The UC Riverside men’s basketball team made a national television appearance late Saturday night, playing a Big West Conference home game against UC Irvine on ESPNU, and in the course of the broadcast announcers Dave Feldman and Corey Williams ran through some of the storylines that have made the Highlanders’ journey unique. They mentioned Mike Magpayo, the first Division I coach of Asian descent. They played up the path of Dominick Pickett, high school star turned Division I student manager-turned-walkon-turned-captain and scholarship player. They touched on the high number of recruits from Australia and New Zealand now playing for UCR.
But they missed – or, more likely, intentionally avoided – the biggest storyline of all.
UCR’s teams are playing while a figurative ax hovers over the entire program. There has been at least one stay of execution and there might be another while the program’s stakeholders, on campus and in the community, try to keep it alive.
This dates to a document drafted by the university’s Budget Advisory Committee last August that examined potential savings in light of a projected $32 million COVID-19 shortfall and suggested the entire athletic program – with an estimated $24 million budget that represents 2.4 percent of the overall university budget – could be eliminated.
Athletics wasn’t just on the list. It was atop the list.
Subsequently, that document became public and sparked blowback from a community that had no idea things were this far along. UCR chancellor Kim Wilcox then formed an on-campus “working group” to examine the “options, opportunities and challenges” involved.
The group originally had a Feb. 1 deadline for its report. That was pushed back to March 1 and rumblings are that it will be pushed back again, because in the meantime Athletic Director Tamica Smith Jones departed for a second-in-command job at Kennesaw (Ga.) State and a consulting firm, College Sports Associates, was hired to explore the program’s issues. Interim athletic director Wes Mallette, who had been the program’s chief of staff under Jones, has replaced her in the working group.
Consider that while many schools have made or anticipated program cuts because of pandemic-related issues, no other Division I institutions seem to be advocating scrapping their entire programs.
Donors have reportedly pledged somewhere in the mid-six figures to UCR’s program in recent months, while a “Keep UCR Athletics” social media campaign registered 300,000 some impressions in the month and a half after the issue became public, along with emails and letters directed to the chancellor.
Really, though, they didn’t need to go to the trouble of a working group or the expense of an outside evaluator. I could have saved Wilcox and the university the consulting fees, because the issues haven’t changed much from the last time an outside consultant came on campus in 2008 – really, from the time UCR declared its intention to go Division I in April,1999.
The program and the university as a whole do not engage sufficiently with the surrounding community and haven’t for years. The department has been underfunded almost from the moment it became Division I. Administrators and staff have thought small. And UCR had the Inland Empire to itself as a Division I athletic program for 17 years but was whipsawed between chancellors who cared and chancellors who really didn’t seem to want to be bothered by athletics.
The upshot is that in the last three years the competitor in town, Cal Baptist, has swiped much of their donor and sponsorship funding with a new arena and a program that acts like it is in Division I, under the stewardship of a president in Ronald Ellis who is unwavering in his commitment to athletics.
The X-factor at UCR, of course, is an anti-athletics strain historically more vocal than it is at most other places. Russell Wright, whose Collegiate Consulting firm did the 2008 report on UCR athletics, but wasn’t hired for this study, recalled his experiences when I asked him in a recent phone conversation if it was indeed more shrill at UCR.
“There is always a percentage of your faculty/staff who are not pro-athletics, who always kind of take the tack that, hey, if there wasn’t athletics, that money would go into whatever department they’re in or it would go to teacher salaries,” he said. “Actually, that’s not true, but there is always that percentage. But – and this is not exaggeration – we have not been to a place, and I think we’re at almost 600 projects, where it was as loud as it was on that campus.
“We had a faculty focus group … and I remember Janet (Lucas, then the executive associate athletic director) telling me, ‘This might not go well.’ And she was right. So now I’m used to it when I get yelled at.”
That 2008 study was three chancellors (plus two interim) and five athletic directors ago. Since April of 1999, when the university declared its intent to move up from Division II, the university has alternated between leaders who were visibly committed to Division I (Ray Orbach from 1992-2002 and Tim White from 2008-12) and those who seemed, um, far less so (France Cordova from 2002-07 and Wilcox from 2013 to the present).
And it’s fair to wonder what would have happened if one of those interim chancellors, Jane Close Conoley (December 2012 to August 2013), hadn’t been passed over. She’s now the president at Long Beach State.
Brad Bates, who is part of the current evaluation with College Sports Associates, noted in a recent phone conversation that “continuity and leadership has been a challenge” at UCR. And, he added, “I’ve heard the community engagement (issues) a lot. That’s been a very common thing.”
Community engagement is an issue that could have been a dramatic advantage for UCR at the very start of this adventure. Early on, because of the unique nature of the Riverside community and the school’s status as the only Division I institution in the Inland Empire, I felt UCR had the potential to be a non-football version of Fresno State, a program that could carry the banner for an entire region.
I’m not the only one who made that observation. Donovan Ellis, a former UCR baseball player, was involved in marketing the program with Learfield Sports Properties and later worked with Fresno State through Learfield before leaving sports marketing. When he was at UCR, he recalled in a phone conversation, he suggested to Jones that they needed to “rope this off and make it our territory, really invest in getting out in the community, getting athletes in the community, get support from across campus to do the same.”
It never happened. Then he went to a school that already had created that template.
“It’s very similar,” he said. “It’s 500,000 people but it’s a small town, right? Just like the Inland Empire. Everybody knows everybody. There’s certain industries that run the market. Right here it’s (agriculture), and so one of the things that the school does is make it a priority to align ag and athletics. … Now that I’ve been at a school like Fresno State, I look back at Riverside and – while there’s a lot of great lip service that ‘the Inland Empire is our territory,’ there’s not a targeted approach in how to do that.”
There’s still potential for success, even if the opportunity for dominating their market is gone. If done right UCR can still grow a fan base within a Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario region that is the 13th largest metropolitan area in the U.S., with 4.2 million residents as of 2019. It will just take creativity and effort.
“There’s still that big sword hanging over everybody’s head,” said Chris Jensen, a Riverside attorney and former president of the UCR Athletics Association booster organization. “But it’s not insurmountable. Let’s find ways to make this thing work.”
The alternative? Just about the time UCR’s men’s basketball team is finally poised to make an impact in the Big West, it’s perilously close to disappearing.
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