Steve McPherson is panic stricken. Sitting in his home office in Palm Desert, California, he is digging through a monster stack of photos taken with sports celebrities. On this day, he can’t find one of his most cherished items – a picture of him and thoroughbred jockey Mike Smith, taken the same day Smith won the Alabama Stakes two summers ago at Saratoga. “I don’t know where the heck I put that darn thing,” he says, perplexed.
Looking around his office, you get the idea this guy has led a big, impressive life. You see photos of college football fame; a photo op with Lindsey Vonn, the Olympic and World Cup champion skier; game-day shots with guys like ESPN’s David Pollock at virtually every college football bowl game, a by-product of McPherson’s work with ESPN radio; a Heisman Trophy photo with Oregon’s Marcus Mariota; there are golf trophies; Team USA baseball jerseys; pics of thoroughbred horses; pants, goggles, and a signed autographed Breeders Cup photo from his dear friend, jockey Garrett Gomez; and a cherished photo playing golf with jockeys Corey Nakatani, Flavian Prat, and Drayden Van Dyke. All of it gives McPherson’s life a sort-of Forrest Gump type of feel.
On this day, though, he is reflecting about his extraordinary career and his even more extraordinary life. There are two things you won’t know by looking at all the cool stuff he has in his office. One, Steve McPherson is a convicted felon and, two, he is arguably the greatest coach you have never heard of.
McPherson, 59, grew up in Portland, Oregon, the middle child of five. He was a great athlete from a family of great athletes. His brother John was an All-American pitcher in college and his brother Dave was a standout college soccer player. He has a niece who swam at Miami, another niece who was a track and field star at Puget Sound, a niece who rides horses and is a world-class show jumper, a niece who coaches high school soccer, and a nephew who was one of the leading scorers four years ago in California high school basketball.
“That family is unbelievable,” said John Smith, who played CYO football and Babe Ruth baseball with McPherson. “The brothers were great athletes, all of them. Their kids are good athletes too. It didn’t matter if it was ping pong, tennis, basketball, baseball or golf. If there was a ball involved, they were great at it.”
Since McPherson was talented at a lot of things, it took him awhile to find his favorite sport. Golf became his game of choice. Although he was a standout high school quarterback and middle infielder in baseball, he took to golf because he didn’t have to rely on others to perform at a top level.
“I liked the solidarity of the game,” says McPherson.
A late bloomer, McPherson was a grinder. It was not unusual for him to practice in the snow at his home course, Rose City Golf Club. The hard work paid off when he was recruited by Arizona during the summer after high school, the direct result of him making the cut in the Western Junior, one of America’s most prestigious junior golf events. In his freshman year, he broke his wrist while horsing around with Russell Brown, a member of the U of A basketball team. Eventually, he would redshirt then transfer to Oregon State, where, from 1979-81, he became a two-time Player of the Year.
Right after college, McPherson turned pro, dead set on proving to everyone he had the right stuff to make the PGA Tour. He traveled to Australia to play one year, the next qualified for some Ben Hogan tour events – the secondary PGA Tour at the time — but never quite got over the hump to play with the big boys. After five solid years where he made a living playing the game he loved, and questions lurking, fate intervened and changed his career path forever.
In 1987, the girl he was dating – Carol Eldridge — developed a virus that attacked the spinal column, paralyzing her below the waist. Eldridge was told by doctors that she would probably never walk again. Not knowing what the future held, McPherson put his life and career on hold to care for and manage her rehabilitation; in-essence, he stopped playing competitive golf because there was no way he could be away from home.
While in college, McPherson studied Education and, as part of his degree work, had to student-teach at a high school. Instead of student-teaching, McPherson approached his former high school football coach, Bill Dressel, about possibly coaching to meet his student-teaching requirements. Dressel agreed to help. So, the student-teacher became the student-coach. McPherson fell in love with working with young people and helping them to meet their potential. Later, as he began his adult life, and in between golf trips and tournaments, McPherson always took three months off to coach football at Benson High School.
Immediately, the coaching gig was attractive to the standout golfer. And, as it turns out, he was good at it. It didn’t hurt that Benson had one of the top football programs in the State of Oregon. Year-in and year-out, they won conference championships and competed for state championships.
“I used to scream and yell a lot as a coach,” remembers McPherson. “I loved it but, I don’t know how the kids put up with me. In all honesty, it took me awhile to feel comfortable coaching. I got lucky because those coaches at Benson took me under their wings. I doubt very seriously if there was ever a better high school coaching staff anywhere.”
By the time 1987 came around, he had become comfortable working with high school level young people, already developing a reputation as an up-and-coming star in coaching, in both football and baseball. So, when McPherson’s girlfriend got sick, he decided to quit full-time golf to take a coaching and teaching job. It was a simple decision – he needed a steady income. That next summer, Vic Carlson, the athletic director at Jefferson High School in Portland, offered McPherson the head coaching position in baseball.
Jefferson sits in the heart of the inner-city, and most students there where African American. There was no youth baseball in the community, so many saw the move as potentially career suicide for a guy just starting out as a head coach. McPherson saw it differently; he saw it as an enormous challenge.
