By Ken MacLeod
Joey Rassett is not associated with a multiple-victory PGA Tour career like his college teammate Bill Glasson, but what he did as a strong-minded collegian with a magical long-iron game and the ultimate self-belief was just as remarkable.
Rassett’s belief that he and his teammates could lift unheralded Oral Roberts to the collegiate mountaintop ahead of storied programs such as Oklahoma State, Houston and Brigham Young was audacious but they very nearly pulled it off, finishing third in the 1979-80 season and then second by two shots to BYU in 1980-81. For that, the 1981 team was the first ORU team ever inducted into the ORU Athletics Hall of Fame during ceremonies Saturday.
“He certainly changed my thinking,” said Bill Brogden, 80, the architect of that team. “I wanted us to be good. He was, ‘no, we’re going to win it all.’ And that was the attitude he imbued in every one of those guys.”
That team won five events in the 1980-81 season and the second-place finish to BYU, a result that still stings, is the closest any ORU team has come to winning a national championship. That team finished sixth in 1979, third in 1980 and second in 1981 when Rassett, Kane and Norton were seniors.
Rassett, who won seven tournaments and was a four-time All-American during his ORU career from 1977-81, had not only Brogden but teammates Glasson, Jim Kane, Bryan Norton and Jim Wilson convinced they were going to win it all.
“I was performing at a high level then and I was just kind of pulling them along,” Rassett said Saturday. “All of us got a taste of it and then that’s all we wanted. Billy was the fourth man when he came in if you can believe that. His game wasn’t the best when he got here but mentally he was as strong as anyone I’ve known.”
Glasson, who went on to win seven times on the PGA Tour and played against numerous Hall of Fame caliber players, says Rassett at that time was playing better than anyone he ever faced before or since.
“Quite simply, he was the best that I ever played with,” said Glasson. “And I don’t mean just in college. He was the best golfer I ever played with, and you know I played with some really good golfers.”
“That’s a profound statement by Billy but I agree with him,” Kane said. “He was that good.”
“When Hal Sutton won the Players Championship in 2000 and they asked him who was the best golfer he had ever played with that was not famous, he said Joey Rassett,” Norton said. “He was just incredible.”
Rassett, who grew up in Turlock, Calif., was the nation’s most coveted junior along with Bobby Clampett when he stunned historical programs from coast to coast by signing with Brogden and ORU. He had taken note of the transfer of Wake Forest star Mark Tinder to Oral Roberts the previous year and was enthralled with the chance to create his own history. He convinced Kane, another star California junior from San Mateo, to do the same.
Kane was considering Stanford and BYU when he chatted with Rassett while the two were backed up on a tee box at a U.S. Open qualifier.
“He said ‘Jim, do you want to be a little fish in a big pond or a big fish in what could become a big pond,’ ” Kane said. “By the time we were done talking I was ready to call Coach Brogden and tell him I was coming.”
The following year they helped convince another raw California talent in Glasson to come in from Fresno with his ultra competitive swagger. Meanwhile Brogden had received a tip from Labron Harris Sr. about a promising but uncommitted golfer from Salina, Kan. named Bryan Norton who had just participated as a counselor in the Oklahoma State golf camp. Brogden had to have Oral Roberts himself get on the phone with Norton’s skeptical father to convince him to allow his son to attend a religious school.
“My dad was an attorney and he was not going to let me come there,” Norton said. “Bill got Oral on the phone with him. I’m in the other room listening in on their conversation. He totally turned his attitude around.”
Norton played professionally for 10 years and has since has gone on to a long and distinguished amateur career in Kansas, where he is a three-time Kansas Amateur Champion. Wilson, who went on to become an honorable mention All-American for ORU in 1983, had just transferred in from a California junior college for the 1980-81 season and was the unheralded fifth starter at that time on a team with four current All-Americans.
Rassett was a genius long-iron player with a soft fade and a world of confidence.
“We would go around Meadowbrook and he would hit these 2-, 3-, 4-iron shots in to about three feet,” Glasson said. “I mean all the time. They would just go up there and land so soft. Every time.”
“He was just really, really good as a college player,” said Brogden. “He made the semifinals of the U.S. Amateur as a freshman. He totally changed my belief in what I thought was possible. He came in here and started talking about winning the NCAA Championship and soon enough, he had me believing.”
Rassett did go on to play seven years on the PGA Tour but said Saturday that he became too satisfied with making it to the tour and lost the drive that gave him such an edge in college. Injuries mounted. And he was no longer the leader of a hungry team with teammates like those he was inducted with trying to take him down in practice every day.
“Joey was always our leader,” said Norton, who was inducted into the Kansas Golf Hall of Fame in 2021. “We all looked up to him and we all tried to beat him. Even last night at our reunion dinner, he was still our leader.”
For the ultra-competitive Glasson, striving to take down Rassett in practice helped his own game leap ahead to where he was prepared for bigger battles on the PGA Tour when he left ORU in 1982. He turned pro in 1983, led the PGA Tour in driving in 1984 and earned his first PGA Tour victory in 1985 at the Kemper Open.
“Billy is still the most competitive golfer I’ve ever coached,” Brogden said. “When he got here he could not beat Joey but he was going to try to get better every day until he could.”
Kane, the 1991 Oklahoma Open champion, has had a long and successful career as a club professional and in other golf-related ventures. He said those years were a tribute to Brogden who served as a father figure and coach for the four Californians and a Kansan.
Brogden coached at LSU for six seasons before coming to ORU in 1977 and later at the University of Tulsa for 30 years until the program was dropped in 2016. He has served as a volunteer assistant to ORU coach Lance Watson at times since. He turned the credit back on the players.
“These guys were a special group,” he said. “They meant a lot to me then and still do today. I’ve never had another team like them.”