Even up to his last days, Tod Denison was still cracking jokes.
“He was still coherent. It’s so crazy how he can talk and then be gone,” former Garces coach Mark Brown said. “We played hoops for 30 years on Sundays. It’s a tough deal. He was a good man.”
Denison, a former girls basketball coach at Garces, died Wednesday morning after a year-long battle with stage 4 prostate cancer. He was 59.
Brown said he was with Denison and his older brothers, Kerry and Kirk, this weekend when Kerry was getting ready to leave the house.
“As Kerry was going out the front door, Tod yelled out, ‘Don’t let the cats out,’” Brown said. “That’s what he did. He was always joking. Just a great, dry sense of humor.”
Denison’s demeanor around basketball could resemble that of a disciplinarian.
But to those who knew him well said he commanded the best of his players because of the love he had for them.
“The girls loved him and they respected him. He was tough when it came to practice and games,” former assistant coach Gordon Westhoff said. “He expected them to give him 100 percent all of the time. He never had any of his own children and he loved his players like his own. He worked their butts off.”
In nine season as head coach of the Rams — from 2006 until his retirement in 2015 — Denison led Garces to two Central Section championships. The program held a 236-36 overall record, a win percentage of .867 that few coaches in section history can rival over that span. Denison, who stepped down after the 2014-15 season to get away from the coaching grind and spend more time with his family, led the Rams to at least 22 wins in each of his nine season at the helm. The program took home seven league titles during that time.
In his second year, the Rams beat Exeter 57-47 for the Division IV Central Section title. The next season, Garces was moved up to D-II. The Rams went 12-0 in Southeast Yosemite League play and advanced to the section finals again, only to lose to Hanford.
The 30 wins Garces recorded that season were a school record until 2013-14. That year, the Rams won 31 games, led by three-time All-Area Player the Year C.J. West (now at Cal) and her older sister and future San Jose State player, Rachol. Garces beat Tulare Western for the D-II section title.
In Denison's final season as head coach, Garces was moved up to D-I yet still advanced to the playoff semifinals despite having just nine players on its roster.
“At Garces, we only have so many kids, we have to share kids,” Garces volleyball coach Kim Harper said. “That basketball team was a family. They were tight and he was the leader. He drove that home. He was a disciplinarian but they loved him.”
A three-year standout at Garces under Denison, Rachol West appreciated how Denison pushed his players and his teams.
“That’s what made us good. That’s why we only lost two or three games all season, because he tested us,” West said. “People think that you score a lot of points because you have good players. No. We practiced three to four hours until we did what was good enough for Tod. He pushed us like we could be beat any day. That’s what made us such a strong unit.”
West played her freshman year at Independence, but said after taking the court in a summer league game against Garces months leading up to her sophomore year, she saw how Denison coached and got the most out of his players. She wanted to be part of that.
“I told my parents about that and I thought the change would be great for me. I wanted that,” West said. “We filled out the paperwork and enrolled in three days. He welcomed me with open arms. He welcomed my sister in as well. That meant the world to me. I can’t thank him enough. I wouldn’t have gone to Garces without Tod.”
West said she was aware Denison was getting treatment for cancer, but added he never let on how sick he truly was over the last year.
“We talked over Facebook and he knew I just had a son,” West said. “He knew my milestones. Tod never tells you how he is feeling or when things aren’t going well. He never wanted to worry us. He was always lighthearted. He did that to protect us on and off the court. He did that to protect us from this.”
Westhoff remembered a tournament game in Visalia where a parent of an opposing player began to taunt Garces during a timeout.
“The parent was hollering at one of our players. Tod turned around and I had to hold him back, he was that protective of them,” Westhoff said. “He loved those girls. He loved Garces.”
Gino Lacava was Garces' boys basketball coach at the same time Denison was in charge of the girls program. He remembered Denison's commitment as an off-campus coach, who worked full time in the purchasing department at Bakersfield Heart Hospital.
“He was a heck of a guy. It’s hard to be an off-campus guy. But he did it. He loved those girls,” Lacava said. “He was a disciplinarian out there. He would literally be out on the court with those girls during drills. He was a great motivator pounding the pavement with the kids. That’s Tod in a nutshell.”
Denison was diagnosed in August of 2017 and was survived by his wife, Berly.
“He found out last August. It’s only been a year. You talk about a fighter. He never complained. He seriously said, ‘I’m going to beat this.’ But he finally had enough," Kerry Denison said. "He just said he couldn’t do this anymore. I told him, ‘I hear ya, bud.’”