A first-ever athletic reunion at the University of California, San Diego, last weekend brought home some points about the school's athletic growing pains.
The overflow crowd of 350 illustrated UCSD's past decade of excellence, athletically and academically. Their enthusiasm emphasized the young school's growing pool of influential, faithful alumni. The speaker, NCAA Executive Director Richard Schultz, showed Athletic Director Judy Sweet's clout in college sports.
An RSVP humorously reflected the school's rapid growth as a Division III athletic power. It was signed: "Class of '72, Decade of Pre-excellence."
The chuckles that drew beg the question of whether UCSD is ready to springboard to a more prominent athletic posture. That draws debate even within the administration.
Athletically, the expanding La Jolla campus is at a crossroads.
When it opened in 1964, UCSD had 6,000 students and played a few sports--including football--at virtually a club level.
As the enrollment grew and sports were added, it was done on a low-key basis, without extra facilities or much financial input. As one coach put it, higher-level teams used to schedule UCSD figuring, "We'll have a nice trip and beat the crap out of them."
But the 1980s brought the UCSD program to the zenith of the NCAA Division III level, and many of the 23 Triton teams have become big fish in small ponds.
UCSD teams have won 14 national championships in five sports and placed second 18 times. The school has dominated its level of women's volleyball for a decade and has been a force in such diverse sports as soccer, tennis and water polo.
Take away Kenyon (Ohio) College's stranglehold on the Division III swimming titles, and in the words of water polo Coach Denny Harper, "It's pretty much a matter of record that UCSD as a Division III program has been unparalleled in the last 10 years."
But progress--and upward mobility--beckon, and the UCSD program might be dragged kicking and screaming to a bigger pond thanks to its sterling academic reputation and constant expansion.
The school now has first-class outdoor facilities: An all-weather track, well-kept baseball, softball and soccer fields, an aquatics center, as well as outdoor volleyball, basketball and tennis courts dot the airy campus, in the shadows of ultramodern buildings and eucalyptus groves. Students recently approved the building of a new gymnasium/athletic center that's set for a fall 1994 opening.
The student population has grown to more than 14,000 undergraduates, with more than 17,000 students on campus. That figure is expected to exceed 20,000 in the next decade.
Most coaches and athletes contacted for this story backed an upgrade to the Division II level--with some misgivings. Administrators tread lightly around the subject, acknowledging the coaches' points but sticking to the philosophy of Division III. A committee researching going to Division II is expected to recommend the move up in a report sometime this quarter, although without recommendations on how to finance it. The report should set off some interesting campus debates.
Harper called the move "inevitable," wondering how much longer a school nearing the size of a small city can continue to play Division III opponents such as Claremont-Mudd and Pomona-Pitzer, private schools with enrollments of 800 to 2,000.
"People are going to say, 'What's going on there, it's a little Berkeley.' New buildings are popping up every day," Harper said. "Division II is definitely something I would welcome, something that needs to happen."
Does bigger mean better for UCSD?
Presently, says one coach, UCSD "takes the kids who don't get scholarships and turns them into kids who should get scholarships." It's the Division III approach at its best.
At the Division III level, schools give no financial aid specifically to athletes and don't waive any entrance requirements. Student-athletes are exactly that at UCSD: serious students playing a sport in their spare time. You don't find any Prop. 48 redshirts or physical education majors.
The mean high school grade-point average for UCSD's freshman class this year is 3.98, with an average SAT score of 1180. The yearly cost for a California resident is about $11,300. That jumps to $18,000 for out-of-state students. About one-third of the student population gets financial aid based on need.
UCSD has been labeled by the Ford Foundation as one of the six top state-run colleges in the nation. The faculty includes six Nobel laureates, mostly in the sciences, and a Pulitzer Prize winner for music.
Only one coach is a full-time UCSD employee, and that's because women's volleyball Coach Doug Dannevik is on the faculty as a teacher. Harper coaches two teams and still holds an outside job.
