What’s going on in there?
It’s the question that continues to haunt Steve Desimone.
For the past decade, he has battled so many ailments that those close to him can no longer keep track: hip and back, arm and head, eye and leg, asthma and Achilles. The breakdown can partly be attributed to bad luck and advancing age, to an early life on the basketball court and then 37 years as the men’s golf coach at the University of California. But there also were enough warning signs that in the summer of 2014, Desimone’s son, Robert, planned to broach the idea of retirement, of slowing down, of getting out of the game before his body made the decision for him. He never summoned the courage.
“We were playing golf, and unprompted, he told me, ‘I’m having way too much fun to get out of it,’” Robert says now. “So who the hell am I to step in and tell him to retire? It was just going to make him feel older than he already was. I could tell he wasn’t done. He needed to go out on his own terms.”
Then came the abdominal pain in December 2015.
Desimone had endured minor bouts of intestinal inflammation before, but it usually passed after a few weeks. This did not. The 67-year-old traveled to Hawaii for the Golden Bears’ second spring event and was miserable. Not only did he coach through the stomach pain, but he thought he pulled his left quadriceps while racing back and forth between the 16th green and the elevated 17th tee. The flight home was even worse. His stomach ached, his leg was on fire, and he fretted over a cryptic text his wife, Linda, had sent hours earlier about a problem back at the house.
Hobbling through the front door at midnight, he saw towels on the hardwood floors, squeegees in Linda’s hands, and pots and pans catching the water pouring through the light fixtures. A toilet line had broken, and the $10 part caused more than $100,000 in flood damage.
“The world was coming apart for us,” he says.
He saw the doctor for the stomach pain and was prescribed antibiotics that didn’t help. He underwent a CAT scan and agonized for a few more days. And then finally, at 9:45 a.m. on March 3, 2016, while awaiting another round of allergy shots, he received a phone call and some clarity.
“There’s something we need to deal with immediately,” his doctor started.
Two small tumors.
“But Steven,” she said, “please don’t panic.”
L to R: Kim, Linda, Steve and Robert Desimone (courtesy: Cal Athletics)
IN THE FALL OF 1979, Desimone was working as the athletic director at the prestigious College Preparatory School in Oakland when he was approached to coach the Cal men’s golf team.
Earlier that year, golf, wrestling and volleyball had been dropped as intercollegiate sports in a cost-cutting measure by then-athletic director Dave Maggard. After accepting the job, Desimone helped form the Cal Golf Committee and raised $5,000 at the inaugural fundraising tournament, the first step in proving to Maggard and the administration that the team could be self-sufficient.
After two years of tense negotiations, the golf program was reinstated in 1982, but under three conditions set by vice chancellor for business administrative services Bob Curley: Desimone had to stay at least four years; they couldn’t offer scholarships unless the endowment had a minimum of $100,000; and Cal Golf must be self-funded forever.
Those stipulations – especially the last part – created a series of challenges. While his coaching peers targeted elite juniors with the promise of a full scholarship, Desimone focused on players who didn’t need financial assistance and were the right fit for Cal, both athletically and academically. (Cal-Berkeley is the top-ranked public school in the country.) With no funding from the university, Desimone was both coach and businessman – responsible not just for player development and recruiting, but also organizing charity and fundraising events that helped cover annual expenses including coaching salaries and benefits, scholarships and travel.
Desimone proved wildly successful at both tasks. They just held their 38th fundraiser, and although Maggard once huffed that the group couldn’t even raise $1,000, Desimone and Co. have since collected more than $25 million – one of the lone bright spots in an athletic department crippled by a budgetary crisis.
“Des is Cal Golf,” says Ken Lloyd, a Cal alum and longtime president of the Cal Golf Committee. “The program wouldn’t have existed without him.”
The slow climb to relevance finally paid off in 2004. Twenty-five years after the run-down program was eliminated, and with no top-500 recruits, Desimone guided the Golden Bears to an improbable NCAA title.
“I always joke, like, When’s the movie coming out?” says his daughter, Kim.
When the team returned home, the chancellor’s chief of staff, John Cummins, phoned Desimone and set up a lunch to congratulate the committee. It’d been years since they had seen each other, and when Curley walked in, Desimone put the NCAA trophy on his place setting. Curley’s eyes welled. “I always thought you guys could achieve something like this,” he said. “The best decision I ever made at Cal was reinstating the men’s golf program.” He died six months later.
The ’04 team might have won the title, but it was the squad nearly a decade later that is most synonymous with Cal Golf.
