Change is rarely easy.
When the UC Davis football program went off campus for the first time in more than 40 years for a head coach, Athletic Director Terry Tumey promised that the selection, former Cal assistant Ron Gould, would be the perfect steward to guide the Aggies through what local fans hope will be a re-emergence as a national power.
“UCD values excellence on and off the playing field, and Ron Gould clearly shares those values, particularly with his commitment to the academic, athletic and social well-being of student-athletes,” Tumey said in introducing Gould last December.
A key for Tumey, UCD Chancellor Linda Katehi and Aggie Nation in general was making sure a commitment to academics was at the top of the new coach’s to-do list.
Maintaining Aggie Pride and ensuring UCD players were contributing community members also were priorities.
Tumey and Katehi surmised that if the Aggies were good students, good citizens and embraced that mystical Aggie Pride, wins would follow.
Ten weeks after breaking training camp, Gould and his charges are 3-7 and — with only two games remaining — will be hard-pressed to exceed the win totals of the last two campaigns; seasons in which the locals went 4-7.
Just before he and his coaching staff headed out on a weekend recruiting blitz, Gould sat down and did some self-assessment. He was asked about his expectations at the beginning of the year, what he thought of his inherited and new players, and whether these Aggies embody the goals set forth by school hierarchy.
To those around the program, Gould’s answers aren’t surprising …
Coming into the season, where did he think the Aggies would be after 10 games?
“I’m an optimist,” the 47-year-old Gould told The Enterprise. “I thought we’d be undefeated at this point. I really did.
“From the first day we had winter conditioning, through spring ball and fall camp, if you saw the maturity and ability of these young men, I thought (record-wise) we’d be better off than we are.”
So why 3-7 and not 10-0?
Gould says little things in football can derail best intentions.
Just a handful of missed assignments or shoddy execution in any one game can mean defeat where a team should have won (think losses to South Dakota and Northern Arizona).
UCD defensive end Nick King has pointed to it most of the season: “In football, you have to be perfect. Ten guys do their job, if that 11th player misses an assignment, it can cost you a game.”
In the Nov. 2 loss to Cal Poly, the Aggies had tied the game by intermission but played one of its worst second halves and lost 34-16 to the injury-ravaged Mustangs.
Gould said afterward, “That loss is on me. I take responsibility.”
Gould knows he takes responsibility for all the losses. But bubbling under the surface could be the fuel for a program that is this one trial-run season away from re-establishing its prominence.
“The effort is there,” said the former Oregon defensive back. “I’ve been so proud of these young men. I talked to the seniors the other day: I told them it’s unfortunate the community hasn’t been able to see all the progress that I’ve seen in this team.”
From the about-face in the energy and efficiency of veteran quarterback Randy Wright, to the Aggies’ ability to string together cross-country, time-consuming drives (thanks to 1,000-yard rusher Gabe Manzanares), to a normally solid defense, UCD has shown hints of brilliance.
It’s the consistency — like King says, having the players hit on all 11 cylinders all the time — that has sent Aggie fans home scratching their heads.
“The growth and maturity of these guys has far exceeded my expectations. The buy-in (to a new system) has been sensational,” Gould said. “And our seniors want to finish strongly in these last two games. We all want to finish strong.”
UCD (3-7, 3-3 in Big Sky Conference) wraps up its home schedule Saturday with a 4 p.m. game against North Dakota (3-7, 2-5). Then it’s off to Sacramento State on Nov. 23 for the season-ending Causeway Classic.
For a team picked by the media in the preseason to finish 11th in league, a 5-3 Big Sky mark would look pretty good, especially for a program that completely retooled itself after 20-year head coach Bob Biggs retired in 2012.
About that student-athlete thing …
In giving his players Friday through Sunday off, the last thing Gould told the troops at Thursday’s practice was to “make sure you attend class (Thursday) and (Friday) … I don’t want to hear you weren’t there just because you (have days off) from practice.”
Gould instructed the Aggies last winter that he wants to see his guys sitting in the first five rows of their classes.
“It’s important that we’re student-athletes. Our goal is to be at a 3.0 grade-point average as a team,” the coach said, adding his team is close to the GPA goal. “I want to know about setbacks. What I or the staff can do to help. Did you study the wrong material? Did you meet with your professor? Did you work with your tutor?”
The school provides tutors for athletes who need them and Gould insists players take advantage of the extra help:
“These guys really, really study. They study on the plane, they study on the bus. You watch them off the field, they’re studying. We want to know how they’re doing. Here, look …”
Gould pulled out a weather-beaten cell phone and scrolled through his recent messages. Almost 200 texts from players checking in on how this or that test went, what a professor said and what extra work someone has been given.
Tumey and Katehi set the course to maintain that lofty Aggie student-athlete ranking, Gould has captained those requirement and his players are all rowing in the same academic direction.
That Aggie Pride still churns: the team has improved as the season has progressed and home crowds — although not near capacity at Aggie Stadium — are increasing.
Now for those last two victories …
Note: Former UCD wide receiver Bakari Grant — best known to Aggie fans for his last-play touchdown catch in 2008 that beat Northern Colorado — is making a name for himself on the professional stage with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League. Grant has 69 catches for 947 yards and two touchdowns for the Tiger-Cats, who will play Montreal Sunday (10 a.m.) in an Eastern Semifinal. The former Aggie, in his third year with Hamilton, was recently named to the East Division All-Star team.
— Reach Bruce Gallaudet at [email protected] or 530-747-8047.