‘I don’t know that anyone could ask for more.’
Those were the simple words that the self-proclaimed one of the luckiest guys on the planet came up with when retiring Cal’s men’s golf coach Steve Desimone was asked d to summarize his 37 years on the job and half-century associated with his alma mater.
The success the Bears have had both on and off the course during his tenure is quite impressive with the nearly final numbers highlighted by an NCAA title in 2004, two national Coach of the Year honors, a pair of national semifinalist appearances as well as NCAA Regional and Pac-12 titles in 2012 and 2013, 11 trips to the NCAA Championships, three Pac-12 Coach of the Year selections, 13 All-Americans that have earned 20 All-American honors, 13 All-America Scholars that have picked up 23 awards and 66 all-time team victories.
But as much as the 67-year-old may have accomplished and the honors received over the years, there is no doubt he has given even more to a program that has been his life for nearly four decades.
“Coaching is an honorable profession,” Desimone said. “It’s great being an important part of the lives of young people. That’s a part of the job I have really enjoyed.”
There have been many chapters in the illustrious coaching career of the Golden Bears’ gregarious and universally-loved head man who announced his retirement earlier this month.
The final chapter of his career is about to be written at the Eugene Country Club but a brief history of how he has led the program to its current elite status among the nation’s best is aching to be told.
The outline for the first chapter in what would be an outstanding book began nearly four decades ago in the fall of 1979.
The Cal men’s golf program had just lost its status as an NCAA varsity sport and Desimone had recently finished up his master’s degree at Cal after a previous stint in the military in Hawaii and turning down an opportunity to begin a professional golf career.
“I was like a lot of young people at that time floating around trying to figure out what I wanted to do,” Desimone recalled.
Desimone had considered going into the ministry but ended up finding something else he really enjoyed and that was coaching and working with young people while making a positive influence on their lives.
It wouldn’t be easy to get the opportunity to do that at Cal but there were people on and around campus that wanted the varsity status restored for the men’s golf program and helped make it happen.
One of those was Cal’s Director of Recreational and Intramural Sports Bill Manning, who was convinced that Desimone was the right person to lead that effort.
“His immortal words were ‘I’ll give you a week to think about it and I’m not taking no for an answer,’” Desimone remembered. “I thought about it for a few days and said this is the craziest thing I’ve ever thought of doing. I told Bill there was no way I was going to do it and that he needed to find somebody else. By the end of the week I said yes.”
That was in November of 1979 and less than three years later in the fall of 1982 the Bears were back in business.
But not until after a series of contentious meetings fighting opposition, lots of fundraising and enormous help from several key figures including UC Berkeley Vice-Chancellor Bob Curley, former Cal football player Frank Brunk and several members of the newly formed Cal Golf Committee.
There’s so much to tell about what went on to get the program reinstated to NCAA status but the remainder of that opening chapter will need to be revealed in the book.
It was now time for Desimone to start writing the next chapter and begin living his life as one of the luckiest men on the planet while helping so many others along the way.
By the 1986-87 season, Cal was ranked among the top 25 teams in the nation for the first time in the history of the program and had a performance that Desimone calls the greatest comeback he has ever seen at San Diego State’s Frank Scott Memorial Tournament. Trailing fourth-ranked Fresno State by 17 shots going into the final round, the Bears rallied to win their first major championship in 17 years. Cal’s success that season helped Desimone pick up Pac-10 Conference Co-Coach of the Year honors for the first time.
Three years later in 1989-90, Cal earned its first NCAA postseason berth in 26 seasons and first-ever under Desimone by qualifying for an NCAA Regional.
The following season was more significant for accomplishments off the course as the program offered a minimal amount of financial aid to incoming student-athletes for the first time in 15 years, with the effort led by the generous support of the Cal men’s golf committee.
“That was a critical step because it finally demonstrated we were competing nationally in all aspects of our program,” Desimone said.
The team qualified for the NCAA Championships via an NCAA Regionals performance for the first time ever in 1994-95 and posted a sixth-place finish that is still is the team’s fourth-best ever at the event.
Cal would get back to the NCAA’s for three straight years from 1998-2000 before returning to win their lone NCAA title in 2004 with a magical final-round comeback from eight shots off the pace of third-round leader UCLA that also earned Desimone the National Coach of the Year.
By the time Desimone won his first NCAA title he was two-thirds of the way through his career. Many great coaches have faded in their later years but Desimone’s results have been quite the opposite. The best part of his career has been the final third that began with the NCAA title and also featured the golden era of the program from 2009-14 that included a school-record five straight trips to the NCAA Championships. The 2012-13 squad was the best in the history of college golf with an NCAA record 12 wins in 14 stroke-play events, was ranked No. 1 in all national polls at the end of the season, and earned Desimone his second national Coach of the Year honor.
“It was an amazing five-year run, arguably the best in the history of college golf,” Desimone said. “The 2012-13 team in particular was without a doubt the most dominant ever.”
After four of the five players in the 2014 NCAA Championships lineup graduated, a new era of Cal golf started in 2014-15 with a young team that fell just shy of extending the Bears’ run of NCAA Championships to six.
Desimone contemplated retirement after the 2014-15 season but ultimately decided to come back for one more chance at what he will get in Eugene.
“I really wasn’t ready to retire a year ago,” Desimone said. “I was disappointed at not making the NCAA Championships. I wanted another shot, the players wanted another shot. I wanted to be with these guys because I thought we could grow as a team and make a serious run at a great season and get back to the NCAA Championships.”
And that’s just what a young team that will feature two freshmen and two sophomores in its NCAA Championships lineup has done with a strong season that has included a pair of victories, a second-place showing at the Pac-12 Championships that tied for the third-best in school history, and finishes among the top four in 12 of its first 13 events including a fourth-place effort at the NCAA Tucson Regional that earned the Bears a trip to Eugene.
It’s a trip that gives Desimone one more chance to add to those staggering career numbers and an incredible legacy but more importantly one more time to share the experience.
“The first goal was to make the NCAA Championships,” Desimone said. “Knowing what it’s like to win an NCAA title that’s the ultimate goal. It is more so for the players than me. That experience is such a special unique experience. It lasts for a lifetime.”
“You better believe it I’m excited,” Desimone added about his final shot. “Once you get to the NCAA Championships anything’s possible and we’re there. I couldn’t ask for anything more in terms of ending my career in the right spot. It’s great to get back to the NCAA Championship and brings a smile to my face to lead this team one more time. I know our guys will lay it all on the line.”
Just like he has done for so many for so long.
by Kyle McRae