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WM: Welcome home, Coach Kopp

“I’m happy to help.”

It wasn’t uncommon to hear Justin Kopp say those four words as a student at Wabash. Whether it was on the field or in the classroom, the religion and Spanish double major from Avon, Indiana, was always eager to lend a hand.

Not long after graduating, Kopp shared those four words with Josh Hill.

Hill joined the Wabash staff in July 2021 to lead the College’s golf program. He replaced Tyler Schmutz, who served two seasons as the team’s head coach.

“When Coach Schmutz left, some guys were worried the team may not be able to recover and continue successfully on the path they’d worked hard to pave,” explains Kopp, who played on the golf and soccer teams all four years, and was named Most Improved Player for Wabash Golf in 2019.

Head Coach Justin Kopp ’21 and the 2022-23 golf team.

“I thought it would be helpful for Coach Hill to have someone in his corner to talk to and to introduce him to Wabash, someone who’s been through it,” says Kopp. “I care deeply about the program. It gave me so much personally as a student, and I wanted to stay involved.”

Hill took Kopp up on the offer, and the 2021 graduate volunteered to serve as the team’s unofficial assistant coach. With Hill as their coach, the team placed fifth overall at the 2022 North Coast Athletic Conference Men's Golf Championship Tournament.

“Being able to go to conference with the guys was definitely the highlight of my year,” says Kopp.

Months later when Hill unexpectedly announced he would be leaving the program after one season, Kopp again said, “I’m happy to help.”

This time it was directed to Matt Tanney ’05, director of athletics and campus wellness, who needed to quickly find a new coach before the fall season started. Kopp agreed to help serve on a panel responsible for interviewing potential candidates.

Tanney, however, had another idea. He encouraged Kopp to apply for the job himself, and said the team could move forward under his leadership.

“I was pretty shocked and couldn’t believe that it was happening so quickly,” he says. “I had definitely fantasized about coaching in some kind of capacity in the future. I felt honored that Wabash saw potential in me.”

If he accepted, coaching wouldn’t be his only full-time job. Kopp is in the second of a two-year appointment as an Orr Fellow and works at Lev, a Salesforce consultancy marketing company in Indianapolis, as an associate solution architect.

After receiving some guidance from family, close friends, and his mentor, Head Soccer Coach Chris Keller, Kopp accepted the offer to return home to Wabash and serve as the golf team’s interim head coach.

“I felt reassured and confident coming into this position because I understood the expectations and what was going on with the team from the year before,” says Kopp. “I believed I could help continue the program on the right trajectory.”

Kopp had a terrific academic and athletic career at Wabash. He played in 33 rounds over his collegiate career, posted ten top-10 finishes, including three spots in the top five, and earned the Scholar-Athlete Award presented annually to the Wabash senior who best demonstrates the combination of scholarship and athletics by the Wabash Club of Indianapolis (formerly the Indianapolis Association of Wabash Men).

“Justin’s knowledge of the game and leadership of the team provides a seamless transition for the men in the golf program,” Tanney said at the start of the 2022-23 season. “He's a winner on and off the course that will positively impact everyone associated with Wabash Golf.”

Kopp quickly proved his coaching abilities by leading the golf team to victory right at the start of the fall season.

With Sean Bledsoe ’26 and Brayden Weiss ’24 capturing the top-two places, the Wabash team won the team title at the Forest Hills Invitational hosted by Earlham College in September. Wabash was the only team to score under 300 strokes on the final day of competition—finishing at 298.

“I knew they could do it,” says Kopp. “Since our first practice, I have focused on instilling confidence in them. I want to make sure they know how good they are and believe in themselves. Building up that culture is what will result in more wins.”

The team wrapped up the fall season with a second-place finish out of nine teams at the Stateline Shootout, as well as seventh-place at the Wabash College Invitational, and sixth-place at the Wittenberg Golf Classic.

