Wheeler would take his recruits over to Skaggs, and they would talk academics and other school-related topics. It would help to have that extra insight into the requirements of being a student-athlete in college. That's why it was obvious what role Skaggs would fill once he decided to help out with the women's team and coaching in general.

"That's why I established him as our recruiting coach, and he's done a hell of a job," Wheeler added.

The duo has found success together with the men's team especially. They've earned back-to-back MIAA conference championships — regular season and tournament titles. And Wheeler has been named coach of the year by the conference in two consecutive years.

"Whatever success this team has had is because of the relationship Derek and I, Phil Walker, Butch Vernon, Maggie Moore (have had), but really, Derek and Phil Walker are responsible for the success," Wheeler said.

Walker, Vernon and Moore are assistant coaches.

But Skaggs interrupted that comment with, "He's being humble."

"It takes somebody to put all of that together," Skaggs said.

There was a goal Skaggs revealed to Wheeler when he first came aboard. He wanted to help get them an MIAA championship as well as getting his comrade the top coaching honor.

"I will admit, that (conference championship) fulfilled one of my missions as well," Wheeler said. "That has to be your primary goal. You can talk about postseason play after that. But that has to be your primary goal."

Skaggs went into detail about how much it takes to be a coach and have success and that he has "a lot of respect" for all coaches out there, not just the MSSU staff.

Last year was the first year Wheeler had taken a team to a regional tournament in the 13 years he'd been at the helm. Now, he and Skaggs will be taking the men's team back. The NCAA super regional tournament will begin Thursday in Edmond, Oklahoma, at KickingBird Golf Club and end Saturday.

It has only been for the last five years of their lives that the bond has really taken off, but the 72-year-old Wheeler and 65-year-old Skaggs are grateful for the bond.

The friendship they have today makes Wheeler recall something his mother used to tell him. "My mother told me, if you have one or two really good friends, you're pretty lucky," Wheeler said. "And he is one of those people in my life."

"Same here," Skaggs said.

But how do two men grow a friendship like that?

"We've kind of shared our lives in a way," Wheeler said. "I'm very aware of everything going on with his family. The birth of grandchildren, the loss of his mother. We've been through that stuff together."

Wheeler even credits the COVID-19 pandemic as part of the reason he and Skaggs grew closer. Skaggs joined the staff officially in the fall of 2019. That season got through the fall and into the winter break, and then the virus struck the United States. By the time the spring season was ready to roll around, the NCAA had called off all spring sports.

This left the two coaches with the spring, summer and eventually the fall to find something to do with the added free time.

"I've got this old fishing boat that I probably hadn't had in the water in three or four years," Wheeler said. "Well, we rejuvenated that baby, and he and I went fishing."

And what else is there to do when you're out on the water waiting for the fish to bite? You might as well talk. They must've done plenty of talking because now they do it every single day.

"We talk every morning during the season," Skaggs said.

Both mentioned that it hasn't always been perfect. There are times they haven't seen eye to eye.

"It's like family. Nothing's ever perfect. We've had some tiffs here and there. But nothing's ever gotten in the way of being friends," Skaggs said. "I think the real key is we both love golf and we both love kids."


A big part of the success both teams have had lately has been the performers who have been recruited by Skaggs from overseas. The foreign athletes are looking for opportunities to come to the United States and showcase their talent, and Skaggs has been able to find them.

MSSU isn't just looking for talent and skill on the course. A point of emphasis has been finding good students as well.

The bars that the coaches set for foreign athletes were an SAT score of 1200 or better, GPA of 3.0 or better and a TOEFL score of over 100 for those that don't have English as a first language. The reason for that is the difficulty being in class with a schedule like the one golf forces athletes into; the amount of time out of the classroom can be tough on students.

"You can't be an average student and be successful. You can't keep up," Skaggs said.

They also look for an even-par average from men and an average of 77 for women.

Skaggs believes athletes from overseas are drawn to Joplin because it has plenty to offer in terms of attractions and restaurants but doesn't have the crime rate of a larger city.

He added that the level of education MSSU offers also helps to bring in athletes from other countries.

"Attracted to academic programs and high-quality academic programs, and they were confident they could get a good education here," Skaggs said.


Ending their coaching time together was something the two decided on before the season started. It just took Wheeler until about a month ago to officially decide he was going to hang it up. But the two are going to miss the connections with their athletes most.

"That's what we're going to miss. We're going to miss the kids," Wheeler said. "Because regardless of how much we say we're going to be around, it won't be the same."

Both coaches said they really enjoy seeing former players and their life accomplishments after graduating from MSSU.


Each of the top five players from the men's team had something to say about their coaches.

"The coaches were one of the biggest reasons for me coming here. I feel like they impact us a lot. Not just with golf but in life," Ben Marckmann said.

"I think it's the trust. When I first got here I wasn't playing very good, and it helped having coach trust that I would come around and play good again," Josh Hamnett said.

"The coaches have been great, very personable. They let us get into their lives and they connect with us as well. They're more than coaches. They're friends and family along with the rest of the team," Tradgon McCrae said.

"They've been very helpful in developing my game," Dylan Bagley said.

"They've helped me on and off the course. They are friends to me," Luis Limon said.


The team Suburban has trekked 220,000 miles since being purchased new in 2012. In about 12 years, it's gone to Alabama, Texas, Minnesota, South Dakota and Iowa.

"Trying to give the kids a great experience," Skaggs said. "That's what it's all about."