TUCSON, Ariz. — The spring semester started at the University of California the week before the Arizona Intercollegiate tournament, which presented a problem for two of the top players on the Bears’ No. 1-ranked men’s golf team.
Brandon Hagy and Joel Stalter wanted to take an improvisation and leadership course, offered through the Haas School of Business. They attended the first week of the classes, but they could not make the first class of the second week because they were at The Golf Club of Vistoso in Tucson, trying to help the Bears to their sixth team victory in as many starts.
Students who miss any of the improvisation and leadership classes in the first three weeks of the semester are automatically dropped. The Cal coach, Steve Desimone, whose career has been a case study in improvisation and leadership, sent an email appeal to the professor to make an exception for Hagy and Stalter, to no avail.
For the better part of four decades, Desimone has been devoted to putting the student back in student-athlete. He has succeeded at Cal despite receiving no direct funding from the university, turning the lack of financial support into a golden opportunity to fix a college model he considered broken.
The team’s budget for coaches’ salaries, scholarships, recruiting and travel comes entirely through benefit events and fundraising and endowment drives.
As Desimone darted from hole to hole in a golf cart last week, monitoring his players’ progress and delivering sandwiches, snacks and suggestions on club selection during the final round, he kept returning to this classroom defeat.
The professor’s refusal to budge weighed more heavily on Desimone than did the Bears’ first loss of the school year, a third-place finish behind New Mexico and Texas Christian in the 54-hole event.
“Isn’t the essence of teaching finding a way to help the best students?" Desimone said. “When you have special kids like these, it kills you when they can’t find a way to make this work."
Stalter, who is from France, finished as the tournament co-medalist with his teammate Michael Kim, which at least provided Desimone with his punch line: Who needs a leadership course when you are the leader of the pack?
“Part of the way we get past life’s difficulties is by finding the humor in them," Desimone said.
Desimone, a 64-year-old married father of two, was on the Cal basketball team in the late 1960s, an experience that afforded him a window into the murkier side of college athletics. He said some of the best and brightest football and basketball stars were either unprepared or unmotivated to carry their academic weight.
“I swore I’d never get involved in intercollegiate athletics, that it was the dirtiest thing going," said Desimone, whose disillusionment with the political and social unrest at Berkeley in the late 1960s led him to drop out of college and join the Navy.
Desimone returned to Cal in 1972 and completed his double major in physical education and history, then earned his master’s degree in physical education. He accepted a job as the athletic director and basketball coach at the College Preparatory School in Oakland, an institution geared toward high-achieving students.
In November 1979, Desimone was approached to coach the Cal golf team. It was a club sport after having been dropped as an intercollegiate program the previous spring by Dave Maggard, the athletic director at the time.
The pitch to Desimone revolved around returning the sport to varsity status. He said he was inclined to reject the offer, but in the week he was given to mull the decision, a vision took root in his mind. What if he were able to bring the College Preparatory School’s focus on academics and embrace of athletics to Cal?
“That became the challenge, to be the beacon on the hill," Desimone said. “I wanted to build a program based on honesty and integrity and academic excellence."
He started as a volunteer coach with a $2,500 budget, which he quickly managed to double not long after joining forces with Frank Brunk, a well-connected former Cal football player.
In 1982, men’s golf was reinstated as an intercollegiate sport at Cal after demonstrating it could be self-sufficient. Desimone kept his job at the College Preparatory School until 1988, when he became Cal’s full-time coach at $35,000 a year (his salary has since tripled).
Under Desimone, the team now has a budget of $525,000, culled in part from the interest from a $3.75 million endowment raised by Desimone and company and managed by university regents. They have enough money to finance three scholarships (the maximum allowed under NCAA rules is 4 1⁄2).
Cal has produced 13 all-Americans and 17 all-American scholars, capturing the NCAA team title in 2004 and coming tantalizingly close last year, advancing to the team semifinals.
Reached by telephone, Maggard said: “I think it’s great what he’s done. That was the intent all along, for the so-called Olympic sports to become endowed. Were all the golf people happy about it? No. But now you see where they are."
Four golfers on this year’s team, including Hagy and the U.S. Amateur finalist Michael Weaver, are on the watch list for the Ben Hogan Award, presented to the nation’s top male college golfer.
What makes Desimone prouder is that three of his players are in the prestigious Haas business school, and that his team’s cumulative grade-point average is above 3.1.