College Sports

For UC Davis football, the ‘Aggie Way’ won out over ‘Pride and Poise’ of Raiders

Legendary UC Davis football coach Jim Sochor addresses quarterback Ken O’Brien during a game in 1982.
Legendary UC Davis football coach Jim Sochor addresses quarterback Ken O’Brien during a game in 1982. Sacramento Bee file

Imagine if Jim Sochor had switched allegiances in 1976.

What if the late, great UC Davis football coach had swapped his trademark gameday scarf laced with Aggies blue and gold for all things silver and black, an eye patch and a scowl?

Sochor’s boss would have been Al Davis. His rivals would have been the Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos, not the Sacramento State Hornets and Cal Poly Mustangs.

It didn’t happen because it wasn’t meant to happen.

Long before Sochor died in 2015, he shared a story with me about how his decades-long friend John Madden courted him to join the Raiders staff, just as that franchise was on the brink of its first Super Bowl conquest.

“John showed me the Raiders’ coaching offices – cold, with no windows,” Sochor said. “It was a meat locker. The Raiders didn’t want coaches falling asleep.

“My office in Davis was warm, overlooked the pool. So I stayed.”

That’s Sochor’s enduring legacy: embrace what fits, do what feels right and stick with it.

Sochor coached UCD from 1970-88, a career that included a record 18 consecutive conference championships and enshrinement into the College Football Hall of Fame. He inspired players and young coaches with positive reinforcement, not through brow beatings. Many of his pupils became successful business men, doctors, lawyers, educators or coaches.

The list included Bo Eason, who played in the NFL and became an actor, playwright, speaker and author. He will have his name listed on the UC Davis Aggie Pride Wall on Saturday.

Another influenced by Sochor was Dan Hawkins, UCD’s fiery and fun third-year coach.

Sochor wasn’t able to see Hawkins light up the room when he was hired to return the Aggies to prominence, but I think he would have beamed at UCD’s rise at the FCS level after his run of success at Division II. He would have enjoyed the view of UC Davis’ Health Stadium overflowing with 10,000-plus fans, with quarterbacks lighting up the Big Sky Conference.

UCD fielded its best team last fall, the program’s 100th year of football competition. The No. 22-ranked Aggies are back in the playoff hunt at 4-4 and can enhance their chances with a home victory over No. 5 Weber State on Saturday in a meeting of defending Big Sky champions.

UCD is paced by a quarterback who would have impressed the old coach. Jake Maier is the second UCD passer to eclipse 10,000 career yards, joining J.T. O’Sullivan (1998-2001). Maier is crafty, skilled and cerebral. He owns up to mistakes in living every ounce of the “Aggie Way” mantra created and nurtured by Sochor then and Hawkins now.

Hawkins is building on the foundation of those before him – Sochor, Bob Foster, Fred Arp, Bob Biggs and an army of other coaching giants. UCD plays on Jim Sochor Field. The iconic coach is gone, but he really isn’t as long as those who knew him talk of him, and they do.

“This is all them,” Hawkins said recently of his mentors, looking around the UCD venue. “It’s about enjoying the moment, investing in the process, to be the best version of ourselves. Don’t get hung up in the rankings and who you’re supposed to beat or not beat.

“Sochor never talked about rivalry stuff. Your rival should be that guy in the mirror. It sounds corny, but that’s the truth. That comes from Sochor. I think he would feel good about the seeds he laid down in this program and how it continues to prosper. That gives me a lot of joy and pride. I owe a lot of my career because of that philosophy.”

Sochor appreciated a thinking man’s quarterback who could also improvise and attack. He had several, including Biggs, who helped kick start the Aggies dynasty, and Ken O’Brien, the program’s most accomplished career player, including being part of the famed 1983 NFL first-round crop of quarterbacks.

Maier is a third-year starter, already an all-time Aggies great.

“Jake’s a special player,” Hawkins said. “We’re lucky to have him. He’s a good leader, a great kid, a humble guy with a real zeal to excel, a rage to master.”

Rage to master. Sochor would have loved that line and might have replied with, “Hawk, let’s talk!”

Joe Davidson has covered sports for The Sacramento Bee since 1988 and is award-winning authority on high school sports, specializing in going behind the scenes. Davidson was a high school athlete in Oregon, where he participated in football and track.