Hometown Report

How Dan Hawkins has the UC Davis football program soaring to new heights

UC Davis football coach Dan Hawkins has led the Aggies to the FCS playoffs. They’ll play Big Sky Conference rival Eastern Washington in a quarterfinal Saturday in Cheney, Wash.
UC Davis football coach Dan Hawkins has led the Aggies to the FCS playoffs. They’ll play Big Sky Conference rival Eastern Washington in a quarterfinal Saturday in Cheney, Wash. dkim@sacbee.com

Dan Hawkins wakes up fired up.

He doesn’t need coffee. It needs him.

The UC Davis football coach booms of good cheer even when sideways wind and rain pelts him in the chops. His sport has a lot to offer beyond blocking and tackling, wins and losses, brotherhood and memories, Hawkins will remind.

Hawkins appreciates every ounce of what he has. He has a dream gig, coaching his alma mater, stirring a sleeping giant in what he expects to be his last rodeo. And coaches understand each other, their joys and pains.

After UCD beat Sacramento State in the Causeway Classic in Reno last month, Hawkins took a moment to laud the coach before him. Ron Gould was a good man and a good coach who wasn’t a good fit for UCD. He was replaced by Hawkins, a good man and good coach who is the absolute right fit for the Aggies.

“A lot of these players were Ron’s guys, his recruits,” Hawkins said of his Aggies. “He deserves credit. I’ve been where he’s been – told you’re not a good coach. You’re a good coach when you win and a lousy one when you don’t.”

Such is the scathing nature of the beast. After enormous success in the 1990s at Willamette University, a small school in Oregon, and at Boise State in the 2000s, Colorado hired the hottest name in the college game in 2005. Encouraging seasons of 6-7 and 5-7 turned into downers of 3-9 and 3-6, and Hawkins was suddenly out.

No one was hurt more than Hawkins. He was skewered by Colorado fans and media, but he soldiered on because football offers lessons of adversity most of all.

UCD players today point to Hawkins as the primary reason for the Aggies’ rise, including a 10-2 showing this season and an FCS quarterfinal playoff game on Saturday afternoon at Big Sky Conference rival Eastern Washington, streamed live on ESPN3.

Hawkins points to everyone for the rise – players, staffers, video guys, bus drivers, even the band. The second-year Aggies coach is giddy that UCD’s raucous band will be traveling to Cheney, Wash.

He recalled inviting the band to sleep in the Willamette gym in the 1990s when UCD was playing at Portland State. He also recalled getting “tears in my eyes” at the sound of the Aggies drummers warming up when he played fullback for UCD in 1981 and ’82.

“I love those kids,” Hawkins said of the band. “It’s great for college football. I’m super jacked about this.”

As for having the band lead the Aggies onto the field, Hawkins tapped the brakes on that express.

“We don’t want the tuba player to pull a hammy or to run into someone,” Hawkins said with a laugh.

UCD is in its 100th year of football, but this very well may be its best team. It is certainly led by their most energized, quirky coach who shares the same vision as UCD coaching icons Jim Sochor, Bob Foster and Bob Biggs, including motivation with positive reinforcement rather than a browbeating.

“Coach has a lot of energy, a lot of passion,” said quarterback Jake Maier, the Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year. “He truly does care for every one of his players. We love him. He’s very genuine.”

Hawkins also appreciates that there are still football programs for student-athletes to call home in California. It’s a different landscape from when Hawkins played a generation ago.

A good many of UCD’s opponents from the 1970s and ’80s have folded. The state has become a graveyard of discarded programs.

So long Chico State, Hayward, San Francisco State, Santa Clara and Sonoma State. Eight four-year programs have folded since 1993, including Saint Mary’s in 2004, Menlo in 2014 and Humboldt State this winter, all undone by finances. Since 1991, Division I programs that have dropped with not even a whisper of a return include Fullerton, Long Beach, Pacific and Santa Barbara.

UCD nearly lost its football program before a student referendum saved the day in 1992. A similar referendum saved Sacramento State in 1995.

“On one hand, I get it, but on the other hand, I don’t,” Hawkins said during Causeway week. “There’s just so much you can get out of this sport. It’s a sport unlike any other.”

Follow The Bee’s Joe Davidson: jdavidson@sacbee.com, @SacBee_JoeD
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