Cal Program Succeeds On And Off The Course

One of my all-time favorite oxymorons in college sport is “student athlete.” That is the moniker foisted upon us by the bureaucrats in Indianapolis who run the NCAA. They use it, for example, to distract us from focusing on the kids rented by the University of Kentucky for a semester-and-a-half to play basketball and win a national championship before being taken in the first round of the NBA draft.
Fortunately, golf is one of those college sports where the term has some basis in reality. And perhaps nowhere is this truer than at the University of California-Berkeley. Better known as California, or simply Cal, this is one of the elite universities in the world, a school that is hard to get ad¬mitted to and even harder to stay in once enrolled. And despite that, its men’s golf team is ranked first in the nation and has won a remarkable five out of five tournaments in its now-concluded fall season.
Consider this: Cal had five players qualify for the U.S. Amateur this summer, and two players reach the quarterfinals in two of the last three years. One was Mi¬chael Weaver, who lost the championship last August in heartbreaking fashion to Steven Fox. Weaver’s back story is indicative of what it’s like to attend Cal while trying to play big-time college golf.
A native of Fresno, Calif., Weaver played well during the second semester of his freshman year, and was an honorable mention All-American after his sophomore season. But he red-shirted as a junior to focus on grades to gain admission into the Haas School of Business. You read that right: He took a year off to focus on school. Happens all the time at powerhouse football and basketball schools, right?
When you see a program succeed as Cal has despite rigorous academic standards, you have to look at the coach. And in this case, Cal’s golf program is led by one of the truly forward thinking coaches in America, Steve Desimone. Although not well known outside college golf circles, all he has done in his 34-year career is build a nationally elite program from scratch.
Desimone graduated from Cal, where he played basketball. After getting his master’s at Cal as well, he became athletic director at an Oakland college prep school and later became part-time golf coach at his alma mater in 1979. At the time, Cal’s program had lost its varsity status, and the athletic director was determined to keep it that way. Desimone and others saw it differently. By 1982, he had the program reinstated … but that was just the beginning.
By the 1986-87 campaign, Desimone had his team in the top 25 in the nation, and had become the full-time coach. By 1989-90, he had Cal in the NCAA postseason competition. Only then was he able to procure the most basic of tools all other coaches had at their disposal – financial aid. In order to gain reinstatement in 1982, Desimone agreed that financial aid would only be available when the program endowment reached $100,000.
Beginning in 1995, Desimone guided his troops to eight NCAA championships tournaments, including last year, when his team made it to the semifinals of the now match-play championship and had argu¬ably the school’s best year ever. He reached the pinnacle of his career when the 2004 team won the national championship, earning him college coach of the year. Along the way, the Hall of Fame coach has guided nine All-Americans and 10 All-American scholars. Desimone is the epitome of a coach-as-instructor, the kind of person for whom parents want their kids to play.
So what’s his secret? As in any college sport, it begins and ends with recruiting. Desimone must find smart kids who can succeed academically while still get¬ting the ball in the hole quickly. He wants grounded kids from solid family situations, and he wants his kids to have fun. Most of these kids come from California, although he does get some talented internationals by virtue of the school’s reputation.
Desimone’s squad this year is loaded, with potentially four All-Americans, including Weaver. They are so deep, it really doesn’t matter who plays first man or fifth. An undefeated fall season is unprecedent¬ed, but it wasn’t completely surprising.
Cal is one of the few American college golf programs that is completely self-funded, to the tune of more than half-a-million dollars annually. Desimone also has built an endowment of four million dollars, which he wants to push northward to fifteen. When he asks for money, it’s hard to say no. The results over the past three decades speak for themselves.
Like Stanford and Northwestern, Cal is one of the handful of elite schools in America where you actually have to go to classes not called phys-ed and study your tail off. It’s wonderful to see that they can compete at the highest level athletically without cutting any corners or compromising the larger mission of the university.
Go Bears.

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