Joe Davidson

The Aggie Way: Jim Sochor remembered as more than a football coach at UC Davis

Sacramento Bee Staff Photo

Jim Sochor didn’t fit the image of a college football coach in the 1970s, an era big on bluster and profanity. He was the anti-Woody Hayes, the barking, in-your-facemask coach back in the day.

Sochor was a thinker, a schemer who believed that positive reinforcement was the most powerful motivator. Sochor had a zest for teaching, for living, and he mentored people – young and old – until his final days. Sochor, who transformed UC Davis football from a moribund program into a national Division II powerhouse in the 1970s and ’80s in his unique style, died Monday night from complications of cancer. He was 77.

“There won’t be another Jim Sochor,” said Steve Smyte, who had coaching stops at UCD, Boise State and Davis High School. “It’s not just football people Sochor impacted. We’d go to dinner, or to coffee, and people of all walks of life gravitated to him. Brilliant, very caring, very loving, and he wanted to share that with the world. He’d always say, ‘Hey, it’s a good life.’ 

Sochor lived a good life. He craved competition but he was never obsessed with winning. He never pursued other jobs, though feelers often came his way. Sochor preferred Yolo County, and the house he and his wife of 54 years, Donna, enjoyed in Davis since 1971. That’s where they raised daughters Holly and Terri. Sochor chose happiness over ambition, and his happiness went well beyond going 156-41-5 with the Aggies from 1970-88, a tour that eventually landed him in the College Football Hall of Fame. Sochor reveled in seeing many of his former players get their coaching starts at UCD. Those included Bob Foster, who succeeded him as Aggies coach, to Bob Biggs, who followed Foster, to Mike Bellotti, who elevated Oregon into a national power, to Chris Petersen, who did the same at Boise State and now heads Washington, to Dan Hawkins, who headed programs at Boise State and Colorado.

An unassuming, slender gentleman at 5-foot-8 and 150 pounds, Sochor was soft-spoken with delicate hands. He wore glasses and a hat when outdoors, sometimes a baseball cap, sometimes a cowboy hat. And that gold and blue scarf on game day. It identified him much like Bear Bryant’s red-and-white checkered hat at Alabama or Steve Spurrier’s visor at Florida and South Carolina.

“You have to be comfortable with who and what you are, and I am,” Sochor once told The Bee. “Don’t be someone else. Don’t try to fit someone else’s image. Be you, and be the best you can be.”

Sochor grew up a block away from the 49ers’ home – Kezar Stadium – in San Francisco in the 1950s, studying practices and chatting with players. He quarterbacked San Francisco State to three consecutive championships in the late 1950s and landed at UCD as an assistant coach in 1967. He became head coach in 1970, inheriting a program that had not had a winning season in 22 years and last won a league title in 1915.

Sochor’s first Aggies team went 6-4 as he implemented his core values and principals of trust, team unity and togetherness he called “Aggie Pride.” UCD then embarked on one of the greatest runs for any level of football, winning 18 consecutive league championships. Sochor’s foundation was set as the Aggies were in the midst of setting an upper-division NCAA record by producing 36 consecutive winning seasons.

Sochor stressed to his players that achievement was a choice, but to not over-think it.

“He was such a different breed, a change, and he was great,” said Hawkins, who played for Sochor in the early 1980s. “He had a different approach to life, to football, than anyone a lot of us had known.”

Sochor’s best team was in 1982, when the Aggies played for the Division II national championship. It included his finest player, quarterback Ken O’Brien, who was a first-round pick in the famed 1983 NFL draft.

“Great man, great coach,” O’Brien said. “He taught you how to play, how to act, how to be. He had a lot of confidence in himself and we had confidence in ourselves. It permeated to everyone.”

Sochor wasn’t big on team rules, except being on time and paying attention. His core rule was that a player’s helmet was to never hit the ground. Players either wore their helmets or placed them in their lockers – stored away and held with pride.

“It’s a pretty good rule, and if you think about it, it grew from there,” O’Brien said. “The helmet was a badge of honor.”

Said Sochor years later: “Your helmet is the most critical piece of equipment. It can protect you, save your life, so you must treat it with dignity and respect.”

After stepping down as head coach, Sochor was the UCD athletic director from 1989-91 and coached the UC Davis golf team in the early 1990s. He led the golf program with the same approach as football, heavy on philosophical musings.

Said Sochor to The Bee in 1994: “If a person loves to be in the park every day, loves the game of golf and loves to be around young people, it’s an ideal job. I love all of those things ... a lot.”

Sochor saw similarities in how football and golfers approached competition, even though the sports could not be any more different.

“Football is the Greeks and the Romans, the Athenian approach to competition, dog eat dog,” Sochor said. “This is just a softer approach to competition. Golf is an intellectual game, not a physical game. I try to talk to my players about getting into harmony with the course.”

Sochor embraced harmony. He was considered for other jobs, the NFL and college, but the timing and feel was never right. Said Sochor about his career in general years ago: “A rabbi spoke on campus here and said people go around half laughing and half crying. They’re one place and wish they were someplace else. They can’t fully give of themselves where they are. And, consequently, that’s what they get in return. They’re never totally satisfied. I was determined, after hearing that, to be where I was, 100 percent.”

Biggs, Sochor’s first starting quarterback at UCD, won 144 games in 20 seasons as Aggies coach, using many of the same values he learned from Sochor. Petersen uses these same principles at Washington, the thinking that leadership doesn’t have to be loud and abusive.

“Jim was in an era where it was really in-your-face coaching – yelling – and he brought a whole new bend to it,” Biggs said. “He treated people the way he wanted to be treated, and he built trust that way. You can talk X’s and O’s and championships, but his strength was how he developed people. Jim goes down in the annals of UC Davis as one of the most important people to the school. He brought a lot of class and humility to UC Davis. It’s hard to measure one’s success unless you hear what people have to say about you.”

Joe Davidson: 916-321-1280, @SacBee_JoeD

The Aggie Way

A look at former UC Davis football coach Jim Sochor by the numbers, from 1970 to 1988:

2 - Times Sochor was honored as Davis Picnic Day grand marshall, a record

16 - Points UCD scored in the final 20 seconds in 1971 to beat Hayward State 30-29 in “The Miracle Game”

18 - Consecutive conference championships won

22 - Seasons without a winning record before Sochor arrived in 1970

92-5 - All-time conference record

156-41-5 - All-time coaching record

.785 - Career winning percentage

1915 - Year UCD last won a conference title before Sochor arrived

1983 - Year quarterback Ken O’Brien was a first-round NFL draft choice