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Opinion: It’s time for UC Davis to re-examine its ‘principles’

UC Davis’s Gabe Manzanares (41), dives for yardage during the second quarter as the UC Davis Aggies hosts the Eastern Washington Eagles in their Big Sky Conference matchup at Aggie Stadium, Saturday September 27, 2014.
UC Davis’s Gabe Manzanares (41), dives for yardage during the second quarter as the UC Davis Aggies hosts the Eastern Washington Eagles in their Big Sky Conference matchup at Aggie Stadium, Saturday September 27, 2014. sacbeephotos@sacbee.com

UC Davis administrators christened them as “the seven inviolate principles.” They added the extra point later to make “the eight core principles.” For more than a decade, they’ve guided the Aggies into the world of big-time college sports.

Campus officials came up with the principles around the same time the student body in 2003 voted a fee hike on itself, partly to fund the transition to Division I competition. The principles were a promise of sorts the school wouldn’t sell its academic soul to achieve athletic prominence.

Last week, athletic director Terry Tumey left UC Davis to pursue other opportunities, administrators said. Like all such departures, his created an opportunity to inspect a public institution amid transition, which led to an examination of the inviolate cores – and a conclusion that maybe they need to be compromised.

A call went out to Mike Bellotti for analysis. He provides it these days as a college football broadcaster at ESPN.

Bellotti, Class of ’73, is a renowned UC Davis alumnus. He caught passes for the Aggies, then found work as offensive coordinator at Cal State Hayward (now East Bay). He moved up to Weber State in the same job category and down again to become head man at Chico State, before Oregon coach Rich Brooks plucked him from the oak ravines of Bidwell Park to run the O at the University of O.

Brooks left Eugene for St. Louis and Bellotti took over at Oregon, his 116 wins in 14 years turning the Duck into Nike’s international mascot, and he did some time as Oregon’s athletic director. Now he’s an analyst – with a skeptic’s take on his alma mater’s athletic progress.

A football guy, Bellotti knows “the Davis Way” enunciated in the inviolate principles works fine for most of the other sports. But when it comes to his game, the competitor is displeased. What Aggies football lover wouldn’t be? They’ve suffered through four straight losing years and a 49-62 record over the past decade. Remember, this was a program that used to win its conference championship every year.

Bellotti, in a phone conversation last week, didn’t directly address the inviolates as a collective albatross, but he discussed some side effects of the principles as things he could do without.

He alluded to their stricture on money, itself a necessity in this life that doesn’t solve every problem under heaven’s skies, but one that does ease the pressure of the earthly paradise, especially when it comes to beating Eastern Washington.

“You can’t hide in Utopia,” Bellotti said, “and expect to compete with people who are spending more money and giving their coaches more resources.”

The coach loved his time in the Utopian sliver west of the Causeway. He knows the college is world class and getting classier. He does not preach a return to small ball or demand a great leap toward Football Bowl Subdivision play. What he rightly sees is an athletic program that can’t go backward, can’t stand still and can’t figure out its way forward on football.

“If you want football to be the flagship, to be the bell cow, which it typically is at most universities,” Bellotti said, “you’ve got ask, are you competitive with your resources, your support, your salaries for the coaches? Are you giving them the opportunity to be successful? If you’re not, then bring them up to speed so they can compete with the people in their own league, at their level of competition, on a national basis.”

Now, back to the principles.

Everybody agrees sport should never threaten “the academic integrity of student-athletes.” The concept of “tiering,” conferring favored status on one sport over a less popular one, must be denounced in all forums. Retreat from Title IX and face the wrath of my 9-year-old niece who plays soccer the same way Troy Polamalu played football – attack!

OK so far, but the rest of the package needs editing.

Principle No. 7 says “permanent core funding must come from students and the institution,” not outside sources. This appears to be targeting philanthropic giving, a helpful way to finance the revenue sports.

No. 6 maintains, “The athletics program cannot depend for its financial survival on its record of wins and losses.” This makes sense in T-ball, but the big spectator sports must win to bring in the spectators. When they do, it means more cash for golf and field hockey and the rest.

Bellotti thinks UC Davis has to give way to lower admission standards, if you want more and better players. He also shudders at the principle that coaches are required to teach on the side.

At UC Davis, neither basketball’s Jim Les nor football’s Ron Gould are exempted.

Said Bellotti: “I was astounded.”

Call The Bee’s Andy Furillo, (916) 321-1141. Follow him on Twitter @andyfurillo.

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