“Everyone tried to discourage me from taking the job at Jeff. But, there were athletes everywhere in that school,” recalls McPherson. “I would walk down the halls and pull kids to the side and convince them to come play for me.”
And play they did.
In his first year, Jefferson baseball went 17-12. Not bad for a school that had a losing record for the previous 18 years. In his final year, Jefferson’s summer baseball team won the Senior Babe Ruth regionals and just missed winning a state title. In three years at the school, McPherson won 80 games between school ball and summer baseball, including two regional titles in summer, and had two players sign Major League Baseball contracts.
“I loved that job,” recalls McPherson fondly. “Those kids were dying to be taught and were excited every time we took the field. And, for real, they were fantastic athletes.”
McPherson left his mark on the community too. After a gang related drive-by shooting near the Jefferson baseball field, during broad daylight and in front of dozens of kids, McPherson recruited coaches to walk through gang infested city parks at night to talk to young gang members. Eventually, on Saturdays, a lot of those same gang members would be meeting the coach for donuts. It started a dialogue that led to cooperation and tolerance at a time when violence was at an all-time high.
“It was crazy back then,” recalls McPherson. “We’d walk through the parks and all those kids would be strapped. I don’t know if it helped that much, but it sure the hell didn’t hurt.”
His success in coaching and working with young athletes caught the eye of organizations around the country including Major League Baseball’s development program. Soon, McPherson was recruited to handle a U.S. Junior team that traveled to Taiwan, Japan, and Australia for international competition. The coach connected with Mickey Riley, a former star player at Oregon State who was running MLB’s youth movement in Australia, and they organized an exchange program. Traveling abroad, coaching a star-studded U.S. team, and every other year hosting Australia and Japan, McPherson’s teams excelled. His four-year record during international play was 108-16.
While coaching at the high school level was rewarding for McPherson, he longed for a job that would pay him handsomely. During his tenure at Jeff, Carlson would take McPherson to Portland Meadows to watch horse racing. Eventually, the two would own horses together. After a few years, McPherson had been to the Kentucky Derby, the Keeneland sales – thoroughbred racing’s top sale venue — and several other big racing events. It didn’t take long for him to figure out that it cost the same amount of money to feed a horse who ran at Portland Meadows as it does to feed a Derby champion. As a result, he realized, if he wanted to play at the highest level of thoroughbred racing, he had to make more money.
“Horse racing became my passion in life. Going to the Derby, being around the best, it changed my perspective. I wanted to win big races. I wanted to be a part of it all,” said McPherson.
McPherson would have to put his horse racing passion on hold while he tried to find the right income stream. In 1992, McPherson heard about a golf course that was for sale in Port Townsend, Washington. The golf pro who owned the course was struggling, and the lease was about to be up on the city-owned course. McPherson saw it as an opportunity to make the kind of money needed to support his love of thoroughbred racing. The inquiry turned to action when, in 1993, he bought the lease from Mike Early for $300,000. He put $140,000 of his own money up for the purchase, while three investors put up $160,000 between them.
But, as we all know, things sometimes don’t appear to be what they are perceived to be. What looked like a solid investment was anything but. The decision to buy the Port Townsend Golf Club, as it turned out, would ultimately be a terrible decision that would threaten to destroy his life.
“I can’t believe I was so stupid,” says McPherson now.
Ironically, the same time the golf course was for sale, the baseball job at Port Townsend High School came open. Itching to get back into coaching after leaving Jefferson, McPherson felt he could do both – work at the golf club in the mornings and coach high school baseball in the afternoons. The PTHS coach had quit mid-season the year before, so the community was looking for someone to revitalize the program; someone who would provide quality leadership. It didn’t take long for the legendary coach to do what he does best – which is win.
1993 saw Port Townsend go 20-3 and be ranked No. 1 in the state for most of the season. McPherson’s second year at the school saw more of the same, where his team spent most of the season atop the state rankings. Both years his teams won Nisqually League championships.
“I have never seen anything like it,” said Brian Sharky, a former Major League Baseball scout who attended several of the Port Townsend games. “One minute they were terrible and in disarray, the next they were ranked No. 1, winning conference titles, and playing for state championships.”
After two years of coaching at Port Townsend, there wasn’t much more for the successful coach to accomplish in high school baseball. So, after a summer where he coached a top caliber college wood bat team to a championship, McPherson was approached about coaching in college full-time. Olympic College, located on the Olympic Peninsula near Port Townsend, was looking for a new baseball coach and McPherson felt like the time was right for him to move to a higher level. Olympic had not had a winning season in 20 years, so they needed someone whose specialty was turning programs around. They found the right guy in the dynamic McPherson.
The new Olympic coach was so connected in high school baseball and international baseball that recruiting was a snap. He signed players from Australia, Canada’s National Team, and the United States. In addition, he signed four players who had been drafted in the Major League draft that year. To the surprise of everyone, except to those who knew him, McPherson won a conference championship in his first and only season coaching college baseball. It was the first NWAACC Northern Division title won by Olympic in 50 years, and they haven’t come close since. Throughout the season, McPherson’s team beat the best of the best, including Sacramento City College, who at the time was ranked No. 1 in the country.