The 2012-13 Golden Bears staked their claim as the best team in college golf history with an 11-win season during which they posted a head-to-head record of 206-3-1, beat their opponents by a combined 8,238 strokes (the three losses by a total of only five shots) and boasted a lineup with three first-team All-Americans and a pair of second-teamers. Yet they fell short at the NCAA Championship, stunned by Illinois in the semifinals. Afterward, the players and coaches were inconsolable; for 45 minutes in the team hotel, Desimone sat with his head in his hands, muttering, “I just don’t believe it. I just don’t believe it.” Finally, he emerged with reddened eyes and declared, “You guys will live forever as the best team in the history of college golf.”
Even now, the loss still rankles him. “That’s the only regret I have in all of this,” he says.
It was as close as he’d get to another title.
Coach Desimone at the 2016 NCAA Championships (courtesy: Cal Athletics)
ALONE AT HIS allergist’s office, Desimone slumped into a chair.
“You’ve got to be f—ing kidding me,” he grumbled.
He called Linda at work, and for 15 seconds there was nothing but silence. “I’ll be right there,” she said.
The doctors’ initial suspicion of multiple myeloma, a cancer found in the bone marrow, was confirmed a few days later. Desimone received five radiation treatments at the Alta Bates Oncology Center in Berkeley, one of the top myeloma clinics in the world, that zapped the two 1 1/2-centimeter tumors pushing on his spinal column and creating the discomfort in his abdomen. He was immediately put on a chemotherapy treatment plan, and the next few months were hellish, with shots and clinic visits and treatments and hospital rooms.
Desimone didn’t tell his kids until Kim, 34, came to visit a few weeks later. She’d brought her boyfriend, Zach, to Orinda to spend time with her parents and visit the wine country. Instead, Desimone sat them both on the couch, dialed Robert and put him on speakerphone, and delivered the news. Kim burst into tears.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Desimone said, consoling her. “I will fight this like hell and nothing is going to take me down. I plan on being here for a long time.”
The timing was dreadful, though. Much of the family’s house needed to be redone after the flood, so they had packed up their belongings and moved into a 700-square-foot garage apartment, where they stayed for six months. Desimone was so weak that he practically rolled out of bed. His voracious appetite disappeared. And he was reduced to a wheelchair, walker and crutches.
“All I could do was love him and hug him,” Linda says. “Everything around me was just numb already, with so many things being thrown at us. I just wanted to take care of him and get him better so we could do all the things we were planning on doing.”
Desimone’s diagnosis largely remained a secret. One of the first to know was Walter Chun, a former Cal golfer and Desimone’s associate head coach for 12 years, so he could take over on an interim basis. “I was shocked,” Chun says. “Your head starts racing with all of the negative thoughts instead of the positive.”
In the throes of chemo, Desimone couldn’t be near his players. All the team knew was that he had a nerve problem in his left leg, that he couldn’t really walk, that doctors were trying to address it. They were intentionally kept in the dark – Desimone didn’t want to become a distraction for the rest of the season. “The guys have to know and trust that I’m not there for a good reason,” he told Chun.
By the end of March, the regular season was winding down and he started to improve. At the time, Robert, 32, was working as a State Farm insurance account representative in Minnesota, and he booked a one-way ticket to California, eventually spending 12 days by his father’s side. One day at the clinic, they asked the doctor whether they could travel to Arizona State for Cal’s upcoming tournament. It had become clear that this would be Desimone’s final year, and he and Linda, who spent 36 years as the athletic director at the College Preparatory School, planned to retire together at the end of the spring semester. But the finality was unsettling.
“How does it come down to this?” he asked Robert one night. “We’re so close to the finish line. It can’t end like this.” His doctor agreed that Desimone could go to Tempe, as long as he followed the treatment regimen.
“He was really feeling like he was never going to be with the team on a trip again,” Robert says. “When the doctor said we could make it work, he lit up like a Christmas tree. It was one of the biggest smiles and happiest moments I’ve ever seen.”
It turned out to be a mistake. The team lost by a shot, and the normally gregarious coach had little energy in the desert heat. Robert constantly monitored his father’s vital signs while Chun administered his shots each night, pinching the fatty area around his belly button. Desimone labored through the airport, and after returning home, he turned to Linda and sighed, “Nope, this isn’t going to work.”
Less than a week later, his temperature spiked to 102.5 and he was admitted to the emergency room. With weight melting off his increasingly frail body, he spent eight days in the hospital, likely because of a low-grade virus he’d contracted in Tempe.
“That was a big setback in the sense of, What’s going on here?” Linda says. “That looked somewhat scary.”
While recovering, he nagged doctors about the pain in his leg, which hadn’t subsided over the past few months. They ran another CAT scan and found the culprit – a 7-centimeter tumor in his left femur.
