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Optimism is par for the course for NMSU golf legend

To hear his friends and colleagues tell it, there are two things Herb Wimberly, the former long-time coach of the New Mexico State University golf team, will never do: criticize your golf swing and pat himself on the back.



Former NMSU golf team coach Herb Wimberly was honored with a Trader's Award from the College of Business for his years of service to the university. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

"He's a class act. You hear that term 'class act' all the time, but Herb is class without an act," said Van Bullock, a professor of economics and international business at NMSU who played on a Wimberly-coached golf team in 1967. "The Herb you see in public is the same Herb you see in private. He's a genuinely sincere and classy guy. There is no pretense associated with Herb at all."

Wimberly lacks that pretense despite having two scholarships, a street and a golf tournament named in his honor. Over the years, Wimberly has accumulated numerous other accolades, with the latest being the Traders Award, which was given to him on Sept. 23 during the NMSU College of Business Hall of Fame ceremony. Introduced in 2006, the Traders Award recognizes individuals who have given exceptional service to the College of Business.

True to his friends' words, Wimberly is self-deprecating about this latest honor.

"When (College of Business Dean Garrey Carruthers) called and said this is what we would like to do, I said, 'Garrey, maybe you called the wrong person,'" Wimberly said. "He laughed and said, 'Nope, I've got the right person and this is what we want to do.' So it's happened and it's quite an honor. What I've done is just something I would have done anyway whether there was an award there or not."

And Wimberly has done much for NMSU and the community. Born and raised in Baton Rouge, La., Wimberly's family moved to Albuquerque during his senior year in high school. He stayed behind to finish up school before re-joining his family and enrolling at the University of New Mexico. After graduation, he left Albuquerque for a few years before returning to UNM to assist his former golf coach. Then, in 1962, NMSU recruited him to head up the college's golf team, where he stayed for 31 years. During his tenure, Wimberly was named Coach of the Year six times by the Missouri Valley Conference and once by the Big West Conference.

His teams' accomplishments have become the stuff of college golf legend. They won six Missouri Valley Conference championships and one Big West. Wimberly also coached two All-American Golf Teams that played in the first International Collegiate Golf Matches in Chiba City, Japan. Eighteen of his players earned All-American honors, with two, Larry Beem in 1964 and Ben Kern in 1968, named as first team All-Americans. Many of Wimberly's golfers have gone on to play on the PGA Tour, including Beem's son, Rich, who beat Tiger Woods to win the PGA Championship in 2002.

It's his former players' successes on and off the course that make Wimberly most proud.

"What's so gratifying to me is to see what they have done past their careers at New Mexico State," he said. "They are just highly successful community leaders in many different professions. We've had great golf teams and many successes with golf, but to see what all these people have done past that is really gratifying."

Bullock says he and many of Wimberly's former players attribute their post-golf accomplishments to Wimberly's teaching, mentoring and optimistic personality.

"He is one of the best people I have ever met. Throughout my life in dealing with people I often sit back and think, 'What would coach have done here, what would coach have said,'" Bullock stated. "If you look at what former players have done, almost all of these young people have gone on to be successful. They've given back to the university. And it all starts with the experience they had here as athletes under Herb."

Besides the wins from the golf team, Wimberly and his brother, Guy, also presented an opportunity to NMSU that would reap the college many future rewards. In 1988, the two brothers brought the PGA Golf Management program to the College of Business. The program started with 26 students. Today it has 188.

However, NMSU almost didn't get the program. Wimberly said he and his brother, who was a national PGA director at the time, initially approached their alma mater, UNM, out of a sense of loyalty. The university turned them down flat. According to Wimberly, Guy told UNM he would then take the program to "the better school down south."

Soon after, Wimberly approached then-NMSU College of Business Dean Curtis Graham, gave him information on the program and asked for feedback in a few weeks.

"The next morning, I was loading the team in a van at the golf course to leave on a golf trip and this fellow came out and said you have a phone call you need to take," Wimberly said. "It was Curtis and he said, 'I didn't hardly sleep all night. I was looking through all this material. How soon can we get this thing going?'

"I think (UNM) regrets their decision to this day," Wimberly added. "They really lost out on a gem of a program."

While Pat Gavin never played on any of Wimberly's teams, he also learned many lessons from Wimberly before and after his NMSU days. Gavin, who is the current director of the PGA Golf Management program, started as a grad assistant in the program under Wimberly. Gavin said he continues to get help and tips from Wimberly, who stops by to see him every week. In addition, Wimberly, although ostensibly retired, still conducts four-hour golf lessons for students every Saturday morning.

"Herb has had a key role in everything that has gone on here. It's unbelievable how much he has given to the program," Gavin said. "(The PGA) gave New Mexico State a chance because of his name being on the program. Having Herb's name with the program gave it instant respect throughout the country with all the golf professionals."

And Gavin is quick to point out that Wimberly never takes any credit.

"It's always about everyone else but him," Gavin said.

However, his former players, who number in the hundreds, are more than happy to sing Wimberly's praises.

"Herb may be one of the most encouraging people I've ever known," Bullock said. "He's the exact opposite of most successful people. Gore Vidal said, 'It's not enough to succeed. Others must fail.' I've never seen an individual in my life who took more pleasure out of other people's success than Herb. He relishes in your success."

Bullock added that it doesn't matter whether those successes are big or small; Wimberly is always encouraging. For example, Bullock recalled one incident in which Wimberly's optimism changed a life. The late Frank O. Papen was a prominent Las Cruces businessman and political leader when he suffered a debilitating stroke. His doctors told him to take up golf as a form of rehab, so he hired Wimberly to give him six lessons. Wimberley patiently worked with Papen when, toward the end of their third lesson, Papen's club finally made slight contact with the ball.

"And to Frank, that was something to be celebrated," Bullock said. "And Frank, because of Herb's patience, he got to where he could play golf, and it enhanced his life."

Another instance of how much loyalty Wimberly has engendered with his former players occurred when Gavin was trying to start an endowment to fund a PGA Golf Management program scholarship in the former coach's name. Gavin had three years to raise $10,000 for the fund. He sent out an email to alumni asking for donations and in 13 days he had collected $10,500.

"He's a legend," Gavin said. "He's well respected."

Now about those golf swings.

"He's never, ever seen a bad shot in his life," Gavin said. "If there is a bad shot, he'll stand there with his hands in his pockets ? he always has change in his pockets ? you'll hear the change jingle and then he'll take his hands out of his pockets, give his signature clap and say, 'OK, I like what you did there.' It may be horrible, but he'll find something positive with everything."

Since taking his first lesson from Wimberly in the mid-1960s, Carruthers said he still receives positive reinforcement from him.

"Herb is like a professor of golf," Carruthers said. "Only last week during an impromptu lesson he told me what a wonderful golf swing I have ? when we both know that is not the case ? but just a tweak here or there will make all the difference!"

That's just part of Wimberly's philosophy of life.

"I've always been encouraging and positive," he said. "If we have two choices to live in a positive or negative frame of mind, I'm going to say positive every day."

Now 77, Wimberly is able to spend more time with his wife, Carleene, and visit the couple's nine children, 20 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. In between visits, Wimberly is still teaching and playing golf, even giving lessons on cruises. For him, none of it is work.

"It just kind of pains me to see people working somewhere but not really enjoying it, but having to work in order to make a living. For me to have found something that I was completely ecstatic about all the time ? it's a perfect combination," he said. "I couldn't think of anything I would rather have done."