“How good were they?” asked Smith. “I remember Steve held a private, night time workout for the coaches from the University of Kentucky out of the SEC. Another night, he held a private workout for Major League Baseball scouts. That is how good his players were.”
By year’s end, awards were pouring in for the team. Players were placed in the top pro development summer leagues. They had a conference MVP, Coach of the Year, and the Olympic College coach was honored for the rarest of feats – he was credited with the greatest turn around in the history of junior college baseball.
“Think about that for a minute?,” asked Smith. “What an incredible honor to be credited with the greatest single turn-around in the history of your sport. Two years earlier Olympic had won just five games.”
“I really liked him,” said Bruce Seton in a recent interview about McPherson. Seton played for McPherson both in high school and at Olympic CC. “He’s an unbelievable coach. He turned your average good player into great players. He controlled the game, the other team, the umps, the other players. It was really kind of weird how he did it.”
Matt Armitage, from Spokane, Washington, was NWAACC Northern Division Player of the Year that season and one of the Olympic CC team captains.
“We were coming to the park and winning every game,” said Armitage. “That was our mentality. That is how good we were. We were taking on some of the giants and dominating them. Top to bottom, we were just solid everywhere. Tyler Herman, who played for the Canadian Junior National Team, was one of the best hitters I had ever seen hit a baseball and he didn’t see the field that much. That just shows you how good we were.”
McPherson and his team had just ravaged one of the top JUCO baseball conferences in the country. Coaches in that conference included Travis Jewitt, now the coach at Tulane, and Dan Spencer, who left JUCO baseball to win two national titles as an assistant at Oregon State. Spencer would later get the head coaching job at Texas Tech. McPherson also worked pro-style camps with Tony Vittorio, the former coach at Dayton who, at the time, was an assistant at Kentucky, and Jan Weisberg, the coach at Georgia Southern who coached at Kentucky during that same stretch.
“Steve was every bit as good, probably better, as those guys,” said Sharky.
Smith still laughs when he thinks of McPherson’s time at Olympic. He recalls one hilarious moment when the coach was on his first league-wide conference call.
“I will never forget him telling me about it,” cracked Smith. “The call went from coach to coach asking them about their team, how good they were going to be. When they got to Steve, the moderator asked him why he thought Olympic could overcome the terrible results they had had in years past. Steve said, matter of fact, that he had no idea about past years, but he knew that whoever was going to win the NWAACC title would have to come through his place to do it.”
Some of the other coaches in the conference were upset that McPherson would display such an arrogance about his team when they hadn’t played a game yet. “They thought he was an arrogant punk,” laughs Smith.
Little did they know.
“They had no idea what they were dealing with,” chuckled Smith. “They just didn’t realize that Steve was one of the best of all-time.”
While things were going well in baseball, the golf club investment in Port Townsend was falling apart. McPherson says that, soon after he made the deal, he realized that things weren’t what they were portrayed to be when he bought the lease. According to McPherson, financial records provided at the time of the sale were not anything close to what the golf club was producing annually. In fact, the number of rounds portrayed to be played per year were off by more than half. Past records, provided by the City of Port Townsend at the time of the signing of the lease, supports McPherson’s contentions.
“It didn’t take a rocket scientist to recognize that we had been duped,” said McPherson. “Things spiraled out of control pretty fast after that. It was so bad that I began to drink too much, gamble too much, couldn’t sleep. The pressure of it all just engulfed me.”
Two years after buying the golf club, McPherson was out of business and out of money. Additionally, because there was unpaid debt and checks that had not been honored, the District Attorney in Jefferson County, where Port Townsend is located, decided to investigate the business. After a lengthy evaluation, charges were brought against McPherson and his girlfriend Carol, who was running the club. They were both charged with three counts of NSF checks. As a direct result of the charges, McPherson was forced to resign his position as the coach at Olympic, the week before the NWAACC World Series. After that, the atmosphere involving the golf club and the baseball team became a circus.
“It was utterly ridiculous,” says McPherson. “The business and its finances were a civil matter, not a criminal matter. If it happened in L.A. or Seattle, nobody would have cared. You charge people with a crime if they somehow benefited; if they actually took money that didn’t belong to them. We didn’t benefit one cent from this deal. In fact, we were the largest creditor. But it happened in a small town where the D.A. was new, so they wanted to make a name for themselves. The dumbest part about it is that the total amount of the checks was something like $4,200. They used the court as nothing more than a debt collection agency to collect the other monies owed by the business.”
Normally, in a case like this, the defendant is put on probation and given the opportunity to pay back the debt owed over a period-of-time. Such was the case here, where the D.A. suggested that McPherson pay a total, with the checks, fines, and court fees, of $60,000. McPherson agreed to the deal just to get it to go away. However, throughout the process, McPherson’s attorney Chris Shea was bothered by the fact that the D.A. in the case was running around town sharing facts about the case with private citizens. So, in what can only be categorized as a monumental miscalculation, Shea filed a motion asking the D.A. to recuse themselves for misconduct. The D.A. recused himself then, in-turn, a new D.A. from neighboring Kitsap County was appointed. The new D.A. retaliated and immediately changed the offer. They wanted McPherson to do jail time and three years probation.
