There they stood under clear skies Saturday at midfield on Sochor Field at Aggie Stadium …
Ken O’Brien, Bob Slater and Bo Eason, the tri-captains of the UC Davis 1982 football team, were supervising the coin flip at the 59th annual Causeway Classic.
Predicted rain held off, allowing these three representatives on that Aggie Team for the Ages yet another moment in the sun.
Warm, too, were the memories in the minds of the 9,899 fans in attendance.
The trio were part of an Aggie squad that sent nine players to NFL training camps, saw at least six play in the pros and featured All-Pro New York Jets quarterback O’Brien.
There they stood, in a stadium for which they helped build the foundation.
That ’82 team went 12-1 and was this close to a Division II national championship, but — playing without an injured O’Brien in that final game — dropped a 34-9 decision to West Texas.
“I have to rate it about the best team we ever had,” former Aggie head coach Jim Sochor said, choosing his words carefully — trying not to offend the 1977 team, which went 11-1. “It had a No. 1 draft choice at QB, was really good on both sides of the ball, was a good defensive team and, with Ken at quarterback, a great offensive team. All the way around, it was special.”
As the crowd watched the men of the 1982 squad take the field during their reunion, there were murmurs in the stands …
“They look like they could still play.”
“You should have seen those guys. As good a college team as there was that year.”
“You know, they should have won it all.”
Dan Gazzaniga, a longtime Aggie assistant who now coaches at Del Oro High School after a stint as head coach at Davis High, looked back:
“We were a very competitive group, focused on a national ranking. We scored a lot of points early in games. (O’Brien) would step into the huddle, call for a Z-bengal post and we knew it was touchdown even before the snap.”
Averaging 32 points per game during the regular season, Davis lowered the boom on Sacramento State, 51-6, in that year’s Causeway Classic.
A come-from-behind mini-classic over North Dakota State, 19-14, at Toomey Field on Dec. 4 solidified safety Eason’s place in Aggie annals (10 tackles and a break-up of a late Bison pass in the end zone).
Eason, now a playwright and actor, was a second-round draft choice of the 1984 Houston Oilers.
Loyal Miner, Shawn Rogers, Mike Wise, Slater … so many impact players, so many contributing members of society.
“This success influenced how we see ourselves, our futures and how we act today,” O’Brien told The Enterprise. “Being a part of a team like this changed how I looked at life. I began believing that the possibilities are endless.”
O’Brien and his family live in Manhattan Beach where the ex-QB is an investor.
Gazzaniga, who spent time in the Oakland Raiders camp, agrees: “Coach Sochor’s mantra of trust, unity and togetherness solidified the team. If a group of people are on the same page, have the same goals, good things happen.”
Defensive lineman Slater laughs when he looks back …
“That was a long time ago, so you really don’t remember anything. I do remember having a lot of fun — and it’s always fun when you achieve what you want to achieve.”
After a Friday night dinner together, more than 50 members of the 1982 juggernaut gathered to watch their Aggies beat Sacramento State, 34-27, on Saturday. Immediately after, the university hosted a reception for those alumni and their families.
It was a chance for the architect of what it now called The Aggie Way, Jim Sochor, to catch up with his former pupils and take a look back …
After the success of the 1982 team, it looked to all of Aggie Nation that Sochor was about to be snatched way — headed for the Pac-10 or beyond.
“We had lots of success,” understated Sochor, whose teams went 156-41-5 from 1970 to 1988. “When you do that, you get a lot of notoriety. I was up (for the head coach position) at Cal and Stanford. I probably had 20 to 25 chances to go somewhere else: Northwestern, Ivy League and others.”
But two moments in time tempered Sochor’s enthusiasm for so-called greener pastures.
“I was a member of (college football’s) ethics committee and got to know Georgia head coach Vince Dooley,” he said.
Dooley and Sochor became friends.
“We were talking and I told him, ‘You know, we don’t have spring practice (at UCD).’ He went; ‘You don’t have spring practice? I wish we didn’t. We have to have it because of the NCAA.’ ”
Sochor started to understand more about D-I requirements, pressures and expectations.
Then, when Northwestern came calling, Sochor knew staying put was his only choice.
“I went back (to Chicago),” the Hall of Famer continued. “It was cold and wet and lots of traffic. I thought then, ‘You know, you have one of the best jobs in the country.’ The kids are here because they want to play, and it’s the right way to run a program: They’re here for the academics and football is going to be a bonus for them.
“But we want it to be the best bonus it can be for them. We want to represent the university just like law, medicine or engineering on a national scale.”
Take a bow, 1982 Aggie teammates.
— Enterprise associate editor Kim Orendor contributed to this article. Reach Bruce Gallaudet at [email protected] or 530-747-8047.