First, a little background. Back in the dark ages, I attended the University of Nebraska on a basketball scholarship. Although a pretty good student, I quickly learned that we weren't there to get an education, at least as far as the athletic department was concerned.
Of course, we weren't prohibited from getting one, but it just wasn't a priority of the school or the coaches.
Hence, I quickly learned, as did the other "student-athletes," that the moniker "student-athlete" was an insincere marketing phrase used by universities, fund raisers, TV advertisers and the NCAA to promote the big business of college sports. It's still that way today, except now it even permeates smaller programs who get most of their money for sports programs by charging "student fees" to non-athletes who attend those colleges and universities.
However, one top notch program has turned the normal way of conducting big time college athletics on its head.
Cal Men's Golf Team Plays and Pays Own Way to Top is a great story about the difference a committed coach can make:
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 e-mail 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 coaching salaries, scholarships, recruiting and travel comes entirely through charity events and fund-raising 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.
“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.”. . .
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 enroll in 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 a telephone interview, Brunk recalled their initial meeting in February 1980. He knew very little about Desimone beyond that he had played basketball at Cal.
"“I told him I’d like to see the sport get back in the athletic department, but I don’t want to participate in a pre-professional golf program,” Brunk said. Shortly thereafter, Brunk held a fund-raising tournament at his home course, Orinda Country Club, which featured about four dozen golfers and raised more than $5,000. The success of the event, now in its 33rd year, led Brunk and Desimone to form the Cal Golf Committee, a group of roughly two dozen volunteers that raises money for the program.
In 1982, men’s golf was reinstated as an intercollegiate sport 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 N.C.A.A. rules is four and a half).
Cal has produced 13 all-Americans and 17 all-American scholars, capturing the N.C.A.A. 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 United States Amateur finalist Michael Weaver, are on the watch list for the Ben Hogan Award, given 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."
Doing the right thing right is not always easy. But when it happens, it's noteworthy.
It's mere existence often becomes a great role model for others to follow. Such is the Cal golf program.
Throughout my adult life, I've witnessed far too much wasted time and foregone opportunities for talented and intelligent young people as the youngsters strive during their youth to win athletic scholarships to college and then fail to have a quality educational experience while attending college.
Unfortunately, and all too often, those adults (parents, coaches, teachers and academic counselors) surrounding and "supporting" our enthusiastic and hard working teenage athletes frequently don't encourage them to work hard in their academic endeavors along the way to sports stardom. The two need not be mutually exclusive and should in fact be mutually supportive.
If our talented young athletes were motivated and encouraged to work as hard in the classroom as they do in the sports they pursue, their futures would be so much brighter when their playing days are over.
And it wouldn't cost a thing other than a little more sweat, dedicated effort and hard work. And adult encouragement, of course.
When that becomes the norm, then we can all smile. Until then, however, let's all reflect on what's seriously wrong with youth and college sports.
That's my take.