McPherson was livid that the District Attorney would go back on his word and change the status of the case. Also, he was especially concerned about Carol, who had dealt with paralysis and all kinds of health problems. So, at the time of sentencing, instead of showing up to court, McPherson sent a letter condemning the District Attorney’s office and the judge for allowing the circus to move forward. He cited “unethical and immoral conduct” as the reason he decided to take his stand. Since Carol received house arrest, McPherson vowed that he would show up in court one year and one day later, when Carol was done with her sentence.
“I was really idealistic then,” says McPherson. “I thought people cared about justice; cared about the truth; cared about the stand I took. But, quite frankly, I was dead wrong. I was also dead wrong to handle it that way. My being so public got me in big trouble.”
The year that followed was the longest of McPherson’s life. He spent the time traveling to horse sales, going from track to track for races, and just doing all he could to burn time until he had to come home. By his own admission, it was brutal to be away from his family and friends.
“It is not as easy to disappear as you might think,” laughed McPherson. “My friends stepped up, helped me along the way. But, really, it was kind of comical for everyone. The hilarious part about it all is that, as private citizens, we think they are out there looking for us, that the Marshalls and the FBI are searching. But, the truth is absolutely nobody cared.”
After Carol was done with house arrest, McPherson kept his word and called the Jefferson County Sherriff’s office to turn himself in. Instead of letting him drive the five hours and keep his promise, the Sheriff in Jefferson County tried to have McPherson arrested at his Mom’s house in Oregon. The guy called local law enforcement to alert them that McPherson was driving to Port Townsend. However, the Sheriff in Multnomah County, where Mrs. McPherson lived, was a friend of the family, so he called the coach to give him a heads up. Instead of driving to turn himself in, McPherson decided to embarrass the hierarchy in Jefferson County further. He wrote a letter to the local newspaper chastising the local authorities, stopped for a night to have a few drinks with Carlson, then he headed to Southern California to play some golf.
“Throughout the entire process, my entire position was that they abused their power,” McPherson said. “One day they were good with us paying some money back, saying it wasn’t a criminal matter, etc., then the next they wanted me in jail to make an example of me. That specific night was laughable, a perfect example of how they operated. I tried to turn myself in and, instead, they wanted it to look like they were out looking for me. By now, a lot of people knew I didn’t show up because I was standing up for what was right. It was really pretty stupid of them because it just made them look worse than they already did.”
Three weeks later, McPherson’s Mom Erma stepped in and insisted he turn himself in. A newspaper article in the Bremerton Sun, back in 1998, stated that McPherson was “apprehended” in California while sleeping in his car. In fact, he had called the Riverside County Sheriff’s office, told them who he was and where he was, had his friend Jeremy Danson come get his car, then waited for the police to come pick him up.
“I actually think that newspaper article showed the mindset of the people Steve had embarrassed,” remembers Danson. “They were willing to do and say anything. They didn’t arrest Steve, find him in his car, or whatever. He called the authorities to turn himself in. It was surreal really. I was sitting in the bar at the Marriott, having a drink with him, just waiting for the police to come. They called when they were in the parking lot. So, we just walked outside, I hugged my boy goodbye, then he climbed in their car.”
Joe Dobbs was the arresting officer from Port Townsend sent after the former coach. Dobbs had to fly to California to escort McPherson home. When Dobbs booked him into the Jefferson County jail, he looked at McPherson when he was leaving and said, “by the way, my wife told me to tell you how much she respects what you did; she really likes you.”
“Under the circumstances, it was the most gracious thing anyone could have ever done for me,” said McPherson. “You had to be there, had to understand how that impacted me at the time, but to this day it has meant the world to me.”
Two weeks later, McPherson had his day in court. To say people were shocked by what happened next would be an understatement.
Judge William Howard, upset for what he perceived as intentional disrespect when McPherson didn’t show up in his court, sentenced Port Townsend’s award-winning coach to 4 years in prison and 5 years’ probation. By doing so, he gave McPherson an unlawful sentence. Howard cited the rare “exceptional sentence” law as the reason for his excessive sentence. In fact, an exceptional sentence is designed for someone who committed a heinous crime, one that was carefully planned and carried out in premeditated fashion. Mostly, those sentences are designed for violent-type crimes or sophisticated criminals. Clearly, this case did not come close to fitting within that standard. It was a discretionary move based in retaliation.
“The judge wasn’t sentencing me on the merits of the case,” said McPherson. “He was punishing me for embarrassing him and for thinking people gave a hoot about what is actually right. Hell, he actually called me a name or two on the record as part of the sentence.”
At first, the State of Washington didn’t know what to do with him because they, too, knew the sentence was unlawful. Eventually, McPherson was sent to a halfway-house/fire fighter camp while his sentence was on appeal. While there, he kept busy by fighting forest fires and helping young Hispanic men appeal their court cases. After two years and two months, the Appellate Court ruled in his favor and he was released. Also, the appeals court overturned his probation too, citing the fact that you cannot give a single day probation for a case like his.
