Hometown Report

‘King Kong sleeping’ on UC Davis’ campus? New coach Hawkins sees ‘limitless’ potential

UC Davis coach Dan Hawkins, wearing his old jersey and letterman jacket during his introductory news conference, talks to former Aggies coach Bob Foster, right, on Nov. 29, 2016.
UC Davis coach Dan Hawkins, wearing his old jersey and letterman jacket during his introductory news conference, talks to former Aggies coach Bob Foster, right, on Nov. 29, 2016. Sacramento Bee file

Dan Hawkins doesn’t need caffeine.

The UC Davis football coach is fueled by his own radiance and good cheer. Proud of his quirks, he invites you to jump aboard his vibe or move aside.

About the only thing that fires up the man who goes by “Hawk” more than blocking and tackling is his family. Son Cody is on the UCD staff, gleefully wondering about formations on a laptop Tuesday afternoon, overlooking Aggie Stadium.

And Misti Rae, wife of Hawk?

“We bought a house in South Davis, built in 1912, and she’s renovating it while I renovate this football program, and she’s probably going to be better at it than me,” Hawkins said with a laugh. “She’s amazing, raised four kids while I was coaching, three of them born in Woodland. When she goes to heaven, St. Peter will welcome her in like a Daytona race. And he’ll make me sit on the bench to talk awhile.”

That discussion surely would include Hawkins’ path, how he came full circle. Football and the quest to “be different” took Hawkins from the town of Bieber, population 519, located on the banks of the Pit River in the north part of the state. It’s where his father, Norman, still herding cattle by horseback in his ’80s, was part “John Wayne,” part logger. And it is where Hawkins and Big Valley High School teammates would pack rifles in pick-up trucks after dawn arrivals from long road trips to hunt.

The first time Hawkins experienced a college game, he played in it: in 1979, for Siskiyous in Weed.

Hawkins, 56, arrived at UCD in 1981, determined not to take any “funky classes.” He settled in as a two-year starting fullback, big on physicality and personality. The only time Hawk looked tough is when he played tough.

“He was so squeaky clean, we called him Opie,” recalled Dan Gazzaniga, a standout tackle for the Aggies in the early 1980s and now the line coach at Del Oro High School. “He drank milk at Mr. B’s (a Davis bar). His pregame ritual was putting white Kiwi shoe polish on his Converse All-Star cleats. He ran a fullback trap for a first down once and everyone went crazy!”

Gazzaniga echoes the Aggie alumni thrilled to have Hawk back in place.

“He is just a charismatic, high-class, straight-forward individual who possesses great leadership and is an eloquent orator,” Gazzaniga said.

Said Chris Petersen, the one-time Aggie now coaching Washington, “It’s awesome for Davis. Hawk is a special guy, very unique.”

Hawkins champions the UCD brand – the scholars, the setting, the sports. He said UCD can follow the model of Duke, Northwestern and Stanford as academic heavies that succeed in athletics.

“We can be an incubator of greatness,” Hawkins said. “That’s not snobby. ... This is the right fit for me. I’m fulfilled at a place that’s really me. I can dig in, express values and beliefs and live it. It’s like a musician who finds his genre.”

Confidence has never been an issue.

“In 1986, I was 25 and saw in The Bee a story that there was a coaching job at Christian Brothers,” Hawkins recalled. “I tossed the paper to my wife and said, ‘Guess who’s getting that job?’ I got it. But I had no idea what I was doing. I did exactly what we did at Davis and took it to Oak Park and it worked.”

Christian Brothers reached the Sac-Joaquin Section finals in 1986. The Falcons would not get back to a final until last fall.

Hawkins went 40-11-1 at small-college Willamette in Salem, Ore., then 53-11 at Boise State before suffering five losing seasons at Colorado. He deemed those “the dark years.”

Hawkins regrouped, licked his wounds, soldiered on. A man who stresses not to “let life box you in” followed the Colorado experience with some of his own. He climbed Mount Everest. He hiked through France and Spain. He coached in Austria and Canada and was ready to coach in Florida when the Aggies came calling in November.

But this isn’t the same UCD Hawkins grew up with. The Aggies dominated the Division II landscape in the 1970s and ’80s and enjoyed success in the 1990s and early 2000s before moving up to the Football Championship Subdivision level in 2004. UCD is mired in a stretch of six consecutive losing seasons.

“We used to be the big kid on the block and now we’re the up-and-coming kid on the block,” Hawkins said. “We’ve got some catching up to do. We have to maximize us.”

Hawk studied his surroundings, lost in thought.

“It’s a great place to be,” he said. “I remember as a player here we had a guy, Mike Shaw, who was doing jumping jacks, ‘Aggie Jacks,’ and he goes, ‘Yes! Yes!’ What? ‘I just solved the equation that was in my head!’ He was No. 1 in his class in nuclear physics. That’s what this place does. A couple of weeks ago, our players were talking about the Declaration of Independence, when it was signed, what it means. How many college football players do that? Hey, act like you’re in college! Hilarious!”

The coach paused, then added, “It’s like going into the jungle and seeing King Kong sleeping. ‘Hey, wake up! Wake up!’ The potential here is limitless. Who would’ve guessed I’d be back here? By the grace of God, something good is happening here.”

Joe Davidson: 916-321-1280, @SacBee_JoeD

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