Another 10 days of radiation followed, each treatment reducing his pain. By the end of the 10 sessions he could trudge up and down the stairs, and he began moving well enough to attend the team banquet in early May, when he announced that he was stepping down after the NCAA Championship. No reason was given.
“The team deserves two full-time coaches,” he said, “and I can’t give what I used to.”
Hoping to rally behind their departing coach, the Golden Bears headed to Tucson for regionals. Of the 13 teams competing, only the top 5 after 54 holes advance to NCAAs, and down the stretch Cal sat a few shots outside the cut line.
In the most stressful tournament of the year, Desimone was strangely calm. “I had set it up psychologically that, if this was it, it was a hell of a career,” he says. “I couldn’t have asked for anything more.” Desimone has always taken pride in his team’s closing ability, and fittingly the four counters combined for five birdies on the final two holes. Watching K.K. Limbhasut’s 50-foot birdie crash into the back of the cup on 17, securing Cal’s spot among the top 5, Robert raced toward his father’s cart, screaming, “He made the f—ing putt! We’re gonna make it!”
The NCAA Championship lacked a similar fairy-tale ending, but it was no less satisfying. Finishing late in the day, the cameras and fans on-site all tilted toward Eugene Country Club’s ninth hole for Desimone’s farewell. With no chance to make match play, Robert convinced his father to stop about 60 yards short of the green, so he could soak up one last walk with his team.
Afterward, he congratulated his peers and posed for pictures and answered questions about his legacy. Surrounded by friends and family, he exited to the right of the green, arm in arm with Kim and Robert.
“Totally at peace,” he says. “It was time to call it a career and concentrate on what was going on with me.”
Video: Coach Desimone’s final event at the 2016 NCAAs
FOUR WEEKS AFTER NCAAs, doctors determined that Desimone’s cancer was in remission. He didn’t celebrate with a party or vacation. “Just a sigh of relief,” Linda says. “I probably could have cried tears of joy, but my emotions are just in a holding pattern until whenever.”
It was Desimone’s first summer in four decades without somewhere to be, without a recruit to watch, so he settled into a new routine. Needing to overhaul her husband’s diet – no sugar, no alcohol – Linda prepared smoothies, turkey wraps with cream cheese, and chicken and vegetables. Each day he spent a few hours flipping through three newspapers and firing off committee emails. In the afternoon he maintained his perfectly manicured lawn, while Linda tended to her well-stocked garden of tomatoes, zucchini and blueberries. And before dinner, they stretched and walked a couple of miles, chatting optimistically about the future, about maybe opening a school or running a volleyball clinic for kids.
“It took us some time to realize that every day is a Saturday,” Linda says. “But every once in a while, he’ll kick back and say, ‘I think I’m liking this!’”
And, yes, he remained involved with the Cal golf program, though not as intimately as before. Chun, his longtime assistant, was promoted to head coach. At the first team meeting last fall, Desimone laid out the expectations – he would only serve in an advisory role, if asked, while Chun called the shots.
“I had to cut the cord,” Desimone said. He didn’t want the hoopla of a retirement party, but 160 people, including former players and alumni, attended his sendoff at the team’s annual fundraiser last September at TPC Stonebrae. The real reason for his retirement was still a mystery to many – he only told his 95-year-old father about the diagnosis 11 months ago.
“It was a little bit sobering,” says Lloyd, the committee president, “because we knew he was having some health issues.”
When he was strong enough, Desimone watched a few qualifiers and pored over scores, looking for trends. The results weren’t always encouraging. Two of the team’s five starters redshirted so they could focus on their admittance into the Haas School of Business, while another sat out because of injury. They essentially sacrificed Chun’s first year.
Though Collin Morikawa blossomed into one of the game’s rising stars, the Golden Bears finished no better than fifth in a tournament, took eighth at Pac-12s and failed to advance to a regional because they didn’t defeat at least half of their opponents. “I know Walter pushed every conceivable button he could,” Desimone says. “There just wasn’t enough there.”
It’s a new era in Cal Golf, and Desimone has slowly been phased out, finally packing up his office last November. Now, he’s just like every other college golf fan, tracking events on the Golfstat app. “I didn’t have any on-the-job training – the previous coach gave me a brown notebook with 50 pages in it and told me to remember to be on the first tee so I could say good luck to the guys,” Desimone says. “Walter is a smart guy, and he’ll find his way a lot faster than I did. But coaches are going to do different things. We’re not all robots.”
To his credit, Chun expected a rough year, and he suffered his fair share of growing pains as a first-year head coach. With his team struggling, he sought Desimone’s advice on how to manage his roles as coach, businessman and salesman, how to deal with concerned donors and, most importantly, how to connect with players. For 12 years, Desimone was the disciplinarian and father figure while Chun massaged egos as the associate head coach. All of a sudden, the roles were reversed (with assistant Eric Mina), and everything was new – feeling like the bad guy, soothing disgruntled parents, delivering speeches after a tough round.