Steve Anderson, whose father Jimmy was the basketball coach at Oregon State when he and McPherson went to school there, thinks the court made an example out of his friend. Anderson had done some business up in Port Townsend, selling tee shirts for special events, so he was familiar with most of the business facts.
“You think a judge who has 30 years of experience didn’t know that you can’t give probation for a case like that?,” Anderson asked. “It is a safe bet that he knew the sentence was unlawful from the beginning, but he just didn’t care. What they did to Steve is a prime example of how screwed up things are in the legal system.”
While the mess in Port Townsend cost McPherson his coaching career, that wasn’t the worst of it. The superstar coach is living proof that the justice system can follow you wherever you go, and that your past is never really in your past.
After Port Townsend, McPherson moved to Las Vegas, where he started a family and had his first child. While there, a friend of his from California had a daughter who was diagnosed with cancer. The family was desperate for money because medical bills were engulfing them financially. So, with the help of a friend who was a thoroughbred trainer, McPherson cashed $125,000 worth of checks, loaned the family the money, then dealt with the aftermath in the courts.
“I hate to admit it,” said McPherson. “I didn’t have all the money, closer to $50,000. But, by that time I understood how the system worked, so if I couldn’t make good on the checks, I knew I would have some time to rectify it and it wouldn’t be a big deal. Am I ashamed I did it? Absolutely not. Was it the right thing to do? I think that discussion is open for debate, but there is no question that if the circumstances were the same I would do it again.”
The decision to help his friend may have seemed like the right thing to do at the time, but it would prove costly to McPherson a few years later. The Nevada courts had put him on probation while he paid back the $125,000. What seemed like a harmless decision turned out to have devastating results.
In 2008, McPherson’s love of coaching played a part of him starting a summer college baseball league where the teams are treated like minor league baseball teams. He brought in Phil Swimley, a Hall of Famer who won 909 games at University of California-Davis, as President of the league. By this time, McPherson had established himself with ESPN radio, building a career as a talk-show host and a college football analyst. He covered college basketball too. But, for eight weeks in the summer, his teams would play 50 games in 60 days as part of a college baseball development league.
Four months after that first summer season, on New Year’s Eve, he was in Reno working the North Carolina-Nevada Reno basketball game for ESPN when his probation officer in Nevada called him and asked him to go into the Reno probation office to be let off probation early.
Ecstatic, McPherson stayed over until January 2 to meet the probation people. Instead of getting kicked loose, as promised, the probation office surprised McPherson by arresting him. Stunned, the officer told the former coach he had been accused of writing two bad checks in California. The checks were written off the San Luis Obispo Blues baseball checking account the summer before, at a time when McPherson was on probation in Nevada. So, McPherson was being accused of a crime committed in California when, at the time the checks were written, he wasn’t even in the state.
McPherson knew that he had not written any checks in California. In fact, he had made it a priority to not rely on checking, paying virtually everything with cash or his debit card. Since he was on probation in Nevada, he had to be transferred to Las Vegas to appear in court before Judge Michelle Leavitt, who was responsible for administering the probation violation.
While running the baseball league, McPherson had developed an exceptional relationship with Coast Hills Federal Credit Union and the branch manager, Phil Koziel. Coast Hills handled the Blues money, and they had featured McPherson on a series of local billboard ads for the bank. From the jail in Las Vegas, McPherson contacted Koziel to ask him if he would provide copies of the checks in question. Koziel obliged, sending copies of the checks to McPherson’s attorney.
Two weeks later, McPherson appeared before Judge Leavitt regarding the violation of his probation. Leavitt, after reviewing the checks in questions, refused to violate him, stating in court that “clearly this isn’t this guy’s signature.” She sent the former coach back to California to resolve the matter there.
It didn’t take long to get to the bottom of the problem. One of the employees of the baseball team, who was a signer on the bank account, walked into Coast Hills Federal Credit Union and asked the bank to issue 10 bank checks, citing that the team was out of their customary checks. It was done in June right before the summer season started. Assuming everything was on the up-and-up, the bank accommodated the baseball employee. The employee proceeded to bounce five checks throughout San Luis Obispo County, then head to China to visit his son.
“We didn’t know any better,” said Koziel at the time. “But what we did know is that Steve didn’t write the checks. And, we knew who had come in to have the checks printed.”
Because of what McPherson had been through, and because the D.A. in San Luis Obispo knew his back-story, the court used an obscure law to try to hold McPherson accountable anyway. The D.A. in San Luis Obispo contacted the D.A in Port Townsend to discuss McPherson embarrassing the court there. So, in a sort-of “Brothers Unite” kind of move, the D.A. in San Luis Obispo decided to charge the former coach anyway. In California, it is legal to hold any Board member or Board of Director responsible for the actions of their employees. So, that is exactly what the D.A. in San Luis Obispo did.
