SMH Sports Boss Leaves; He's Done It All

Times staff writer

In the not distant future, Don Steere, athletic director at Santa Monica High since 1966, might be running a sport fishing resort in Baja with son Doug.

An avid golfer, Steere may also involve himself in a desert golf resort. Either way, he'll continue to work. But from now until 1993, Steere will spend only 25 days a year at the school he has worked at for 27 years.

Steere, 58, retired this week after accomplishing "about everything I can do. Things are coming around for the third and fourth time, so I figure it's time for me to do something different."

As part of the school's early retirement plan, Steere will be under independent contract until 1993 and plans to assist vice principal Dick Turner in developing a new procedure for determining student-athlete eligibility.

He also will assist wrestling and assistant football coach Norm Lacy, who succeeds Steere as athletic director.

Steere says he isn't really retiring. "I'm leaving," he said with a laugh, "but I'm not going anywhere."

Steere will most likely spend much of his time gripping an iron and wearing spikes.

"Don will be happy most anywhere," said wife, Patty, "as long as he can play golf."

Steere considers himself an "enthusiastic golfer."

"Physically I don't feel any different now than I did years ago," he said. "I don't consider myself an elderly gentleman.

"I run and play two-on-two basketball, so physically I'm not ready for the wheelchair. This kind of job makes it so that you can stay in shape, and I'm athletic-minded."

In 27 years at Santa Monica High, Steere cared as much about athletics as about students who participated. By most accounts, he provided students with just enough room to make their own choices and just enough direction to make those choices productive.

Dennis Smith, a seven-year strong safety with the Denver Broncos, made many of the right decisions courtesy of Steere. Smith graduated from Santa Monica in 1977 and attributes much of his success to Steere's encouraging attitude.

"He saw something in me that I never saw in myself," Smith said. "He saw my long-range goals as unlimited. I was so quiet and hard to communicate with in school, but I always seemed to be able to communicate with him, even without saying a lot."

Smith, whom Steere called "the best physical athlete I've ever seen (at Santa Monica High)," faced many of the dilemmas teen-agers encounter and chose the right path. He is not one to forget the people who helped him make the choice.

"At that age," he said, "kids have so much time to do the wrong thing, like stealing or drinking and drugs. (Steere) helped me understand about not taking the wrong road."

Rick Monday, who played with the Dodgers and Chicago Cubs after graduating from Santa Monica in 1963, feels Steere's dedication was critical.

"I was just so damn lucky because I had people like Don Steere who cared about people and not just about their jobs," said Monday, a sports announcer at Fox Channel 11. "It wasn't just a job, it was a life experience with him. He knew how to affect a kid, and he sure touched me."

Steere hopes he touched every student, particularly the athletes. The school district sends a diverse group of students to the high school, many of whom see their future in sports. Steere realizes only a few will make the cut, but says the overall experience is most important.

"We've had some tremendous kids who graduated from here who were athletes and never did another athletic thing," he said, "and they still profited tremendously from their experiences here.

"A kid can get a lot from a team, especially kids who need something in their life."

Students who lack direction combine with those from more structured backgrounds at Santa Monica High to produce what Steere believes is a microcosm of the real world. And, he says, the mix of students contributes to the success of the athletic program.

"When you get (a diverse student-body) together," he said, "you have everything that's required from a psychological point of view to have a winning combination."

Tradition at Santa Monica also plays a role in the school's success.

When Steere arrived in 1960 to teach physical education and help coach football, he encountered the legacy of Jim Sutherland, Santa Monica's most decorated football coach. From 1941 to 1952 Sutherland compiled a 79-13-3 record, winning eight Bay League titles and three CIF championships. He was known for his pass-oriented offense that at the time made waves in prep football.

Steere hopes he kept Sutherland's winning tradition alive and feels the school's century-old tradition greatly influences today's students.

"There's a kind of heritage that goes with certain places," he said, "and I think this school has an athletic heritage that means a lot."

