UC Davis avoided graveyard of discarded college football programs, back for 101st season

UC Davis quarterback Jake Maier (15) hands off to Ulonzo Gilliam (40) during the 65th Causeway Classic last season, when Maier was named the Big Sky Conference Offensive Player of the Year. Maier passed for 3,931 yards and 34 touchdowns.
UC Davis quarterback Jake Maier (15) hands off to Ulonzo Gilliam (40) during the 65th Causeway Classic last season, when Maier was named the Big Sky Conference Offensive Player of the Year. Maier passed for 3,931 yards and 34 touchdowns. Brian Baer/Special to The Bee

The teams Dan Hawkins used to play when he was a barreling fullback at UC Davis in the early 1980s are mostly gone.

California has become a graveyard of discarded college football programs over the decades, undone by lack of interest and finances without a whisper of a chance of return.

This is not a concern in Yolo County, where the Aggies are set to kick off their 101st season Saturday at Cal, alive and well with upsets on their mind and a bigger-picture image of repeating at Big Sky Conference champions.

Hawkins is a man who likes to say with gusto he is “super jacked up” — and that rings true in what he calls the ultimate team sport, big on bonding, growth and achievement. He takes none of this for granted, not when history offers a cautionary tale of how fast a program can have the rug yanked.

Chico State, Cal State Hayward (now East Bay), San Francisco State, Santa Clara and Sonoma State used to dot the UCD schedule. All have been axed. Saint Mary’s football went under in 2004, Menlo in 2014 and Humboldt State last winter.

UC Davis nearly lost its football program before a student referendum saved the day in 1992, an era when other programs were folding left and right. Sacramento State students similarly saved its ship in 1995.

“What happens to the vibrancy of a place when you lose football?” Hawkins wondered Thursday morning. “I made a comment about this once and got in a bit of trouble, but a school without a football program is a school without soul.

“It’s the leaves falling on game day, the marching band, the alums coming back, the game. It’s part of America, and as corny as that sounds, we need that. We need that theater and drama.”

And fireworks. UCD offers a lot of everything Hawkins is talking about.

The Aggies are coming off their greatest season, certainly since being moved up in classification from Division II to the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) in 2007.

UCD went 10-3 in 2018, winning a share of its first Big Sky championship after polishing off Sac State in the Causeway Classic, held in Reno due to the Camp Fire smoke that clogged the Northern California air.

The 2018 campaign halted the losing seasons streak at seven, for decades an unheard-of drought. UCD once famously won 20 consecutive conference championships, ending in 1990, blasting through Chico State, Hayward, Sonoma and others.

Last fall was UCD’s first conference title since taking the Great West Football Conference in 2009 under coach Bob Biggs.

Fifteen starters are back for another go, a group that has the Aggies ranked in the top five in a number of national FCS preseason polls. The defense is headed by linebacker Nas Anesi, who said of Hawkins, “We bought into his vision. Expectations are high.”

All-America quarterback Jake Maier also returns, the next great passer from a program that has produced scores of them. Maier was the Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year, passing for 3,931 yards and 34 touchdowns. The La Habra native is a third-year starter. He’s tough, cerebral, crafty and accurate.

“Jake has that X-factor, the rage to master,” Hawkins said. “Sometimes in coaching, we have a hard time giving up power, and we want to run and control it all, but he’s running it for us, the offense. He’s amazing, he’s humble, works hard. He’s just special, and we knew he would be, but he’s exceeded expectations.”

The coach added, “I love our guys. We have a lot of really good players and an unbelievably good culture. It’s really kind of magical. I feel like I’m 15 years old, getting invited to the prom by the greatest girl at school.”

Receiver Keelan Doss is graduated, playing with the Raiders now, but Maier will have targets large and larger to work with, including 6-foot-5, 240-pound tight end Wesley Preece of Rocklin, an NFL prospect.

Preece shares the view of Hawkins — to appreciate every ounce of this sport while he can. Hawkins said Andrew Luck’s NFL retirement shook football followers of all levels across the country, a top-tier player grounded by a broken body and wounded spirit.

“We all appreciate the time we’ve spent here, what we have, and it’s gone by so fast,” Preece said.

Hawkins gained his appreciation of work ethic growing up in Bieber, a town of 320 located on the banks of the Pit River in the northeastern part of the state, heavy on trees, mountains and livestock. His father, Norman, is closing in on 90 but doesn’t act it. Norman herded cattle for decades and embraces every day, a theme that resonates to his football-coaching son.

“Dad still walks three miles every day, cuts his own wood, and he’s got a horse and rides,” Hawkins said. “He’s got good genes. I tell him he’s going to live past 100.”

Scott Barry, an Aggies quarterback star from the 1980s, recently spoke to the team about the gifts of this game.

“His point was you play football — you don’t work football, so we want our guys to enjoy this,” Hawkins said. “We really want to maximize and have fun every day. It goes by so fast. We’re trying to create a season to remember, days to remember. Bottom line is this can be so enjoyable.”