“The big thing haunting the program before Kopp came in was that we weren’t performing to the best of our abilities,” says Allen Johnson Jr., one of two seniors on this year’s roster and Kopp’s former teammate. “We wanted to win. We wanted to have that moment and be able to bring the trophy home. And we did that in our first event.”

Kopp (left) joined coaching staff after an impressive academic and athletic career as a student at Wabash. He played in 33 rounds over his collegiate career, posted ten top-10 finishes, including three spots in the top five, and earned the Scholar-Athlete Award.

Johnson also recalls the excitement the team felt when Kopp asked every golfer to sign the back of the trophy.

“That win helped establish Kopp’s presence on campus and with the team,” he says. “We knew we had really good players on the team, but we also quickly learned that we have a really good leader at the top too. Kopp cares and is going to help us be consistent and prove that we can compete with everybody.”

It took some time for Kopp and his team to adjust to him shifting from friend to serve as their new coach.

“Establishing that friend-versus-coach dynamic was challenging at first,” says Kopp. “We had a talk as a team early on. I told the guys, ‘Look, I realize that I am your friend. We will always be friends even after golf. But you didn’t come to Wabash to be coached by your friend. You came to be coached by someone who is going to push you, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do. If I see something I don’t like or needs improved, I’m going to tell you.’”

Establishing those expectations did feel uncomfortable to Kopp at times, but having Keller to lean on for advice has made the transition from player to coach smooth.

“Whenever I find myself struggling with how I should approach something, whether motivating the guys in practice or how to go about recruiting future players, I know I can turn to Coach Keller,” Kopp says inside of his Allen Center office, just a couple doors down from Keller. “Just the other day, we had a really good conversation about the highs and lows of coaching, and if this is something I want to do as a career. Having him there to talk to has really made a difference.”

Keller remembers the phone call he shared with Kopp before he accepted the coaching position.

“He said, ‘What do you think? Should I do it?’” Keller recalls. “I told him that it sounded like an opportunity that he’ll enjoy and he would never know if he was going to fall in love with coaching unless he tries it. Even as a player, he was always a coach on the field, so I already knew he had those qualities in him.”

Keller says he’s been happy to serve as Kopp’s mentor during this transition, and the coaching relationship he’s built with his former player is one that can be found amongst all Wabash’s coaches.

“The way he bounces ideas or asks for help is the same way I have with Coach (Mac) Petty, Coach (Kyle) Brumett, Coach (Tyler) McCreary—it doesn’t matter what the sport is, we all talk and share ideas, and can relate to each other,” says Keller. “I’ve told Kopp that we’ve all been through it, so he’s not alone in figuring out coaching. Everyone in Athletics is here to support him.”

Keller is proud to see how Kopp has embraced his new role.

“When they won their first event, Kopp was really humble about it. He said, ‘The guys did it. They played great and ran the show,’” says Keller. “It could have been about him, but he made it more about celebrating the team.

Kopp led the Wabash golf team to win the team title in September at the Forest Hills Invitational. This was his first tournament of the 2022-23 season as the team’s new coach.

“He’s establishing a really good culture,” says Keller. “I’m excited to where he takes them as their coach.”

After a successful fall season, Wabash removed the interim tag from Kopp’s title last month and officially named him the Little Giants' head golf coach.

“Justin effectively led the golf team for the last six months on and off the course,” Tanney said. “His knowledge of the game is strong, and his approach to students’ academic success, rapport with the team, and connectivity to alumni proved equally robust. Both the existing roster and future Wabash golfers will benefit from Justin's guidance.”

Kopps says working with the team as a player, volunteer assistant, and interim head coach has been some of the most rewarding, challenging, and gratifying work he’s ever done.

I’m grateful to accept the head coaching position and believe the Wabash golf program is on a trajectory to compete for NCAC Championships and potentially qualify for the NCAA Championship Tournament in the coming years,” he says. “The support of the team, athletic department, and alumni have made this transition a possibility for me, and I am very honored for the opportunity to help develop team members into quality Wabash men on and off the course.”