Kelli Anderson is a writer for Sports Illustrated and a UCSD Alumni. The original article was posted at: http://ucsdmag.ucsd.edu/magazine/vol1no1/features/play.htm in 2004.
“To Play or Not to Play”
Would a move to Division 1 result in a greater national profile for UCSD?
UCSD appears on one collegiate top 10 list after another, crowding against such august institutions as Stanford, Berkeley, UCLA, MIT and Harvard. But in one category the University is content to be in a more modest lineup, among the Chico States and Cal State-Dominguez Hills of the world. Nearly alone among large, state-funded research institutions, UCSD competes in sports far beyond the media spotlight, in the NCAA’s Division II. All of its sister UCs except Santa Cruz have left such obscurity behind. Davis made the leap to the increased competition, higher visibility and greatly increased financial outlay of Division I this year. Should UCSD follow?
As it is now, UCSD will never make it on anyone’s top 10 list of the nation’s best college-campus atmospheres. Sure, it’s in a beautiful setting with a perfect climate, great facilities and a world-class faculty. But the place lacks a certain spirit, a noticeable esprit de corps common to campuses with big-time athletics. It’s not that UCSD’s sports teams aren’t successful. Fourteen of its 23 teams were ranked in the nation’s top 25 Division II schools last year, including women’s swimming at number three, men’s water polo at number four, women’s soccer at number eight, women’s volleyball at number 10 and men’s tennis number 14. However, those successes aside, they don’t seem to inspire students to the kind of mass foolishness they will recall fondly at reunions for years to come. In La Jolla, entire dorms don’t stay up late dreaming up pranks or insulting chants for the school’s big rival, because there isn’t one. Cheerleading squads form sporadically, tailgating is virtually unheard of, and no one seems to remember what the fight song is (see above). Even Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Joseph Watson, who does not favor a move to Division I, acknowledges that UCSD students have it tough in the bragging-rights department. “It’s easy to go home and talk to your friends about your school being ranked 10th in Division I football or basketball,” he says. “It’s harder to say that your school produces the second-largest number of American Chemical Society bachelor degrees in the country.”
Perhaps not coincidentally, UCSD ranks seventh out of eight UCs in alumni giving. “I often talk to graduated students when they come up here to play ball, and a lot of them say, ‘Man, I couldn’t wait to get out of here,’” says Charles Guthrie, associate athletic director for marketing. “They treated it like a commuter school when they were here and they have no affinity for it now.” Would things be different if UCSD had a more prominent sports program, one that included all the traditional trappings of college life: a football team, a marching band, rivals with recognizable names, a big game and big-game rallies?
Alums have never been polled on the issue, most professors barely give it thought, and no one can say what the next chancellor—usually the most powerful voice on such issues—will think. But students are becoming increasingly vocal on the need for a better balance in campus life. Guthrie says the athletic department sees a student-initiated proposal for a football team at least twice a year. And among students and potential corporate sponsors he regularly hears the refrain, “When is UCSD moving up?” Athletic director Earl Edwards points to a student vote held in spring 2002, when the special athletics fee was increased to $25, as testimony to the students’ increased interest in sports. “That had been tried many times in the past and had never been successful,” he says.
The UCSD culture has been slow to embrace intercollegiate athletics. When the school opened its doors to undergraduates 40 years ago, there were no sports, no Greek system, nothing at all to do but go to class, study and catch the occasional wave on Black’s Beach. UCSD started a Division III (no scholarship) program in 1980, but by the late ’90s, the Tritons had become, as women’s volleyball coach Duncan McFarland puts it, “the 300-pound gorilla that no one wanted to play.” The reason is obvious but frustrating. Although coaches of conference teams have the discretion to schedule non-conference opponents such as UCSD, many do not want to take the risk of losing against a lower division team.
The faculty approved a move to Division II in 2000 with the caveat that no athletic scholarships would be granted. UCSD is the only Division II school in the country that doesn’t offer such aid. Although this policy puts coaches at a distinct disadvantage in recruiting, and overloads student-athletes who also have to work to pay for their education, the resistance to athletic scholarships remains strong.
“I think there is a desire for our student-athletes to be students first and that sports not dominate and be the determining reason for their being at UCSD,” says Watson. “If we weren’t concerned with that, we would be ignoring what is quite rampant and obvious in many Division I schools—that the athletes are not students and that there is little concern for their education.”
