Intercollegiate athletics considers big step to Big West

"Is UC Davis moving to NCAA Division I?"

That's the $64,000 question around the UC Davis Intercollegiate Athletics Department these days, but the question is hardly new, especially to Athletic Director Greg Warzecka.

Whether in an e-mail from an alum or in a chat with a booster after a game, Warzecka has probably been asked about the possibility of moving from Division II as often as he's been asked "How are you?"

In the coming months, however, campus officials - led by Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef, Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Bob Franks and Warzecka - plan to move a step closer to answering that question as UC Davis explores the possibility of moving its 25-sport intercollegiate athletics program from NCAA Division II status to the Big West Conference and Division I.

The decision to make a transition to the most visible of the three NCAA affiliations is not expected until late in the 2002--03 academic year and will be made on behalf of the campus by Vanderhoef.

However, before he announces a decision - which wouldn't take effect until the fall of 2003 - he'll have plenty of input as the campus faculty and staff, students, alumni and the community weigh in with their thoughts.

The move means a change in many areas, including a new conference affiliation (the campus is currently affiliated with the 12-team California Collegiate Athletic Association), an increase in student-athlete support and a different set of NCAA rules and regulations to follow.

It would also require at least $4.6 million a year in increased funding for athletic grants-in-aid and department operations - which would need to be funded by the university and students.

Undoubtedly, it would be the biggest change in the history of UC Davis athletics, which is why the campus is taking its time in deciding which way to go. This isn't the first time UC Davis has tackled the issue of Division I. A decade ago, the campus determined it should make such a move, but the budget crisis of the early '90s halted consideration.

  • mutual interest

The Big West Conference has been the impetus for current discussions.

"Our interest in looking outside the (Division II) California Collegiate Athletic Association started because of the interest the Big West Conference expressed in us," Warzecka said. "They've called us every year for the last three years."

The Big West Conference, which sponsors 17 sports, is a 10-team league made up primarily of schools in California, including three other UCs: Irvine, Riverside and Santa Barbara. The University of the Pacific - just down the road from Davis in nearby Stockton - is another member of the Big West, as is Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, a former Division II school with which UC Davis has enjoyed long-standing rivalries in several sports, especially football.

The Big West has been so interested in UC Davis that it invited Vanderhoef to its annual meetings in Los Angeles on July 15, where UC Davis made a presentation on why the campus is a good fit for the Big West. A campus visit by Big West officials is set for this month, with an invitation for the Aggies to join the league possibly coming soon after.

And while the Big West is clearly interested in UC Davis, the conference is also plenty attractive to UC Davis, which has teams competing in six different leagues.

The CCAA currently sponsors 13 sports, and "We don't see that going up," said Warzecka. The Big West Conference may soon grow to 18 or 19 sports, perhaps adding men's and women's water polo, or women's gymnastics or women's lacrosse.

"There are all sorts of possibilities for the Big West to grow, which makes it a very good fit for our 25-sport athletic program," said Warzecka.

UC Davis is one of a handful of Division II institutions currently looking at Division I, Warzecka said. There's a window of opportunity to join, he said, that may not be there in a year or two. "It's probably the most important thing in the move," said Warzecka of the conference affiliation. "Some of the other Division II schools that are considering this move are not in a similar position. They do not have any sort of invitation from a Division I conference, nor has any other Division I conference expressed interest in those schools, so we're in a very good situation."

Looking for a better fit

UC Davis has captured five Sears Directors' Cups - which honor the most successful athletic programs in each collegiate division -and is the most dominant program in the CCAA, but the quality and quantity of the competition in Division II aren't the issue.

Rather, officials believe that UC Davis should be competing with peer institutions - those schools, like institutions in the Big West, that are either closely aligned to UC Davis' goals and philosophies for its academic and athletic programs, or more closely resemble the university's size and scope.

"We have matured as a campus and as a program so that by many measurements we don't fit well in Division II," said Associate Vice Chancellor Franks. "Some schools with which we engage in athletic competition have little in common with our academic interests. Division II includes primarily much smaller institutions with an average enrollment of 4,000 students, while we enroll well over 20,000 undergraduates alone."

According to the NCAA, UC Davis is one of just three Division II schools with 15,000 or more undergraduate students. UC San Diego, also a member of the CCAA, is another. UC Davis, with nearly 850 student-athletes, has more than any of the other 289 Division II institutions and currently operates with the largest athletics budget-estimated to be $7.5 million for 2002-03.

The university's athletics facilities are - or will soon be - comparable to those at many Division I institutions. Recreation Hall seats 7,600 for basketball, and the baseball team is now playing in the recently completed Dobbins Stadium. Three other projects - the Schaal Aquatics Complex, a 15,000--18,000-seat multi-use stadium and upgraded Hickey Tennis Courts - are scheduled to be completed in the next two years as part of nearly $30 million in athletics facilities improvements.

As Warzecka has often said, UC Davis is the "800-pound gorilla" of Division II.

But it's not just UC Davis that has changed, outgrowing its competition; the landscape of college athletics is constantly evolving, forcing institutions to reevaluate their NCAA affiliation in light of their own goals and philosophies. The more campus officials have examined UC Davis' standing, the more they discover that Division II is becoming less of a fit for the Aggies than Division I, and that the disparity between the two will likely widen in years to come.

"In the past few years Divisions I, II and III of the NCAA have made significant changes to their separate bylaws affecting academic eligibility standards for student-athletes, financial aid requirements, facility requirements, number of sports sponsored, Title IX compliance issues, progress-to-degree requirements and others," said Franks. "An argument can be made that with these changes Division I has become more compatible with UC Davis' values and traditions, and Division II has become less so.

"At the same time, many of the schools with which we once enjoyed spirited competition have either dropped one or more of their sports or have moved to Division I, where the rules provide strong disincentives for them to compete with us."