Thinking if he plead guilty to get the entire thing over with, and the fact that the $3,000 worth of checks had already been paid, McPherson just assumed they would let him go. Instead, he received two years in jail for the mix-up. The employee who had the checks printed, wrote the checks, and handled the team’s money was never charged with a crime.
“To this day I can’t believe what happened to Steve,” said Tim Golden, the man who sold McPherson the San Luis Obispo Blues Baseball Club. “It was one terrible travesty. Steve didn’t write the checks and the D.A. knew who did. Plus, the manager of the club did a very poor job managing the team while Steve was gone. But, they went after him anyway because they had the power to do so. It wasn’t right.”
McPherson has his own thoughts on the matter.
“The mistake I made was tackling that project in the first place. While that whole idea was good, the operation of an entire league like that was just too big,” added McPherson. “I wasn’t equipped and didn’t have nearly enough money to take on a project that massive, but people convinced me it could be done. We had issues in both San Luis Obispo and Lodi, where I owned the team too. What happened there was my own fault because I should have known better than to own two teams so far away from each other. I couldn’t be in two places at one time, and the GM in the one place was just dishonest, period.”
Ironically, McPherson’s two minor league-type teams, with players he recruited and signed, both won championships in their respective divisions.
Through the clouds of the mess he got himself into, one Angel appeared out of nowhere to help McPherson figure it all out.
Susan Heir, an appellate attorney, had heard about McPherson’s plight and decided to do something about it. She reached out to McPherson, who was sitting in a privately run halfway house in California, and offered to represent him for free on appeal. She was confident she could exonerate the former coach. A year later, McPherson won his appellate case and was ordered to be released immediately.
“When you look at the entirety of his story it is quite amazing,” said McPherson’s friend Smith. “It is one thing to win issues on appeal once in your lifetime. But, for someone to win twice is nothing short of remarkable. It shows how messed up things are in this country.”
When asked what he has taken away from his story, McPherson is philosophical.
“I think there are several things to take away from my experience,” says the former coach. “One, if a time comes up in life where you have to stand up, no matter what the cost, people need to do that. It is not always comfortable, but right is right, regardless of your own personal struggle. Two, I think we live in a world where people are way to quick to judge without knowing the facts. We see that everyday in the way our national news agencies report the news. I am living proof of that for sure. In the age of social media, people get judged before the entire story is really vetted out. And, three, we live in a ‘Me First’ society. A win at all cost mentality. It happens in business, in our criminal justice system, and in everyday relationships. I am really proud to say I don’t live that way, and I never have. Yes, it has gotten me into some trouble, but I am very proud that I stood up for others when nobody else would. None of the mistakes I made should have ever landed me, or anyone else, in jail. But, in our society, it happens everyday in every jurisdiction in the country.”
A guy who has played golf with the best in the world, coached some of the top baseball players in this country, been on the sidelines for national championship football games, and raced horses at the highest level of the game doesn’t seem like a guy who would have many regrets. But, McPherson has a few.
Over the years, he lost a player, Mike Williams, to a car accident but wasn’t able to attend the funeral; he lost family members including his parents (he won’t talk about it); he got divorced and his ex-wife Angela hides his children from him; he lost a chance to coach in the Olympics; and lost a budding career as a tournament player in golf. But, he says his biggest regret, by far, is the way his Olympic College players were treated over the years. The way the media in the local community treated the case, and the story, was beyond shameful to him.
“That was one of the finest teams to ever play junior college baseball,” lauded McPherson. “The fact that I was asked to resign right before the playoffs, after the school President had originally signed off on me staying, showed no compassion for the young men who entrusted their greatness to me and that school. The athletic director, Dick Myers, who was the former coach, was directly to blame for that mistake. He waited until the college President was out of town, then called the conference commissioner to insist I not be allowed on the field or in the dugout. It is inexcusable that it happened. It was petty, bitter, and utterly shameful. Those young men deserved better then, and, looking back, they deserve better now.”
In addition, the fact that his players had to endure stories that weren’t true about him broke McPherson’s heart. One story said that he skipped out on his sentencing when, in fact, he had stood up for what he believed to be injustice; another story said that one of his players, Jason Beitey, never got his scholarship when, in fact, Olympic College records show that Beitey was on scholarship from September of 1996 until May of 1997.
But the story that hurt the coach the most was recounted how Bill Segerman, one of Olympic’s team captains, “hated” his coach. McPherson was personally responsible for recruiting Segerman when he was kicked off the Yakima CC baseball team. In essence, the coach at Olympic gave Segerman a second chance. McPherson also orchestrated getting Segerman placed in summer baseball in Kentucky, which turned into a scholarship to the University of Indiana at Fort Wayne, where his friend Vittorio was now the head coach. After Segerman started school in Indiana, he met the young man back in Indiana to make sure he was adjusting OK. Segerman would later graduate from IPFW with a Bachelor of Science degree.
“That kid was an absolute stud,” said the legendary coach. “I know it would be easy to say something nasty about him, air his dirty laundry, but I am not going to. I was proud of him then, and I am proud of him now. He was on helluva player.”
Through it all, McPherson says the players were the big losers in this mess. He feels responsible, but he especially feels disgust towards one reporter who kept the story alive and continued to dog the public with stories that were not factual.
