When I began my journalistic career as a sportswriter 44 seasons ago, one of my primary assignments was Aggie football. Jim Sochor, now a legendary figure whose very name causes Aggie faithful to instinctively genuflect, had yet to put on a headset as head coach on the Toomey Field sideline. Turns out I ended up covering every game Sochor coached at UC Davis.
In his first game, at Occidental, the Aggies didn’t do much to convince people a football revolution was underway, falling 20-6 to the Tigers in a game just about everyone wanted to forget. Sochor took it as a learning experience and a building block.
Back home, hardly anyone paid much attention to the result. After all, the Aggies had been 3-7 the year before Sochor took over, including an 0-5 mark in the Far Western Conference. Expectations were not high.
However, with a final-season 28-0 win over Sacramento State, the Aggies finished the 1970 season at 6-4 and Sochor never looked back. Starting in 1971, the Aggies ran off 18 straight league championships — 15 of them in undefeated fashion — before Sochor stepped down following the 1988 season with a 92-5 conference mark. It was long before he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Fast forward 25 years and the college football landscape has changed dramatically. Old conference alignments have dissolved, with many old Aggie rivals giving up the sport entirely.
Conference opponents Chico State, San Francisco State, Sonoma State and Cal State Hayward all dropped football, along with non-conference foes such as Cal Poly Pomona, UC Riverside, UC Santa Barbara, Cal State Fullerton, UOP, Cal State Northridge, and the Catholic trio of St. Mary’s, USF and always rugged Santa Clara.
As the Aggie brass looked around for a scheduling solution, the only way to go was up. In the old days, a trip to Humboldt State to meet the mighty Lumberjacks was considered a long road trip. Nowadays the Aggies regularly travel halfway across the country in search of suitable opponents.
One hopes UC Davis has finally found a home for its football program in the Big Sky Conference, but the days of 18 straight league championships are long gone.
The Big Sky has been around for just over half a century and has earned a reputation as one of the strongest Division I-AA programs in the country. Trying to stay up with the times, however, the Big Sky recently expanded to 13 teams, creating a scheduling nightmare with the addition of UC Davis, North Dakota, Cal Poly SLO and Southern Utah.
The league now stretches through nine western states, which makes for some interesting and scenic road trips, but the nightmare comes from the fact that in virtually every season, one school will have an easier conference schedule than another.
Each school is required to play eight league games, which, in a 13-team league, means you won’t play four conference opponents.
The Aggies, oddly, play 10 Big Sky schools this year, but only eight of them will count as league games. Explain that to the average undergraduate sitting in the student section who may have only a casual interest in the game on the field.
The good news is that the Big Sky Conference is not the Bakery League. There’s not a creampuff or a cupcake anywhere on the schedule. On six occasions Big Sky teams have won the national championship at the I-AA level, most recently Eastern Washington in 2010.
Looking back 44 seasons to that first trip as a sportswriter, I couldn’t have imagined road dates at such intriguing stops as Cedar City (Utah), Greeley (Colorado) and magnificent Bozeman in the heart of Big Sky country.
Maybe I’ll get lucky and whoever gets assigned to cover these games will need an aide to come along and carry his typewriter.
They still use typewriters in the press box, don’t they?
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