During our combined years at the Nexus, we’ve done just about everything you can do involving Gaucho athletics. We celebrated in the St. Louis snow when the men’s soccer team won the National Championship in 2006, and we sat outside the Anaheim Convention Center in stunned silence this March when the men’s basketball team was knocked out of the Big West Tournament. We’ve seen UCSB teams in action everywhere from Dallas to Chicago to Norfolk, Virginia. We’ve interviewed more coaches, called more players, listened to more national anthems and eaten more press-room pizza than we could ever count, so who better to take one final look at the future of UCSB athletics?
The department will be going through a huge transition in the coming months, and while the yet-to-be-named incoming athletic director should bring some new energy and many much-needed changes, you have to question the way in which the university is going about the hiring process. The search committee is said to be made up of dozens of people, many of whom likely have absolutely no idea what direction the athletic department needs to go in. Even worse, the search is now in its sixth month, and with no end in sight, there’s no telling when the successor to outgoing Athletic Director Gary Cunningham will be named. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with examining all options, the prolonged process has allowed Cunningham to make some decisions that really should be left up to the man or woman who replaces him.
Cunningham has already named a new women’s basketball coach, and he’s currently in the process of finding a replacement for recently retired men’s volleyball coach Ken Preston, as well as organizing the department’s budget for the upcoming year. There’s no denying that Lindsay Gottlieb appears to be a fantastic hire as Mark French’s replacement, but again, these are all decisions that should be made by someone who will be running the department for the foreseeable future, not the man who is vacating his office on September 1.
Whoever takes over will hopefully have a desire to shake things up a bit, because certain administrators and coaches have seemingly been on cruise control for years. Not to keep beating a dead horse, but the marketing department has an abysmal record when it comes to getting UCSB students involved in Gaucho athletic events, most notably this spring, when a baseball team that was having its best season in years drew the second-lowest attendance numbers in the Big West Conference. You can make excuses about resources or facilities until you’re blue in the face, but the fact remains that at a school with thousands of baseball fans and beautiful weather, the Gauchos barely outdrew Cal State Northridge at the bottom of the attendance standings. It’s never a good sign when the soccer and baseball programs are hiring their own students to help with marketing, or when the men’s basketball program enlists the help of sports management students to get more people out to games, as former Director of Basketball Operations Joe Nagy did in 2006.
A key concern moving forward is the future of several incoming and current Gaucho coaches. The administration needs to determine exactly what it expects from each and every athletic program. UC Irvine is clearly a comparable school with the Gauchos – sharing the same university system and Big West Conference membership – and the Anteaters took home the 2007 men’s volleyball national championship, while the baseball team advanced to the College World Series. If mediocrity is acceptable, then programs such as baseball, women’s volleyball, men’s volleyball and women’s water polo are right where they should be. But if the school wants to continue to build on its athletic reputation, started by Mark French and continued by Tim Vom Steeg, it should think long and hard about the status of some current coaches. There has been a high tolerance for sub-par performances during the past few years, and that is something that needs to change under the future administration and any new incoming coaches. Vom Steeg has turned a once lackluster soccer team into the nation’s preeminent collegiate program. Big West title dreams have been replaced by yearly National Championship hopes. The country’s top recruits are lining up to play here, just like the thousands of fans who line up to get into every game. As one soccer player told us earlier this year, Harder Stadium is now the cathedral of college soccer. It won’t be easy for other programs to follow suit, but the ideals and hard work that have carried the soccer team to prominence should be the norm throughout the department.
Fans always tend to get carried away about what their teams can actually achieve, but after four years of living and working in Isla Vista, we can’t help but see the promise that exists for sports at UCSB. The men’s basketball team will probably never have a Gonzaga-type run and reach a Sweet 16, but frequent trips to the NCAA Tournament and a rejuvenated Thunderdome don’t seem like too much to ask. In one of the country’s top baseball conferences, the Gauchos should be making yearly trips to Regionals, not watching from home because of a weak nonconference schedule. And while it may seem like a pipe dream right now, programs like men’s volleyball, women’s volleyball, and men’s water polo should all be making deep playoff runs, if not one day competing for national championships. All of this can happen here. It should happen here.