Keeping the heritage active has not been easy. In the 1970s Steere was forced to take on additional responsibilities as athletic director when Proposition 13 and a California Supreme Court decision reduced the money for Santa Monica sports. The school still maintained existing programs and actually introduced new sports, but financial support shifted to private individuals. Steere was forced to solicit contributions.

He is thankful "there were people interested in our programs who volunteered to help." However, the responsibility of raising money made his job less enjoyable.

"I don't enjoy asking for money," he said. "It's something that I've never done very well. It was great when all we had to do was run our program and we knew if we needed something it was there.

"Fortunately, we've still been able to run our programs because of the great people in the community, a consistent group of people who keep coming up with ways to fill the coffer."

Vice Principal Turner feels Steere has been crucial in garnering private support.

"Don was a liaison with the community, beneficial in maintaining support. He's perpetuated the deep feelings for the school within the community."

Steere's fund-raising responsibilities may have contributed to his decision about early retirement. Financial hassles followed him since the mid-1970s, detracting from the fun.

"I don't think it's as much fun for him as it used to be," said Steere's daughter, Dina, an interior design assistant in San Luis Obispo.

"As far as I could see," added Steere's wife, Patty, "he was getting tired of raising funds. He was very good at it, but it gets to be a grind."

Steere will probably forget the job's low points and remember what made his years at Santa Monica special--people.

His affinity for students influenced many of the coaches he worked with and, in turn, Steere grew to appreciate his colleagues.

"I'll never forget one thing that he told us," said Jerry Weinstein, a baseball coach at Santa Monica from 1969-1971 and currently an assistant coach with the U. S. Pan American baseball team. "He said it was always better to go too far with a kid than not far enough.

"He taught us that you can't get too authoritarian with a kid, that you must give them every opportunity to succeed and that you must have contact with the kids to give them direction."

Weinstein, whose club captured the league championship in his first year at Santa Monica, remembers Steere as a father figure who stopped at nothing to provide his coaches with anything they needed, including hard labor.

"One time we were building a dugout, which is still standing, and Don was out there with a hammer and nails like everybody else," he said.

Steere believed the athletic director should remain in the background.

The only really important job, he says, was responsibility for the welfare of the athletes, "and I think you can do that by trying to help the coach if he needs something done, whether its damp mopping a floor or raising funds or explaining something.

"I tried to create the environment for the coach as best I could so that it's as easy as possible for him to succeed."

Chances are Steere's style will be sorely missed among the coaches. His ability to put things in perspective, decompress pressure-filled situations and not take things too seriously made many a coach's job easier.

Tebbe Kusserow, head football coach since 1972, attributes much of his success to Steere' quiet presence. Steere encouraged Kusserow in 1971 to take a job in the physical education department at Santa Monica.

Kusserow sees Steere's ability to make decisions calmly as his most important contribution to the school.

"When conflicts came up, he always made the right decisions, no matter whom it involved," said Kusserow, who led the Vikings to a CIF championship in 1981. "It's really a miracle to see what we've done with all the financial battles, and Don's a big part of that. He's almost the conductor of an orchestra."

The harmony Steere created kept everything in tune. If he was needed in the locker room, he was there, "taping an ankle and doing whatever he can for his coach," said Cliff Hunter, Vikings basketball coach since 1980.

"In any tense situation, he was always very cool. He'd make a joke or use humor to ease the situation. He will be missed by everyone and for sure by me."

Despite the temporary void Steere creates by leaving, his early retirement will allow him to fill an empty space in his children's lives. Steere was somewhat of a father figure with students, and the time he devoted to them can now be spent with his four children, who graduated from Santa Monica years ago.

Steere and son Doug formed a construction company last year and leased 17 acres of beachfront property on the Sea of Cortez in Baja. They subdivided and plan to sell several lots in addition to opening a 30-room hotel for sport fisherman, divers, wind surfers and sun worshipers. They also intend to do a little marlin fishing.

But even if they don't reel in anything big, Doug Steere will be happy just having his father around.

"It'll be nice to finally to get a dad," he said, "because it seems like he's been a dad to everyone else."

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