"I think it's a good mixture," said Jerry Goldstein, one of the top players on the men's volleyball team. "Everyone on the team is interested in being as good as he can be, but we know we're here for academics."
Elizabeth Tan, a two-time All-American on the women's volleyball team, said, "I do like the concept of Division III. Scholarships are such a foreign idea to me. Everybody (in a sport at UCSD) is out there playing because they love the sport."
This is a campus that loves its sports, but doesn't necessarily want to pump more money into the intercollegiate side. The school administration estimates that more than 60% of the students take part in intramurals. The current cramped gym is shared by all indoor sports as well as intramural teams, which often are scheduled past midnight.
The new building, known as RIMAC--the Recreational, Intra-Mural Athletic events Complex--will solve much of that problem as well as provide a facility for concerts and non-athletic events. To pay for the building, students approved a $70-per-quarter fee, which will go into effect when the building opens. Not everyone on campus is pleased.
The "New Indicator," a bi-weekly newspaper with roots in radical 1960s politics, called it "a multi-million dollar scandal" and urged students, faculty and parents to "call their local media and their legislators and SCREAM BLOODY MURDER."
Molly McKay, a senior from San Diego who chairs the University Center Board, said the students' main argument with RIMAC was the way it was perceived as being ramrodded through without student input. McKay said student disapproval of the new fee was basically ignored by the chancellor's office as well as regents.
"I think I represent the majority of student opinion," she said. "It's not so much I mind an athletic building, it's how the vote was held."
Phil Gruen, a senior who was sports editor and then editor of the student paper Guardian while the RIMAC debate and vote were under way, said the Guardian never took a poll so there was no true reading of the feeling among students. However, he pointed out, less than 20% of the students voted. "That showed that a majority of students didn't care that much about athletics," he said. "It will stay that way as long as we're Division III. I don't think there's a lot of beefing about it now. It's a done deal."
He added that while the vote was controversial, "Personally I think RIMAC's going to be great and the athletic department is in dire need of something like this. For a school our size, some of the recreational facilities are subpar at best."
Agustin Orozco, president of the Associated Students, said opposition to RIMAC is a moot point, so the focus now should be on making sure students have a say in how it is utilized. "My concern is for the intramurals program. We as students have to make sure we get adequate representation to see who runs the building," he said.
Orozco, a senior from San Diego, added, "Now we have to look to the future and make sure . . . we are informed on how we're paying if any other (expansion) comes up. If we go Division II the students will end up paying for that. I don't know how many students really want that with all the fees going up. I'm hoping the (upcoming) report will clear up financing."
An upgrade to Division II would mean some limited athletic scholarships, more off-campus recruiting and some full-time positions for coaches. It could cost $1.5 million to $2 million more than the current athletic budget of about $900,000.
"From our size, availability to schedule, and the mentality of the athletic department we're geared to Division II. I'm a strong proponent of moving to Division II," Dannevik said. "The question is, how do we pay for that? This is not a good time to start asking for money. I don't know if the climate is ready financially. I think it's ready physically."
Sweet, who is in the middle of a two-year term as president of the NCAA as well as in her 17th year as UCSD athletic director, said, "I do think there is a sentiment among many people on campus who believe that as the university has grown in size and reputation academically, it would be appropriate for some kind of growth to take place inside the athletic department."
Coaches say a move to Division II is the only logical one from a scheduling standpoint. There is only one Division III conference in the West--the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference--and the Los Angeles-based SCIAC is drawn up for small, private institutions.
Without a conference affiliation, Triton teams have trouble landing Division III opponents, and they often end up playing Division I or II foes.
"There is the sense it's going to become progressively more difficult for us to remain in Division III, but there's also the appreciation that to do something different will require more resources," Sweet said. "The timing is definitely going to have some bearing on the ultimate decision. Currently we're not even fully funded at the Division III level."
