When Ron Gould took the reins of the Aggie football program last December, one of the first things he did was post a big sign in his office.
The blue-and-gold poster said “Trust.”
Meeting with his players, the former Cal running backs wizard said there would be a process to follow: “Trust in the process and we’ll be OK,” the first-year mentor promised.
However, UC Davis coughed and sputtered coming out of the gate.
Losing its first four games, the Aggies were foundering.
Nonetheless, Gould had delivered his message and his players were getting it.
Once Big Sky Conference play began, UCD — which would finish 5-7 — was the surprise package of the league.
Winning five of eight Big Sky outings, the Aggie belied the so-called experts. Predicted by the media to finish 11th among the circuit’s 13 schools, UCD ended the season tied for fourth, owners of a two-game win streak and a 34-7 conquest of Sacramento State.
As the gear was packed away, Gould took some time to look back at his inaugural season in Davis — a character-builder all the way around …
“It definitely was an experience,” the 48-year-old Oregon graduate told The Enterprise. “In my wildest dreams I never thought we would start out 0-4.
“One thing I learned quickly … the resiliency of the team and staff. Everybody worked hard, every single day.”
First came a road loss at South Dakota.
The 10-7 setback was a saga of missed opportunities. So lackluster was the offense it cost senior quarterback Randy Wright his job.
But with new QB Jimmy Laughrea — a former Rocklin High product by way of Boise State — at the helm, losses to Nevada (36-7), Northern Arizona (21-10) and Portland State (41-10) ensued.
Then, at the onset of Big Sky competition, a series of missed opportunities with UCD leading Idaho State, 3-0, on Sept. 28 led to Wright returning to the lineup.
When the Aggies topped the Bengals, 30-13, ol’ No. 17 was back to stay.
The win also marked the coming-out party for running back Gabe Manzanares.
Manzanares was a little-used back with stops at Wesleyan (Connecticut) and City College of San Francisco.
Recruiting coordinator Ben Steele had received a tip about Manzanares, who briefly visited Davis during the spring. Gould liked what he heard from the would-be junior and gave him a chance to walk on.
Manzanares lowered his head and ran onto campus.
After three promising performances in that 0-4 start (he missed the Nevada game with injury), the 5-foot-9, 195-pound back broke Idaho State for 208 yards rushing.
When Manzanares came right back with 175 yards and two touchdowns in a stunning 21-3 road victory at Southern Utah, it was a stepping stone in a campaign that saw the Aggie gain 1,285 yards, score 11 touchdowns and earn conference Newcomer of the Year honors last week.
More importantly, UCD’s confidence was growing.
Sure, there was one more clunker — a 42-7 loss to Montana — but Gould’s Aggies were following the process. Trust was paying off.
“You’d have thought we were winning every game based on their energy in practice,” Gould explained. “Even after that (bad) start, everyone stayed together. There was no finger-pointing. The fact that we stayed together as a family was the key.”
After Montana, UCD went on the road and played a perfect half of football in eventually building a 31-0 lead at Northern Colorado.
Following what would be a 34-18 victory, the Aggies played tough at then-No. 10-ranked Montana State in a 34-17 loss.
Cal Poly was next. Trailing 20-16 at home, UCD had the ball and was driving before a third-period turnover spelled doom and the Aggies lost, 34-16.
“The score wasn’t indicative of what transpired,” Gould remembers. “We had a big chance in that one, too.”
Disappointing as the loss to the Mustangs was, that resiliency Gould talks of carried the locals in wins over North Dakota (34-18) and the Hornets.
The hallmarks of the Aggies’ turnaround seemed to be Wright’s renaissance, Manzanares’ relentless play and the emergence of coach Bert Watts’ bend-but-don’t-break defense.
Anemic early on, UCD scored 34 points in three of its final five games.
The local secondary — Jonathan Perkins, Aarynn Jones, Dre Allen, Charles Boyett, Shamawn Wright and Patrick Wells — helped the Aggies finish 2013 as the best pass defenders in the Big Sky Conference. Defensive end Nick King’s eight sacks and linebacker Steven Pitts’ brilliant play down the stretch were key in keeping pressure on opposing offenses.
“This is the toughest conference in the nation. Every week we have to be ready to go,” Gould reflected. “You don’t look at the records because everyone is talented. Take a weekend off and you get exposed.”
So where to now?
Gould says he’ll get some soul-searching done, talk to players and coaches about their experiences and evaluate how the team can get better next season.
Conditioning starts almost immediately. Recruiting is a priority over the holidays. And Gould will continue to “cross the t’s and dot the i’s,” as he likes to say.
Athletic Director Terry Tumey weighed in after the team’s fourth straight Causeway Classic victory:
“(There’s) a lot of hope for the future. I think UC Davis (in Division I) is establishing itself athletically, just as it’s done academically.
“I think we’ve set a standard for what we’re looking to do here and the integrity that we’re looking to have in our players and program and how it really reflects the university.
“Ron has done a wonderful job in setting that standard for us on the field of play and carrying the torches of so many great coaches we’ve had here in the past.
“I am really proud of these young people and being able to celebrate them, particularly our seniors in their last game here.”
Gould and his wife Teresa (the deputy director of athletics at Cal) should finally get some quality time together between the coach’s recruiting travels.
“I told everyone here that I’m afraid to be home for three or four days because of all the things on my honey-do list,” Gould said with a chuckle. “I’m not sure that’s one process I’m ready to focus on yet.”
Notes: UCD was one of the best-conditioned teams in the FCS. Gould insisted that his players come to summer camp ready to roll, and strength and conditioning coach Matt Brand ensured that the Aggies stayed in tip-top shape. … Wright finished with 1,712 yards passing and 11 touchdowns. He was efficient after getting his job back, completing 63.8 percent of his passes with only four interceptions. … Senior Tom Hemmingsen was the team’s leading receiver with 60 catches, good for 640 yards and four scores. … Safety Boyett, a junior, earned Big Sky honorable mention for special teams while leading the squad with 86 tackles and two forced fumbles. … Sophomore kicker Brady Stuart set a new school standard with 17 field goals.
— Reach Bruce Gallaudet at [email protected] or 530-320-4456.