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Pandemic pushed ASU golf coach to get master's degree

Matt Thurmond says degree from Thunderbird helping him better relate culturally, academically with players

A golf coach smiles and clasps hands with a student-athlete on a golf course
May 02, 2022

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2022 graduates.

Sometime early in the summer of 2020 it hit Arizona State men’s golf head coach Matt Thurmond: The Sun Devils’ fall season likely would be canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a thought that became a reality that August.

Maybe, Thurmond told himself, he should take the time to pursue his master’s degree, something he had been thinking about for years. So he told Assistant Athletic Director Doug Tammaro of his plans.

“He was like, ‘If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard some coach say they were going to that, I’d be rich,’” Thurmond recalled. “I was like, ‘Well, then I’m going to make sure I do it.’ He definitely motivated me.”

With that nudge, Thurmond enrolled in the Thunderbird School of Global Management on ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus and will get his Master of Applied Leadership and Management through ASU Online in May.

His degree is not only a testament to his ability to manage three jobs at the same time — husband and father, golf coach and student — but to the inclusive educational opportunities at ASU.

“I’ve given this message to a lot of people and friends who are talking about going back to school,” Thurmond said. “If you’re thinking about this, there’s nobody better at making it possible for you than ASU. And I can say that with a lot of confidence because I’m in classes with people who have a lot of lives that are even more complicated than mine and they’re making it work.”

ASU News talked to Thurmond about his decision to get his master's degree and how ASU helped him along the way.

Question: Besides having time on your hands because of the pandemic, what made you decide to finally tackle your graduate degree?

Answer: I had always wanted to, but I never found the time. I like to learn about things. I read a lot of books and subscribe to think tanks. For maybe 12 to 15 years, it’s like my hobby. I’m just fascinated with the way the world works and understanding things, just being able to see what is happening. I’m interested in demographics and migration and maps, military and energy, macroeconomies and history. All of this kind of comes together, which helps me kind of understand the world. I wanted to do something in that area.

Q: Why the Thunderbird School of Global Management?

A: My degree is a Master of Applied Leadership and Management. It was just the perfect fit when I found the program because I was studying all those things I liked but in a business context. I could use that. I’m also obsessed with leadership. What’s been really cools is that in every single class I’ve been in you have lots of group projects, and I’ve been involved with people from all ages from all over the world. A lot of times I’m not the leader in those, and in my real life I’ve just always been the guy in charge of what I’m doing so it’s been nice to sort of support a leader. I try to be the best follower I can be.

Q: As part of the master’s program you went to Kenya for a week with 21 other students. What was that like?

A: It was a global field study where we basically learned much more about understanding the business environment of Kenya specifically and greater Africa. We met with multiple CEOs, we met with government officials, we met with philanthropists, investment people, charitable groups and leaders from Thunderbird who were there. We did cultural things, too. We left having a feel of what it looks like in Kenya, but all of those conversations were in the context of a greater Africa and the future of Africa.

Q: Were you hoping the leadership portion of the degree would help you as a coach?

A: I don’t think I would have done it if I didn’t think that. People ask me all the time, “What are you going to do with the degree?” Nothing — I’m just going to try to be smarter and better at what I do already.

I’ll give you an example. We talked a lot about communication and leadership cross-culturally. We read a book called “The Culture Map” and did a bunch of studies about all these different countries and how they are culturally. The point is, each country in these categories is totally different on how they approach it. Some are very hierarchal and authoritarian, some are very flat, some are very direct in their communication, some give negative feedback aggressively and some give it passively. My team has always been pretty broad and international, and you need to to understand how each player comes with a totally different set of how he sees the player/coach relationship and what the team environment should be. One week I was on a phone with a player and his family from Spain and a player and his family from Norway. It was a totally different experience of how involved the parents were, who I had to talk to and what was important. So that cultural stuff has been really helpful.

Q: In what other ways has pursuing a graduate degree helped you?

A: When I got here, I felt like it was going to take a while for the ASU people to to accept me as one of theirs. I was at another school (Washington) in the (Pac-12) conference for a long time. I didn’t grow up here, and I wanted to be more deeply connected with ASU. So it’s personally exciting to say, “I’m a Sun Devil, too. I graduated from here, too.” That was a big motivation for me. Also, it’s been a while since I was in college, so being able to connect with my players now about their academics, being able to connect with recruits about what the academics are like, what the process is, the rigors, even going through the application process, how to use the ASU systems, I now know what they know and I’m in a better position to help them. That’s unique and awesome, actually.

Q: Now that you’ve completed your program, any thoughts looking back?

A: Thunderbird is just an incredible school. I’ve been blown away by that. I thought there was no way I could possibly have the bandwidth to do this although I needed to. Once I got into it, it was inspiring to know that ASU just finds a way to make more education possible for anybody at any time in any walk of life in any situation. It’s doable to go back to college. And I think that’s good to know.

Top photo: Matt Thurmond (right), head coach of the ASU men's golf team, clasps hands with James Leow, the individual medalist at last month's 2022 ASU Thunderbird Collegiate tournament. Photo by  Susan Wong/SDA Photography

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