Some UCSD coaches have their eye on the California Collegiate Athletic Assn., a strong Division II conference with members in the Los Angeles, Orange County, Ventura and Riverside-San Bernardino areas, as the answer: good competition, relatively easy travel, built-in scheduling and in many cases automatic NCAA berths for conference champions.
The CCAA has invited UCSD to look into membership.
"The avenue for us is the CCAA," Dannevik said. "It's a natural for us. It would help us in transportation fees and we'd develop some rivalries."
Sweet stressed the school continues to "support a Division III philosophy, which means essentially no athletic scholarships," but she acknowledged, "Not being in a conference is our biggest weakness. We should be associated with institutions that have a similar profile to ours. The students should be able to vie for conference championships. I think it would generate interest and enthusiasm on the rest of the campus as well."
The Biggest Fish
The women's volleyball team has nearly swallowed the Division III pond. Since Dannevik became the coach 12 years ago, the team has won six NCAA titles and reached the final game two other times.
The team is ranked No. 1 again this season at 21-5 and is 12-0 against Division III competition, having lost only one game in those 12 matches. The losses came to San Diego State, a strong Division I school, and four Division II teams ranked in the top 20. The Tritons have beaten Cal Poly Pomona, a CCAA team in the Division II top 10, and UC Davis.
"It's to our advantage to be playing Division II teams," Dannevik said. "Our goal is to win the national championship. I believe in the adage you get better playing better teams. We play the toughest schedule we can possibly play."
Sophomore middle blocker Heather Holtzclaw said, "Division II would really be a good move. At Division III we really dominate, and we have to go to Division II to have tough competition, anyway."
Dannevik doesn't go after the 6-foot-2 hitters weighing scholarship offers and Olympic tryouts. He said he tried for a while and found, "I wasted a lot of time early in my career recruiting the same way San Diego State did."
Now he does reverse recruiting, generally waiting for the players to make the first contact. "I have a shirt saying, 'We Recruit Bass-ackwards,' " he said with a laugh. For his recruits, he said, "Volleyball is their extracurricular activity."
Dannevik doesn't want for selection these days. He's got a stack of letters from 92 interested players. "We answer them and explain (the program). If they send back a questionnaire, we will call them," he said. "If they're still (interested), we will go see them play. Out of those 92, maybe 40 people are really interested. We can come up with 10 we can really recruit. If we can get six of them to visit, we'll get four or five of those six."
The program has steadily improved, to the point, Dannevik said, that a Division II move would be relatively painless. "What I'm most proud of is we've won six national championships with three to four sets of different people," he said. "Last year's team was nothing like the '86 team, that team was different from '84. It means we're doing a good job of teaching and developing the players. I am preparing us to move to Division II from a recruiting standpoint."
Dannevik said he found early that he couldn't simply roll out the ball and give orders. His players wanted to know why. He said he has used this quality to UCSD's advantage, and to help overcome physical shortcomings.
"The players here are perfectionist by nature, very driven, intelligent. They ask a lot of questions," he said. "It keeps you on your toes. You can't just say this is what we're doing, do it. We rely on a fast pace and quickness because we're smaller (than scholarship teams). The players are very smart and can make adjustments very quickly, so we've been able to develop a system that accentuates our strengths. I can tell 'em something once, even in a game, and they have it."
Tan, a 5-foot-9 fifth-year senior, came to UCSD from a private school in Oakland, where she played basketball and soccer but not volleyball. She redshirted as a freshman, then stepped into the lineup. Now she's approaching a third consecutive All-American selection at middle blocker. She'll graduate in December with a degree in biological anthropology. She also works in a day-care center.
"I guess Doug took me because I had potential, which is kind of how the team is based," Tan said. "I think our program does a lot to maximize an individual's potential. I didn't have much experience but Doug said, 'I can train you to be a middle blocker.' For two years I never saw the backcourt. Now he lets me play in the back line. I feel I've gotten the most out of (my talent)."
As is the case with most Triton teams, the majority of athletes would not be playing at Division I, or would have had to walk on and try out. That's part of what makes them attractive to UCSD.