“The local newspaper sports editor in Bremerton, a guy name Chuck Stark, called me all kinds of names,” laughed McPherson. “In one story, a story about how great my team was, he called me stupid shit. The shame in all of it is that the reporter in question had every opportunity to call me, to talk to me about what really happened, but he chose not to. Not once did he report the actual facts of how it all went down.”
McPherson says Stark visited him in jail, interviewed him, then stated years later that the story was just “too big” for them to track down all the players, to research all the facts.
“He had actually interviewed me years ago, came to see me, so he knew the truth, yet he failed to follow up on it,” remembers the award-winning coach. “He cited the story being “too big” for their budget. Instead, he embellished and misled along the way, took cheap shots and, in doing so, discredited me and disrespected one of the very best JUCO baseball teams to ever put on cleats.”
Smith believes his friend could have been one of the greatest ever.
“Look at what he accomplished as a coach,” said Smith. “He won championships at every level, from high school, to college, to international play. He was just one of those guys who had an inherent understanding and feel for the game; and uncanny feel for his players. Many of the guys he beat went on to Division I coaching careers. There is no doubt he could have been whatever he wanted to be in that profession.”
“I think too that Steve has handled himself with a grace that is rare,” added Smith. “Sure, he made some mistakes, but not to this extent. These people abused their power against him, but in the end he was bigger than them. He could have tried to defend a position, but he chose instead not to go after them.”
In 2009, the same year McPherson was cleaning up his mess in California, his friend and mentor Carlson ran third in the Kentucky Derby with a horse named Musket Man. It inspired McPherson to get back to work and keep chasing his thoroughbred dreams, while at the same time it made him sad he wasn’t there to support his friend.
“I never have really gotten over the fact that I should have been there with Vic,” said McPherson. “We don’t talk much anymore but we started in racing together and, back in the day, we ran everywhere together. He bought Muskat Man from a guy we all knew from Portland. It is one of the real regrets I have in my life. My mistakes, and the people I trusted, kept me from one of the great shared moments in a friend’s life.”
Two years ago, the time had come for McPherson to step up and continue his pursuit of thoroughbred racing. He sat down with investigators from the California State Racing Board, shared his story, provided them with supporting documentation and, in return, he was granted a racing license.
“It was a little thing,” said McPherson. “But getting my racing license is just validation for so much that I have been through.”
Today, McPherson and his Southern Cal Thoroughbreds owns all or part of 20 horses. One of his purchases, a two year old filly named Angel of Mischief, was bought back for $120,000 at the Barretts 2017 Paddock Sale. She would have brought a lot more money but had a chip discovered in her ankle the night before the sale. After surgery, she was later sold to a top operation in Kentucky. Editors Note: Since this story was published, Angel of Mischief won at Kentucky Downs on September 8th for $150,000.
Two other fillies he owned part of, Insta Irma and Kathy’s Song, have turned out to be fabulous race horses. Kathy’s Song had all kinds of trouble in the Del Mar Oaks, then followed that effort with an Allowance win. Insta Irma won a stakes race at Santa Anita and ran in the money in a Grade II race. McPherson sold his shares in both to keep his thoroughbred train on the tracks. He had several others he sold at auction this Spring and has five or six babies getting ready to be broke in the Fall. Editors Note: Since this story was published, Insta Irma won the Grade III Kentucky Downs Ladies Turf for $500,000.
McPherson laughs when he thinks about his thoroughbred operation. He won’t elaborate, but a good deed done last October is coming back to bite him in the rear. He took over several horses for someone who was having family difficulties. Then, in the Spring, luck did not shine on him when lousy weather back East effected the development of his two year olds. The final straw was he had four horses ready for the Paddock Sale at Del Mar, only to see the sale cancelled a few weeks before the sale. It was the first time a sale had been cancelled in 30 years.
“As usual, I am in way over my head,” he cracks, making fun of himself. “You could say I got unlucky when the Paddock Sale got cancelled, but what are you going to do. I have too many horses and not enough money. I owe everyone in the biz money, have a guy I adored filing a lawsuit because his wife, Debbie Watson, is a drunk, and I have plenty of people I owe money to who are mad at me. What else is new? I am grinding it out and still having a blast doing so. The end result is I did something good by helping my friend out, now I need some of those horses to continue to develop so I can get them sold.”
The thoroughbred business is fickle. You get paid a lot of money if you win big races, but if you struggle at all, people in the business change in a heartbeat. One day they are doing all they can do to talk you into buying a horse from them, then the next day – when you are struggling – they are nowhere to be found.
“This business is funny. When you are buying horses and looking for trainers, everyone kisses your ass and beats your door down for your business,” said McPherson with angst. “They all want to help you spend your money. But, when you are struggling, and you need someone to buy a horse from you, to help you out of a bind, those same people are nowhere to be found. A lot of people in this business are pussies, doing things like using the Racing Board as a collection agency, and the like. In so many ways it is a joke. This last year has taught me so much about the thoroughbred business. I know now who can be trusted and who the pretenders are. And believe me when I say there are a lot more pretenders than there are legit players.”