Jordan Cross is a fourth-year double major in sociology and political theory who works tirelessly to promote Triton athletics as president of the student booster organization Triton Tide. The problem, as he sees it, is that most UCSD students are students first, second and third. “It is really hard to get people out of their dorm rooms or out of the library,” he says. “A lot of people here seem to do nothing but study.”
Nevertheless, thanks in large part to the Triton Tide’s efforts, Cross has seen attendance at games rise. “An outsider might think games are still poorly attended,” he says. “But for those of us who go to everything every year, the change is noticeable.” For example, since moving to Division II, men’s water polo has attracted crowds of between one and two thousand.
But even Cross doesn’t think a few more bodies in the stands merit immediate plans for the big time. “The biggest grumbles we hear are that we aren’t Division I and we don’t have a football team,” he says. “People assume those are the answers to all our problems. Well, if we had 4,000 or 5,000 people come out to a basketball game—and that’s a low estimate for a Division I team—then we might be able to consider that this is the direction our school is headed. But until we see that kind of interest, that kind of loyalty, we’re not ready for Division I, and that’s unfortunate.”
One can find plenty of excuses for poor attendance. There is the siren song of the library, the high frequency of midterms and UCSD’s college system, which might create more affinity for one’s college than for the University. It might also be argued that UCSD students are more interested in being players than fans since intramural sports attract approximately 10,000 students to 1,200 teams. And then San Diego itself is hardly a bastion of fire-breathing fandom. Neither the University of San Diego nor San Diego State draw well as Division I schools go. Aztec football, for example, has experienced drops in attendance in eight of the last 10 years and drew just 25,263 per game last year. The pro teams don’t do much better: The Chargers, who regularly bill the city millions of dollars for unsold seats, ranked 24th out of the 32 NFL teams in average attendance last year, and the Padres typically fill only about 40 percent of their seats.
The promise of more recognizable opponents is one reason UC Riverside upgraded to Division I in 1998. “Having been at UCLA for 25 years prior to coming here, Chancellor (Ray) Orbach understood that intercollegiate athletics is the largest window to any institution,” says UCR’s athletics director Stan Morrison. “Now when we play UCLA and UC Irvine and USC, our people relate to that and that makes it easier for them to come on board with financial support. Our fundraising for athletics is much greater than it has ever been. People like aligning themselves with the highest level of competition.”
That is one argument, but a NCAA report, published in August 2003, showed that there is virtually no correlation between increased spending on athletics and increases or decreases in alumni giving. Myles Brand, the NCAA president concluded in that report: “For the college president and board, there is clear evidence that regarding significant increases in athletics spending as the path to new revenue, better enrollment applications, more alumni giving or even more wins is far from a certain thing.”
And UCSD engineering professor Lea Rudee, the faculty liaison for athletics, doesn’t buy that mere Division I membership brings the highest level of competition. “Look at Davis,” he says. “When they were in our conference, they played Cal Poly-Pomona, and they go to the Big West and they play Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo! Who cares? If you look at all of Division I . . . there are about 80 to 100 schools that are the real big time, that you ever hear about. That still leaves 200 Division I schools, and most of those are Division I-AA in football. Does anyone in the media pay any more attention to Division I-AA than Division II? They are both invisible. Except that a lot of schools are paying a hell of a price to be in Division I-AA.”
Consider Davis. Athletics director Greg Warzecka says the Aggies made the move to Division I (I-AA in football) this year—despite a 2-1 faculty vote against it—for much the same reason that UCSD moved from Division III to Division II three years ago: They were dominating their competition. “Nobody wanted to play us,” says Warzecka. “It was difficult for us to schedule teams outside of our conference. And though we were known as a California Collegiate Athletic Association member, we have been in six different conferences in order to support our 25 sports. Now moving into the Big West, they have 17 of our sports and it will probably grow to 18 or 19. It’s exactly what UCSD is going to face in the future. They are as broad-based a program as we are, and Division II athletics is not very broad-based.”
Like Riverside, Davis will have to increase its athletic budget by about $5 million (85 percent of which will come from increased student fees) to bring everything up to Division I standards. And the Aggies are likely to take a huge hit in recruiting because of a recent extension in the probation period for new Division I members. After this year’s “exploratory period,” the Aggies enter a four-year “reclassification period” in which they compete against other Division I institutions and abide by Division I rules but cannot compete for any Division I championships. Starting in 2007-08, Davis will have to wait two more years before it is eligible to win automatic berths to any NCAA championships (these are usually awarded to the conference tournament winner). Men’s basketball will have to wait six more years beyond that. The Aggies will be eligible to get into the NCAA tournament through an at-large bid, but the last time a Big West team won an at-large bid was in 1993. So the first Davis athletes who have a realistic shot at getting into the NCAA men’s basketball tournament will be the high school class of 2015, this year’s first-graders.
