Gary Colberg: Creatively focused on students and sports

Gary Colberg
Gary Colberg

When Gary Colberg sits back in his chair and beams, "I'm a gopher," you might think of theat rascally rodent from the popular 1980 sports comedy Caddyshack.

After all, Colberg, associate athletic director of intramural sports and sport clubs at UC Davis, has dug deeply into the fun of sports, building up the UC Davis intramural and sport club program into one of the nation's largest and most creative since arriving here in 1966.

He is bold, breaking new ground in establishing women's flag football (1967, called powder puff back then) inner tube water polo (1969) and co-ed flag football (1969) as IM sports for the first time on any American campus. And he is fearless, collaborating with current IM sports director Laura Hall, in bringing back controversial favorites like dodgeball. Yes, UC Davis has dodgeball — with "foam" dodgeballs, not the "killer" variety of yore.

But "gopher" has a different meaning for Colberg. A sports buff early on, he grew up in White Bear Lake, Minn., and graduated in 1970 from the University of Minnesota — their sports mascot is a gopher — with a master's degree in physical education. As a teaching assistant steeped deep in Gopher sports, he got his first taste of the intramural world when his boss, Joe Nowatny of the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota, tossed the guidebook at him during his first year as a graduate student, and said, "You run the IM program here," and the rest was history.

"It was the students," said Colberg, in explaining his attraction to intramurals and club sports,"and the opportunity to program whatever activity I wanted. It was like destiny."

This led to a job at UC Davis as the assistant director of intramural sports in the late 1960s. Unlike intercollegiate sports that take place between universities, intramural sports involve both present and past members of the university campus carried on within the bounds of the institution.

Family passion

Colberg's wife, Debby, has been the head coach for the women's volleyball team at Sacramento State the past 31 years. "I admire her patience," said Colberg, "and her ability to succeed in a highly competitive environment."

Colberg's Aggie-bleeding sun is setting — after so many years, sports and teams, he retires June 30. He and his administrative assistant, Candy Schneider, will be feted at a June 10 dual retirement party in Freeborn Hall with current and past student employees and participants in attendance. Tickets are $40. (For details, call Schneider at 754-4313).

It's a fitting tribute, for Colberg himself has organized countless farewell parties for the numerous coaches and employees who have clicked through the Athletics Department turnstiles through the years.

It's this outward focus that characterizes Colberg, said Schneider. "Gary's a nice person. He has an open door policy for students and staff. Everything comes first for the program, and we're never too busy to help."

Ask him about his major accomplishments and Colberg points to the 57 different men's, women's and co-ed intramural team sports that every year involve more than 15,000 students and 2,360 teams. In comparison, the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has 36 IM sports and UCLA reports that some 16,000 students play on 2,200 teams. So UC Davis is big, intramurally.

The other pride in his memory is the 1977 opening of Recreation Hall. After all, you have to host all of those teams, a feat now made easier by the 2004 opening of the Activities and Recreation Center.

With all this, Colberg still found time to teach physical education every year and serve as an official at more than 200 international matches in his career and at a number of collegiate national tournaments, including the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and serving as the overall coordinator of the indoor volleyball officials at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

Colberg is especially proud of the growth in women's athletics at UC Davis and elsewhere.

"Sports for women have really taken hold — we believe deeply in what women can accomplish in athletic and recreational endeavors," said Colberg, citing recent UC Davis women's sport club championship accomplishments in cycling, ultimate frisbee and horse polo.

One thing is for sure, he misses the people in Minnesota, though he goes back every year or so to visit. On his office wall hangs a huge Minnesota Vikings football plaque. "I miss my longtime friends. Once I retire, I plan to go back during one of those beautiful Minnesota falls. That's something I haven't done since I've been out here."

What do you like best about your job?

I get to help create an enjoyable environment for the students through a number of sporting activities. They need to sometimes get away from the academic stress — and sports can help them relax while creating new friendships.

What do you like least?

The fact I'll miss it here, deeply. It'll be hard quenching the urge to go to work. I plan to take a deep breath, make some trips to Minnesota, get back into shape, and relax.

What other jobs might you have done?

If I had stayed in the Midwest, I'd be coaching football and administrating some phase of education.

What appeals most to you about sports?

Pitting oneself against the competition. It's the process toward the completion, the journey that's important, not the end. I love the bonding that takes place among those who play a team sport.

Is there something surprising about you?

I almost became a Lutheran minister. I was making plans to attend a theological seminary in Minnesota, but then I caught the sports bug. My role model is A. Ruben Gornitzka, the former senior pastor at Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. He could preach and inspire like none other.

As U.S. president, what would be your first action?

I'd get out of Iraq. We got ourselves into a bad mess there. Reminds me too much of Vietnam.

Do you have any guilty pleasures?

I watch too much football on TV. Well, it's a love-hate relationship. I love the game but don't like the violence. Also, I love watching "American Idol." My wife and I both enjoy the talent and competitive element — it's very entertaining.

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