Remember when I said McPherson is living proof that your past is never really in your past?
Earlier this year, McPherson’s backstory started showing up on Facebook pages throughout the thoroughbred industry, courtesy of the drunk mentioned above. The lone intent of those postings was to discredit, harm, and hurt McPherson and his family. The legendary coach blows it off as if it is no big deal.
“If people want to look hard enough, want to make an issue out of it, want to hate, they are going to find a way to do that,” he says. “Your past follows you wherever you go. And I simply don’t care anymore. The people closest to me, my family, genuine friends, and business associates, they all know the truth. The rest is just noise. In that specific case, that couple who did that routinely gets kicked out of racing partnerships they are in, they have gone out of their way to cause problems everywhere. The husband is a peach of a guy, but the wife is an absolute drunk who runs her mouth as long and as loud as she can. Hell, she was following me around one night at the Breeders Cup, in the bar of the Hilton, taking video. Another time she called the racing Paymaster complaining about not getting paid $12.00 during an oversight. It was literally that pathetic.”
One thing you can tell from talking with McPherson is that he has thick skin and a sense of humor. He recalls earlier this year when a well-known trainer walked by him and said something stupid. That same trainer, a few months earlier, let McPherson buy him dinner while at the Keeneland thoroughbred sale in Lexington, Kentucky.
McPherson belts out a big laugh when recalling the incident. “How did you hear about that?,” he asks.
McPherson confirms that trainer Brian Koriner walked by him one morning at Clockers Corner at Santa Anita and muttered some smart aleck comment to the effect of “Glad to see you are staying out of jail.”
The former coach shrugs it off as just one of those things that happen when people aren’t really informed.
“I think that one stupid ass comment says everything about Brian anyone would ever want to know about him,” laughs McPherson.
Last summer, jockey Garrett Gomez, who passed away in December 2016, was inducted into the Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame. McPherson and Gomez, who played a lot of golf together, used to spend long hours talking about their lives, their struggles, and the mistakes they both had made. McPherson was invited by Gomez’ sister Kim to escort her and her father to the ceremony. The week in Saratoga allowed McPherson to reconnect with many people in the thoroughbred community he had not seen in a long time.
“The reception I got from everyone brought me to tears. It was a special week for me for sure,” he said.
During the ceremony, Gomez’ father Louie, who was speaking on behalf of the family, broke down on stage before he ever could say a word. The reaction of the racing community, and the fans in attendance, touched McPherson’s heart. Besides a standing ovation at the time, every jockey in attendance came over to Louie to share their condolences and congratulate the family.
“It was amazing to be there representing Garrett,” said McPherson. “Yes, we are sad beyond-belief that he left us so soon. But, he was one once-in-a-lifetime rider, arguably the greatest closer to ever climb up on a saddle. Being there with the family, the only way to describe it is that it was cool. I will never forget the reception Louis got when he broke down. It was very touching.”
McPherson reflects on his past and tries to put it all in perspective. He could be angry, or hateful, or worse. But he is not. He has four kids, three girls and a boy, and comes across as the most thankful guy on the planet. He realizes that the mistakes made in life have consequences, good and bad, and, as he says, “you have to be a man about it.” This real-life Forrest Gump just seems happy to be alive and doing what he loves.
“At the end of the day, we can blame others, point fingers, or choose to be accountable,” said McPherson philosophically. “I choose to be accountable, take my responsibility in all this, and move forward. There were a lot of mistakes made by a lot of people, but we are all human. My kids are fantastic, my friends are amazing, so my life has turned out better than I could have ever imagined. I am excited about how the race unfolds in the future.”
McPherson could be remembered for a lot of things — an amazing coach, a professional golfer, a thoroughbred racehorse owner. When he was asked what area he wanted to be remembered most for, he had a different answer.
“I hope I am remembered for being a good father first, maybe a decent coach, and a dedicated, loyal friend. Because through all of this, through all the bullshit, that is what I was and that is what I am.”
When asked just how great he was, the former coach blows off the question as ridiculous. Instead, he wants to get philosophical about a different question.
“Why is it the human race feels compelled to attack people, to beat them down, to make life even more difficult than it can sometimes be?” asks McPherson with a scholarly look. “What I am great at is not being that person. What I am great at is never having judged someone else for the difficulties they have had in their own lives. I take great pride in the fact that I picked myself up when nobody else was there to help; that I didn’t lose that basic belief in myself when everyone else tried to take it from me. Each of us, every single one of us, deserve to rise again if the opportunity presents itself.”
Recently, NIKE announced an advertising campaign featuring blackballed NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. While McPherson doesn’t necessarily agree with Kaepernick’s social position, he appreciates the fact that Kaepernick risked everything to stand up for what he believes in. In a weird coincidence, the two have that in common.
“Nike and Kap said it all best,” says McPherson. “Believe in Something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”
Editors Note: To provide depth to this feature, small parts of this story were reproduced from a previous story published on the subject with the author’s expressed permission. The photo of Coach McPherson coaching at Olympic College is courtesy of the Bremerton Sun.