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UCD in D-I: 7 Years Later

UC Davis lost to Portland State, 41-33, on September 11.

Was it worth it?

As an alumni from UC Davis, and an avid sports fan, it’s a question I sometimes find myself asking, on and off, for seven years. I was asking myself that very same question after watching the Aggies lose to the Portland State Vikings, 41-33, coming agonizingly close to pulling out the win. And, I asked myself that question again when I found out that, a few weeks ago, Aggie football decided to move from the Big West to the Big Sky Conference.

I’ve lived in Davis practically my whole life, and, as a sports fan, I have often followed the exploits of Aggie sports. I knew about the lucrative success UC Davis basketball and football, especially, before it happened, and the national coverage they have received since (as little as it was). But, after seven years, was it worth it?

Before I move on, I should make myself clear. Once upon a time, UC Davis prospered as an athletic program. Its success was well-documented, as the Division II school won tennis championships in 1990, 1992 and 1993. Then, in 1998, the UC Davis men’s basketball team unexpectedly won the NCAA Division II championship. UC Davis also sent gymnasts to the NCAA West Regional gymnastics competition that same year. Among the athletic program’s greatest athletic accomplishments, however, was receiving the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA) Director’s Cup in 1996, given to the four-year institution with the most successful overall athletics program. In the program’s golden age, UC Davis received the award six times in eight years.

The Aggies at the time, for lack of a better term, were the big fish in a small pond. Ultimately, it was for that reason that, in 2003, the athletic program decided to kick it up a notch. The school re-classified for Division I-AA – the big leagues – and entered a four-year transition period, ending in 2007.

Unfortunately, it’s been a rough going in Division I for UC Davis sports. While men’s basketball did very well in Division II, their overall record 2003 hasn’t been as stellar: starting in 2004, the Aggies compiled a 59-116 record – a .337 winning percentage in six years. And while UC Davis has faced some big-name schools lately (more recently, Cal-Berkeley, Boise State, Fresno State and TCU), they have lost almost all of them, each as expected blowouts – not to mention the 52-3 shellacking UCD took from Cal on September 4. After another loss from Portland State in the Aggies’ home opener, the outlook isn’t good for UCD football this season.

“I’m a huge sports fan,” said one UC Davis student, who wished to be called “Michael”, “but … I don’t like watching games anymore. It’s just not enjoyable to watch your teams get their faces beat in.”

On top of all that, the transition period has proven costly to the university, with the program having been forced to cut numerous sports in recent years. “A lot of the budget cuts have come because of the Division I program,” replied Claire Scott, a sophomore on the Women’s Rugby team, “so that was really [unfortunate].”

“During the decision process of the transition phase, our financial stability was uncertain,” added Michael. “If academics is as important as everyone says, they shouldn’t put the school into a situation where something bad might happen, like laying off teachers, cutting back classes, which is what ended up happening.”

With a bleak outlook on many of the major collegiate sports in UCD, I ask one more time: Was it worth it?

Despite all of that, I would say yes.

While many could point to the numerous losses compiled by UC Davis against big-name schools, I can personally attest to one particular school that the Aggies had booming success against – Stanford. In 2005, no one could take away the exhilaration of an entire school after a 20-17 upset at Stanford Stadium. A couple months later, the men’s basketball team did the same to Stanford, at the Pavilion, 64-58, and Aggie fans stormed the court in pure ecstasy.

“The buzzer rang and we just flooded the court,” recalled Matt Stauffer, an English major who graduated in 2008. “I remember, as we walked out of the pavilion, I wanted to call everyone and brag that we just beat Stanford. It felt like we were the center of college basketball at that moment, and, as I was rushing the court, I felt like everyone was watching us. We had just dropped a bomb on college basketball.”

The Aggies baseball team completed a dominating trifecta, beating Stanford twice in a two-game series, in late May of 2006. Most likely, those moments would have never been possible had the Aggies not moved up to Division I play.

Then there are the overall successes Aggie sports have found in Division I. For example, wrestler Derek Moore won an NCAA Division I championship in 2007, going undefeated and becoming the first athlete in school history to win a Division I title. The feat propelled UC Davis to a national ranking in collegiate wrestling programs. The women’s rugby team was ranked fourth in the nation, while the men’s soccer team reached the NCAA postseason that same year. The women’s basketball team reached the Women’s NIT (National Invitiational Tournament) in 2008 and 2010, while the men’s team reached the Big West tournament in each of the last two seasons.

“I think it was a great choice,” said Molly Suarez, board member of the Student Alumni Association at UC Davis. “We may be struggling now, but we’re being challenged in D-1. We’re only going to get better.”

Even after all that, UC Davis is still in its infancy in Division I play. Having been exposed to Division I opponents a mere three years, Aggie athletics have shown great potential for the future. “It’s a great step for our program,” Scott added. “Any Division I school will be looked at a lot more than a Division II school.”

Finally, turning lemons into lemonade, the yearly beatdowns bigger schools give to UC Davis come at a price … for them. It was reported that Cal’s game vs. the Aggies came with a price tag of $300,000 for UC-Berkeley.

So, in the end, I would say that it was definitely worth it.

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