"We may not be as gifted athletically," Sweet said, "but the desire, the attitude is so positive, the academic background is so strong, that's what makes them champions. To that add the opportunity for the enjoyment of the game and knowing not everything is going to be handed to them."
UCSD's other dominant sport has been women's water polo, which is not yet an NCAA sport. The Triton women have won the last two national titles, run by USA Water Polo Inc., and have hopes of making it three in a row. The top competition is UC Santa Barbara, UC Davis and Slippery Rock (Pa.). The Tritons are led by senior Brenda Reiton, a three-time All-American who was recruited out of Texas, where she was the state high school player of the year.
But it may be with the men's team that Harper has shown UCSD can play with the big boys. With only one level of water polo in the NCAA, the Triton men play a schedule that runs the gamut from UCLA to Claremont-Mudd. The Tritons entered the week ranked ninth, their second-best rating ever (they reached seventh in 1989).
Harper is able to recruit some blue-chip players and beat ranked teams from Division I schools.
"Denny should really be commended for doing a great job of showing how a school can overcome its limitations," Dannevik said. "Men's water polo has probably done the best job of developing its sport at UCSD."
Harper said the opening of the aquatics center in 1983 and the formation of the Sunset Club, a spring/summer development program, were the two big steppingstones after he became coach in 1980.
"Opening the aquatics center allowed us to schedule bigger teams. For a couple years they kicked our butts," Harper said. "The Sunset Club attracted a lot of players who had already graduated, and my varsity got to train against those type guys. That really brought the overall level of everyone's play up.
"We still attract the same type athlete as before--kids who like the idea of going to UCSD, playing against the very best and are not expected to beat those teams. We have attracted some blue-chip-type kids. We'll contact them, but not spend a lot of time (recruiting them). If blue chips are a 10, we'll concentrate on the 8.5s and 9s. We're appealing to their common sense about their abilities to play the sport."
Down the Road
Joseph Watson, vice chancellor for student affairs, oversees athletics and is the administrator charged with looking to the program's future. All he'll predict about the upcoming report studying the Division II move is "it will be discussed extensively, and hopefully all on campus will concur, whatever the decision is."
He said the "obvious inconsistency" of UCSD's size compared to most Division III schools "in part makes us consider Division II." But he added, "We've been very much guided by the philosophy of true student-athletes and we certainly want to maintain that. We've had a very good balance between the women's and men's teams and we'd like to maintain that. We also have a large number of teams, and we'd like to be able to maintain that breadth of athletics."
Football could be in the future. It was voted down in 1986, though 60% of the students voting were in favor. A two-thirds majority was needed. Sweet said it probably will come up again, though she added with a laugh, "I don't know if it will be in my lifetime."
The newest coach, Rod Wilde in men's volleyball, previously coached at Division I power Pepperdine and most recently worked with the national team before joining the UCSD staff. His arrival and intense training methods have team members enthusiastically backing a move up.
Men's volleyball is an open division and Wilde would like to join the powerful Western Intercollegiate Volleyball Assn., which has produced every NCAA champion since a championship tournament began in 1970.
"We have to work for everything we get, but I tell them when I started at Pepperdine we bought our own shoes, too," Wilde said. "The players definitely do want to (upgrade). I'm trying to get us in (a position) where we would have a legitimate shot . . . of qualifying for the NCAAs. I perceive that could happen here."
Sweet hesitated to make a forecast, in part, she said, because 10 years ago she couldn't have foreseen the rapid strides the program would take. "We've learned to be expansive in our dreaming," she said. "I can guarantee you we'll continue to move forward--not necessarily changing divisions but continuing to make improvement in our program."
Dannevik hopes that means something substantive, as well as philosophical. "Eighty percent of the coaches have grown up here," he said. "Most are making less than $15,000. If they keep having part-time coaches it's going to have an effect. Right now there's a continuity, but if they start having revolving-door coaches it will hurt."