On Tuesday, Cal won its first team title under Chun.
“After some time to reflect, I realized I have to create my own identity, be my own coach and person,” he says. “He knows I have to learn from my own mistakes, but I feel like I have a lot to prove. I need to prove something to Des and the athletic department and the donors. It’s hard to replace a legend.”
Coach Desimone and team (courtesy: Cal Athletics)
“EVERY FREAKIN’ DAY is one damn challenge after another.”
It’s August, and it’s been 15 months since Desimone retired, at least in an official capacity. After a year and a half, he has finally agreed to talk on the record about his illness, and only because he recently mentored a couple that was in a similar situation. It was therapeutic for both sides, and he realized that his words, and his story, could help others.
Frustratingly, in the maintenance stage, there have been more health issues, even more uncertainty. Last December, pumped full of chemo, he underwent a stem-cell transplant that left his body vulnerable to illness, like a baby’s. It was a subdued Christmas, with a different holiday routine and his kids unable to hug him for the first 48 hours of their visit. “It was still one of the more meaningful ones I can remember,” Robert says. “Given all that had happened in 2016, it meant so much for us to be there together.”
Over the course of three weeks and two lengthy interviews, four problems pop up: a pulled hip muscle, asthma attacks triggered by the wildfires, cataract surgery and a bout with pneumonia that lands him in the hospital. At times, it feels as though he’s falling apart, piece by piece.
“When you first get it, you always wonder, Why me?” Desimone says. “But I don’t ask it as often as I did. You wrestle with this stuff over time. The number of different thoughts and questions still go on – it may not be what it was the first six months I was fighting the disease, but they’re always there.
“Every cancer patient has that fear, every day, every hour: Is this the beginning of the end?”
Now 69, Desimone has big plans for the future. He wants to play more golf, and he wants to watch Cal play tournaments, and he wants to write a book. But he’s also learning to swallow smaller disappointments in hopes of better days. Missed weddings. Canceled meetings. Postponed vacations. At least he received some good news Tuesday, when his doctor green-lighted his trip later this week to Tahiti – a getaway Desimone had planned as a thank-you to his wife of 35 years, the woman he calls “the real MVP,” for her 19 months of caretaking.
“The doubts and the questions, they’re always in the back of your mind,” he says. “It always is. I don’t care how strong you are mentally. At some point, you have to push the button and they go into the compartment in the back of your mind. But you still can’t help but think: What’s going on in there?”
Coach Desimone and family with the 2004 NCAA Championship trophy (courtesy: Cal Athletics)
Each inductee received five minutes – three for a video summarizing their career accomplishments, two for a speech in front of 500 attendees. The task seemed impossible, boiling down into 120 seconds a career in which he took a program on life support and turned it into a national champion, so he enlisted Robert to help craft his speech. They chatted about legacy, about the people who made it all possible, and Desimone felt prepared for the evening. He attended a luncheon and teared up at the sight of his plaque. He got fitted for a tuxedo; Linda bought a new dress and shoes.
But that night, like so many others over the past two years, didn’t go as planned. About 45 minutes before his speech, he staggered and nearly collapsed. Those near him initially thought he’d suffered a heart attack, but it was probably dehydration because of the heat wave, or a reaction to the six booster shots he’d received three days earlier. Whatever the case, he retired to a couch in a back room of the conference center, straining to hear Robert deliver the speech that he was supposed to give.
“But Dad,” Kim said, hugging him, “at least you’re here.”
He still hasn’t seen the video.
“It was crushing,” Desimone says now. “If ever there was a night, that peak moment …” He paused. “It was disappointing and frustrating. Really frustrating. There’s just that damn question mark again: What’s going on in there?”
And so now everyone – the family, the team, the committee – feels a greater sense of urgency.
When Desimone started at Cal, he had three goals: win a national title; create a facility for the team; and ensure Cal Golf in perpetuity through an endowment. He accomplished the first two objectives. He and the committee hoped to finish the last part before he retired, but the cancer diagnosis understandably derailed their progress.
They’re roughly $2.5 million short of their $12 million endowment goal, at which point the interest would kick in enough to fully fund the program. That would take some of the fundraising pressure off Chun and the committee, but more importantly it would ensure that the program – that Desimone’s life’s work – remains untouched.
It’s the final task of Desimone’s storied Cal career, and he has worn himself down trying to finish it. He wants closure.
“He almost lives in fear that it will happen, so it drives him to finish the endowment,” Robert says. “That’s the ultimate legacy – that the program he started lives forever. What’s a better legacy than that?”