“Let’s be pioneers in this.”
That was exactly the answer current Cal golf coach Steve Desimone was looking to hear from the headmaster of the College Preparatory School in 1972.
His second day into his new position, Desimone, a basketball coach who knew little about soccer, faced his first predicament when four female students confronted him and insisted they were good enough to play for his team.
“I said ‘I’ll tell you what, if you ladies are right, you should be playing’,” recalls Desimone. “They said, ‘You really mean that?’ I said, ‘I don’t lie. You can take that to the bank.’”
In the end, Desimone prevailed in winning over the headmaster. All four girls tried out for the team and were valuable members that year. Desimone’s actions catalyzed the creation of a girls’ soccer program, which debuted the next year. His eyes shine with warmth and he chuckles boisterously as he recalls his lone season as a soccer coach, and he fondly describes each girl in detail as if the whole thing occurred yesterday.
Desimone has a whip-sharp memory and a fierce determination that seems always present but is rarely visible under his jovial demeanor.
It is this determination that brought him to Cal in the first place.
He recalls going to the Tournament of Champions final at Cal with his father and uncle when in the sixth grade.
“I swore that someday I would come back to Cal and I would play in the Tournament of Champions,” Desimone says.
Years later, in March of 1966, he took his team to the final of the tournament and sunk the game-winning shot, becoming the tournament’s leading scorer and the MVP. He was highly recruited and chose to accept a basketball scholarship to Cal.
He officially set foot on campus as a Golden Bear in the fall of 1966. And so began a love affair with the university. No matter what took him away, he always came back.
Though his collegiate basketball career turned sour in 1968 after a coaching shakeup, Desimone fought to make the best of an unfortunate situation. Not one to accept aimlessness, he sought a new passion to immerse himself in. He found it when his fraternity brothers first introduced him to golf — a sport that would capture his heart and guide his future.
“When I was growing up you played football, basketball, and baseball or you weren’t a man. That was the attitude back then. But I thought what the heck, I’ll give it a shot,” Desimone says. “I thought, ‘Damn, this is fun.’ I played 11 days in a row, and I haven’t stopped playing since.”
Upon finishing his two-year stint in the Navy, Desimone was unable to resist the siren call of Cal, where he returned to earn degrees in history and a Masters in physical education. During this time, he settled into the routine of coaching at College Prep and playing regular rounds of golf with Bill Manning, a prominent fixture in Cal athletics.
One day in 1979, a call from Manning, by then the director of intramural and recreational sports, disrupted Desimone’s comfortable routine. Manning had called to ask Desimone to take over the floundering Cal golf program that had recently been relegated from an NCAA sport to a club sport.
“He said, ‘Des, you will never regret it,’” Desimone recalls. “‘You are the right guy to do this. I can’t think of anyone else I know. Once this thing gets up and running, the sky is the limit.’”
“So, I’ll give you a week to think about it, and I won’t take no for an answer.”
Initially, Desimone was reluctant to leave his secure and enjoyable job at Prep, however, that inner drive of his proved incapable of resisting the challenge.
His resolve led him to not only accept the position but to fight fiercely to get golf reinstated as an NCAA sport. Despite an impressive compilation effort for both funds and a support base, the Cal athletic director Dave Maggard remained staunchly against reinstatement.
“He had said you will never have golf back as an NCAA sport, and he was adamant about that,” Desimone says.
While most might accept defeat in the face of such a daunting shadow of opposition, Desimone was determined to defy that antagonism. He took it upon himself to continue the fundraising abilities, and he soon accumulated a powerful support base, which included Vice Chancellor of Business and Administrative Services, Bob Kerley.
Finally, Desimone prevailed, and the team was reinstated in 1982 — another victory forged by the coach who has always fought for what he wanted.
Since then, he has established a thriving golf culture for the Bears, building the program to one of perpetual national prominence. He took the team to the pinnacle of collegiate golf with a National Championship in 2004, and the current team is ranked in the top 10 and poised to contend for the title this year. He was the NCAA coach of the year in 2004 and was inducted into the Golf Coaches’ Association of America Hall of Fame in 2010.
But beyond excellence in the sport, Desimone’s commitment to his own values drives him to foster excellence in character as well. He emphasizes character and citizenship, and is proud of the program for resisting the tendency that befalls other great programs to become “golf factories,” simply churning out PGA Tour wannabes. Rather, Desimone hopes to churn out great individuals.
He told those girls at College Prep that they could bank on his honesty. He allowed himself to bet on his own determination. And he proved to Bob Kerley that he could count on Desimone’s perseverance.
Kerley posed three conditions to Desimone in the final bid for reinstatement. The team must be self-funded forever, which it has remained. The team could offer no scholarships until its endowment reached $100,000, which it achieved by 1990. The final condition was that Desimone had to commit to stay with the team for a minimum of four years.
Desimone immediately accepted all of the conditions.
Kerley replied, “Something tells me you are going to be here a lot longer than four years.”