The impossible has happened. The University of California, San Diego, now competes athletically at the highest level in college sports: Division 1. UCSD now pursues the highest form of human goal achievement in the laboratory, in the classroom, and now on the athletic field.
This is unbelievable considering where we have come from.
As a UCSD student in the 1980s (‘87, Warren College, Mathematics), we understood the university’s focus on academics and research. UCSD was not Ohio St. There would be no big-time sports program. There would be no dumb jocks with full ride scholarships bringing down this elite academic institution.
UCSD is a serious school with serious students and faculty. (UCSD is ranked #34 in the 2022 US News and World Report of the nation’s top universities and #3 of public universities in Forbes 2021 rankings.)
Students took pride in this branding. Sure, we have a robust athletics environment, but it is a participatory intramurals program. Sure, we have sports teams, but they don’t get athletic scholarships. We were told that we like it that way.
But we quickly discovered that there is another side to this serious brand image. UCSD is also recognized as UC Socially Dead.
My experience at UCSD was terrific. But there was one missing piece. UCSD never had the school spirit that comes with being a Division 1 university.
Sure, our Women’s Volleyball team won multiple NCAA championships, but it was Division 3. Our school regularly competed against small private schools like Biola or La Verne. Good for those ladies and their great achievements, but this was still a minor league athletics department.
At the Division 3 level UCSD was dominant. As the university grew in size, there were many more talented athletes available and so UCSD began to crush their D3 competitors.
In 2000 UCSD was pushed up to the D2 level, offering limited scholarship opportunities. And the string of national championships did not stop. But surely, UCSD never would go D1, right? D1 is just not in UCSD’s DNA.
All this time as UCSD grew in size and continued their dominance in D3 and D2 athletics, the university’s academic reputation flourished. UCSD continued to produce Noble Laureates. UCSD graduates went on to become NASA astronauts, groundbreaking scientists, and innovative entrepreneurs.
It quickly became apparent that academics and athletics were not in a zero-sum relationship. Instead, both were prospering at the same time.
UCSD leadership also recognized this. In their continued quest to be a world class institution, they realized they had to compete at the highest levels in ALL dimensions, including athletics.
The university’s leadership also understood how athletics could be a great marketing tool to display UCSD’s world class brand on the national stage. Athletics also offered intangible benefits for students and staff, as well as state-of-the-art facilities that the entire campus could enjoy.
When UCSD made the decision to go to Division 1 athletics, I was ready. My plan was to attend Men’s Basketball games wearing blue and gold. But then COVID happened, and my plan was blown up.
But now it is 2021 and I was ready, again. My wife (also a UCSD graduate) and I attended the Men’s Basketball home opener on Saturday December 13th.
The entire experience was terrific. There was a packed student section of approx. 1500 undergraduates wearing UCSD gear, displaying signs, and having an exciting time. The student band and the Triton mascot were there to fire everyone up. The pregame basketball team hype video on the big screen was great.
This was legit.
Then there were cheerleaders and a dance team, something I never in a million years thought would be possible at a serious school with serious students.
UCSD is going all in with D1 and it is exciting to experience first-hand.
A few days prior to the home opener, I had an out-of-body experience as I watched UCSD defeat Cal on television in Berkeley. Wait, what? Yes, UCSD defeated a PAC-12 team and I watched it on TV. Check that. UCSD, a 14-point underdog, didn’t just defeat Cal. UCSD destroyed Cal 80-67.
Then it happened again at the home opener. This time the opponent was George Washington University, a program with solid basketball credentials. GW has appeared four times in the NCAA tournament since 2005, as well as five times in the 1990s. GW was not Biola or La Verne, but UCSD rolled them just the same. Final score: UCSD 75, GW 55.
Watching the game in person I can see how head coach Eric Olen and his staff have constructed the team. In true UCSD fashion, they outsmart their competitors. UCSD plays a disciplined zone defense that frustrates the opponent and limits easy baskets. On offense, Olen’s team understands the analytics and has waves of sharp shooters that come in to hit 3-point shots.
The beauty of watching UCSD compete at the highest level reminds us that we also need to do the same in our personal and professional lives. Just like the D1 Triton athletes, we need to strategize, compete, overcome obstacles, and pursue our own major league victories.
UCSD is now 2-0. They should go to 3-0 with win over SD Christian tonight. Then they have a road trip to Sacramento St. this weekend where they can keep the winning streak going.
Achievement in a glorious thing.
I’m feeling the Triton pride. See you out at RIMAC.