“That probation period—I’d call it a sentence, really—is one reason I would not be in favor of a move to Division I right now,” says UCSD’s Edwards. “Let’s face it, without any opportunity for post-season play you’re not going to recruit UCLA types, you’re going to recruit the B types. For me, as a former athlete, trying to be the best that you can be was what it was all about. And the only measure of being the best is winning championships.”
Among the reasons many UCSD faculty oppose a move to Division I is the specter of funds being shunted from
academics to blot out athletics’ red ink. According to the NCAA, only 40 Division I programs made a profit in 2000-01 (compared to 48, two years earlier), and those schools averaged a surplus of $5.3 million. The number of program in the red increased from 56 in 1999 to 74 in 2001, and those schools averaged a $3.8 million deficit.
“Division I sports can certainly provide huge benefits in terms of institutional exposure and student experience. But make no mistake, it is a business,” says Arizona State athletic director, Gene Smith. “All those things that bring in money to sustain the program—ticket sales, donations for priority seating, money from TV and the NCAA basketball tournament, for example—are tied to your win-loss record. Creating rivalry, playing higher profile schools and trying to create that esprit de corps on campus, you end up chasing the dollars.”
This brings up two other faculty worries: lowered academic standards and reputation-staining scandals. Within the last year, Baylor, Ohio State, Michigan and St. Bonaventure were just a few of the otherwise reputable universities hit by such scandals. “We’d be foolish not to worry about that,” says Watson, UCSD’s vice chancellor for student affairs.
But baseball coach Dan O’Brien, who played baseball for the Tritons from ’93 to ’95, thinks such fears are misplaced. “The faculty here does not want an organization such as athletics to tarnish their outstanding academic reputation, and unfortunately, they look at a situation like Baylor (where one basketball player allegedly killed a teammate and the coach tried to use the tragedy to cover up rules violations) instead of looking at a situation like Stanford,” O’Brien says. “Stanford has maintained a high level of success and emphasized the true student-athlete experience. And that’s what you’re going to find at UCSD. Our athletes have a higher GPA than the general student body here. People here fear the worst when in fact, athletics at UCSD can really help the image of the University in the community.”
UCSD’s associate athletic director Guthrie agrees. “The University suffers from an identity crisis because it doesn’t tap into the general public’s need for entertainment,” he says. “Duke has always had a great academic reputation, but it wasn’t until the basketball team got really good in the last 15 years that the general public found out about it.”
Does UCSD need a higher profile? Its admissions office already has to turn away a higher percentage of applicants than any UC but Berkeley. “We want to be known for our academics,” says chemistry professor Barbara Sawrey, who is also vice chair of education. “In general, we’re not interested in being known for our sports. That doesn’t appeal to the faculty’s ego. But I can see how it could be of interest to students.”
That brings up the million-dollar question—whose interests should be the school’s highest priority? The faculty’s or the student body’s?
Soccer player John Shum feels there could be a better balance of the two. “You don’t want a bunch of students who can’t handle the academic pressures coming because they are getting money,” he says. “But at the same time, you can’t put all this money into research and not allow the student body to have some type of experience where there is some sort of school pride.”
Watson appreciates that need, but he doesn’t see Division I as the answer, at least not right now. “So we may not get 10,000 people out to a football game, but if we can get 40 people to fencing, or 1,000 to a water polo match, if we can get 2,000 people out for our women’s volleyball and soccer games, and those 2,000 have a great time and socialize with one another, then maybe we will get at the spirit problem a little differently,” he says. “And if we have good coaches, good facilities and a well-run program, each of our 600 athletes will have a very rich experience at UCSD. Should not that be the principal purpose of intercollegiate athletics?”
Arizona State’s Smith thinks it is one purpose that needs a forum. “There’s a place for schools at Division II and Division III, just like at Division I-A, there is a place for club programs,” he says. “I go through this all the time with our lacrosse team. They want to be Division I. I tell them, ‘If we were, you wouldn’t be playing.’ There needs to be places for kids to have that participatory competitive experience, so they can gain all those values from athletics that others gain at Division I.”
Until the pressure to move to Division I becomes too powerful for UCSD to resist, maybe being among the best providers of such experiences is a top 10 list worth striving for.
Kelli Anderson is a senior sports writer at Sports Illustrated.v