Dan Hawkins has a saying when the going gets tough, even if just a ripple in the pond.
“Just keep choppin’ wood,” the gregarious UC Davis football coach will offer.
This is a glass-half-full sort of guy, booming of good cheer at the prospect of life and coaching, of molding young lives and making it all work. He is able to pull the positives even in a dire situation which, he might remind, isn’t always the case in football. Football is a game with myriad lessons, but it is not life and death.
Still, competitors feel the sting of adversity and they either respond or buckle. Last Saturday in San Luis Obispo, the Aggies fell behind 10-0 to Cal Poly.
No matter. Hustle in the ax, the wheel barrel and get chopping. UCD proceeded to get prolific, wiping out the Mustangs 52-10 to move their record to 6-1 overall and 4-0 in the Big Sky Conference.
So yes, life is good in Yolo County, where UCD football has been a staple of success for decades. This is the 100th year of Aggies blocking and tackling, and few teams have been this dynamic, this prolific and this promising — and none have been this good since UCD moved up in classification to the Football Championship Subdivision level in 2007.
UCD has already assured itself of the program’s first winning season since 2010 after a dominating run in the Division II ranks in the 1970s and right on into the 2000s before navigating the treacherous waters of FCS. The Aggies are ranked sixth nationally by the FCS STATS Poll, the program’s highest, and are 13th in the FCS Coaches Poll heading into Saturday’s game at Montana.
“Life is always good,” said Hawkins, in his second season with the Aggies with deep roots to the program dating to his fullback days in the early 1980s. “You’ve just got to make it good. We have a great culture here, great kids, people who love each other, sacrifice for each other, value each other, all rolling in the right direction.
“You just open the lid. You have to be open to the potential of human achievement and not worry about how fast or how slow it takes, and just go get it.”
After going 5-6 last season, the Aggies collectively have gotten after it.
It starts with the fiery coach, who understands chopping wood in various forms. He grew up surrounded by trees and mountains, the great outdoors, having grown up in Bieber, a town of 312 located on the banks of the Pit River in the northeastern part of California. His father, Norman, herded cattle for decades, part John Wayne, part logger and full-bore effort.
It wasn’t uncommon for Hawkins and his Big Valley High School teammates to pack rifles in the pick-ups for early morning hunts. Hawkins didn’t want to be a hunter for life. He wanted to coach and he went from being a UCD assistant after his playing days to gigs at Christian Brothers High School, Siskiyous, Sonoma State, Willamette, Boise State, Colorado, Montreal in the Canadian Football League and now here.
He hopes here is his final stop. Having son Cody on the coaching staff has been a thrill, and score one for the kid for a tip on Jake Maier.
Cody Hawkins saw that the quarterback popped of ability on film while seeking out prospects before last season. He showed his boss, who agreed. Offensive coordinator Tim Plough and Hawkins went to Long Beach City College, where Maier was an All-American, and vowed to secure a commitment.
After passing for 3,669 yards and 26 touchdowns last season for UCD as a sophomore, Maier has been even better this season. He has passed for 2,160 yards and 21 touchdowns, expertly leading the Aggies with decision making, all the throws, poise and leadership.
Maier had five touchdowns against Cal Poly, the second successive week he had that many scoring passes. Said Cal Poly coach Tim Walsh: “That guy is a winner.”
“He’s special,” Hawkins said. “Tim Plough has done a great job of mentoring him, bringing him along, (him) being a quarterback and not just playing quarterback. He’s all business. I knew that the first time I met him and thought, ‘This is my guy!’”
The UCD culture that Hawkins talks about made enough of an impact on star receiver Keelan Doss that he returned for his senior season, bypassing a shot at the NFL draft. Doss, an All-American last season, out-muscles or out-leaps opponents and then races past them. He has 598 receiving yards and four touchdowns this season.
Maier has all sorts of targets, including tight end Wesley Preece from Rocklin High School and Justin Kraft of Whitney High. But Doss is the boss.
In UCD’s lone loss, at Stanford, Doss had 13 receptions for 106 yards, prompting Cardinal coach David Shaw to say later, “This guy’s really good. He’s fast, long, tracks the deep ball well. He’s going to play well at the next level.”
Added Hawkins, “Doss showed tremendous loyalty to the school and the program, and he knew he wanted to work on his game, that he had a quarterback on the same page. He’s tremendous, humble, smart, everything you’d ever want.”
Hawkins said he reflects often of his coaching mentors at UCD: Jim Sochor, Bob Foster, Bob Biggs, Fred Arp.
“I think about them all the time,” he said. “I think of all these moments that happen and how’d they’d handle it, how impactful they were.”
UCD is a different place than the 1970s and ’80s, and all of it for the better. The school maintains a sterling academic reputation and the athletic facilities have helped teams keep pace, including football and basketball.
“This place has unbelievable potential,” Hawkins said. “When you’re internationally recognized and you have a global reach, that’s amazing. In some respects, we’re better than Cal or UCLA in certain areas. This place has major firepower.
“We’re trying to stoke the fire. And we have a great staff, all of the guys. Can’t do it by yourself. I try to motivate, to guide, to plow through the tough roads, to be the visionary, to lead the way. But it’s all of us together that makes it work.”