Rekindling old rivalries

Conference affiliations ease scheduling concerns for schools that would otherwise have the unenviable task of playing independent schedules, and they offer conference champions automatic berths in nearly all NCAA championships. An additional advantage to joining the Big West Conference, in particular, is the opportunity for UC Davis to rekindle rivalries in many sports with schools like UOP and Cal Poly.

"This would also open up opportunities for us to play Division I schools that are in our area and would be really fun to play," said Associate Director of Athletics Larry Swanson, who oversees the program's external affairs. "We've evolved to the point where I think we could compete with these schools, and I'd love to give that opportunity to our fans."

These schools might include Saint Mary's and Santa Clara, Stanford and University of San Francisco, Loyola Marymount, Pepperdine and many of the schools that UC Davis played 10 and 20 years ago.

"I think fans, especially alumni, will be excited to see those rivalries renewed in many of our sports," said Warzecka.

The future of Aggie football

The Big West does not sponsor football, so that UC Davis team would likely play an independent Division I-AA schedule. (Football in Division I is played at either the I-A or I-AA level, with the primary difference being the number of scholarships offered; I-AA requires fewer than I-A.)

"As we see it now, we think football will be better off in the future as a Division I-AA program," said Warzecka. "We'll have to improve our grants-in-aid for football - as we will for all of our sports - but right now we have great difficulty scheduling in Division II because of the lack of competition." Humboldt State is the only other Division II school in California that plays football, and there are only three other Division II schools that play football on the West Coast.

"The expense of going out of state to South Dakota, North Dakota, Texas or Pennsylvania has been just exorbitant," he added. "And to top it off, because we are successful in football, we have trouble finding teams who want to play us, whereas if we were Division I-AA we could continue to play Sacramento State and add schools like Portland State, Montana, Northern Arizona and even occasionally some I-A schools."

Doing it right

While UC Davis considers a change in NCAA affiliation, Franks wants to make sure the athletic program of tomorrow always reflects UC Davis' philosophy. Franks has seven "inviolate principles" that he said must be kept in mind during current discussions:

  • UC Davis must offer a program that does not compromise the university's focus on the academic integrity of student-athletes.
  • Admissions standards must in no way be altered or amended specially for athletes.
  • There can be no "tiering" among UC Davis sports, with some emphasized and others receiving less support.
  • UC Davis cannot retreat from its Title IX progress but must continue to expand its efforts and compliance.
  • UC Davis cannot restrict its broad-based program but rather must seek to add sports.
  • This program cannot depend for its financial survival on its record of wins and losses.
  • Permanent core funding must come from students and the institution.

Fulfilling that final principle will likely be the biggest challenge of the exploration process. Of the additional $4.6 million or more needed annually for Division I, approximately $3.6 million would be for athletic grants-in-aid. That amount would allow UC Davis to offer the maximum number of full scholarships allowed at Division I (and at Division I-AA for football), so it can continue to attract top student-athletes. Remaining costs are for department operations.

"The biggest thing is going to be the scholarships," said Brian Fogel, men's basketball coach. "We need to be able to compete on an even playing field with everybody else."

Students will be asked through an initiative to increase their support of intercollegiate athletics and provide the majority of the money needed, with the remaining funds to come from the university and fund-raising efforts. Either way, "Everyone is going to have to step up to the plate," said Franks.

From exploratory to provisional

The transition to Division I would bring other challenges. Under the "one plus four" transition plan adopted by the NCAA earlier this year, schools interested in switching divisions must complete one year of an exploratory pro-cess followed by four years of provisional status.

The exploratory year - which schools must declare by Dec. 1 of the academic year - has no effect on the institution's athletic status. In the case of UC Davis, the Aggies would remain a Division II school, eligible for all NCAA championships. The exploratory year is simply an official declaration that UC Davis is looking into Division I. At the end of the academic year, the institution would then announce whether it plans to change divisions.

Should UC Davis declare its intention to switch, the campus would then begin four years of provisional status, during which time it would come into full compliance with Division I rules and regulations.

As a provisional member, however, UC Davis would not be eligible for any NCAA championships, except for those it already either competes in as Division I (wrestling, gymnastics) or in sports in which only one championship is offered for all divisions (men's and women's water polo). Qualifying for championships via automatic berths - such as in basketball - may also be delayed beyond the provisional years, although teams will likely be able to advance with 'at-large' invitations.

Postseason restrictions would affect some student-athletes already at UC Davis and would provide challenges for upcoming recruiting efforts. "The pluses are that students will still be making a good decision to come to UC Davis and compete in athletics," said Warzecka. "There will be opportunities for the coaches to demonstrate to the students that we will still have a great athletic program here during the years of transition."

Sandy Simpson, head women's basketball coach, acknowledged the challenges of recruiting during the provisional stages but believes the time is right to seriously examine Division I. "Eight or nine years ago when this issue was visited, I wasn't quite sure it was the time or the place for us to make the move to Division I. I was a little skeptical about the chances of doing it the right way and maintaining our philosophy.

"Now, I think we've grown to the point where it's a move certainly worth looking at."

Fogel offered similar sentiments. "The thing that appeals to me," he said, "is that we would belong with the Irvines and the Santa Barbaras and we would be able to attract, I think, a quality student-athlete here because of the facilities, because of the coaching, because of the location and the environment that the university has to offer."

Everyone concerned agrees that, no matter how the campus answers the $64,000 question now at the center of UC Davis athletics, one thing is certain: In the words of Bob Franks, "The primary focus for our student-athletes has been, and will continue to be, on academics first." •

Mike Robles is the director of the Sports Information office.

Media Resources

Amy Agronis, Dateline, (530) 752-1932,

Primary Category