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Conversation with Gary Stewart

September 9, 2003 Columns No Comments

A Conversation with Gary Stewart

by Adam Shandler

You’ve heard of the University of California-Davis, I know you have. Perhaps you caught a glimpse of the campus during last year’s edition of MTV’s Sorority Life. (Yes, I admit it. I watched the show. Happy now?) On that reality-based program, cameras followed around a bunch of young coeds aspiring to sisterhood with the Sigma Alpha Epsilon Pi sorority. Ah, college.

Or maybe you’ve stumbled upon a featurette about Davis in Sports Illustrated’s Top 250ish Division I institutions. The Aggies program was named the finest in Division II.

Gary Stewart

But D-II will soon be a designation of the Aggies’ past. This academic year marks the first for UC Davis Athletics in Division I. The Aggie program will spend the 2003-04 season as a provisional member of D-I, meaning some of the school’s teams will be playing a partial Division I schedule, while still honoring its membership as a member of the D-II CCAA.

When the basketball program officially goes Division I, it will do so as a member of the Big West Conference. However, in a Kafkaesque stroke of NCAA classification, the Aggies will not be eligible for Big West postseason eligibility until the 2007-2008 season. Still, the program will play a mostly D-I hoops schedule from the 2004-05 campaign until 2007, so fans can get their big-time hoops feet wet even if the Aggies don’t go a trottin’ to the dance for a few years.

Gary Stewart, who spent last season as the Director of Basketball Services for UCLA, is a big part of the athletics makeover at UC Davis. The college hoops veteran of 17 years was named head coach of Aggie Basketball, and he’ll be asked to transform the program into a D-I contender.

In this edition of Conversations with Adam, I talk with Coach Stewart about his new job, UC Davis’s decision to go D-I and why he believes it will work.

Adam Shandler: So how does it feel to be one of the more visible parts of the UC Davis athletics makeover?

Gary Stewart: I don’t tend to focus on it or look at it that way. [Going D-I] is a collective effort of 25 athletic programs at UC Davis trying to make this move. I’m just happy to be part of it. Certainly basketball is one of the more high profile sports in NCAA athletics and we’ll be one of the more visible parts of the transition, but I don’t feel that I’m any different from any of the other coaches in this program.

AS: You were Director of Basketball Services for UCLA last season, but before that you had been coaching since the age of 24. Why return to the sidelines?

GS: I don’t think I ever left the sidelines in my mind. I might’ve left in position, but in my mind and heart I was still a coach. Ever since I starting coaching at 24 at (Division III) La Verne, I’ve always operated in the mindset of never leaving the sidelines.

AS: What, in your opinion, made going D-I attractive to the UC Davis administration?

GS: Philosophically this just fit within our academic mission. We looked at some of our sister schools – Irvine, Riverside, Santa Barbara – schools with the same philosophy, and saw that it could be done. It just made sense if you looked at our mission as an academic institution. With our academic reforms and doing what was best for the university, there was a correlation in going Division I.

AS: UC Davis Hoops is a provisional member of Division I this year and won’t be eligible for the D-I postseason for a few years. Is this a more comfortable way for an institution to make the transition to D-I? Y’know, spending a few seasons trying on D-I instead of just being thrown to the lions in the first year?

GS: Y’know, Adam, I don’t think there ever is a proper way to do it. Legislation is always changing, institutions are always changing, conferences are always changing. If you look at some of the other schools that tried to do this, they were confronted with challenges. There are a lot of differences structurally between Division I and Division II, so it’s going to take some time to put things in place anyway.

AS: I saw that Davis’s past rosters have been graced with predominantly local players. Not that that’s a bad thing. But has the announcement of going D-I helped you land players from other parts of the country or the world?

GS: : I could probably better answer that after the early signing period. I wasn’t here prior to the announcement of our going Division I.

AS: But going D-I certainly has to help in the recruiting process.

GS: I don’t think there’s a question there. Being Division I can only help in our involvement in the recruiting process, which also includes [our reputation] as an institution and [athletics] program.

AS: What have been your first few orders of business as new coach of the Aggies?

GS: We changed some things right away. We implemented an overhaul of our team academics and [last quarter] we had the highest quarter in the history of [UC Davis] men’s basketball.

I had a little over a month to address weight training and conditioning and lay down an understanding of what’s expected.

AS: Is the UC Davis community excited about your arrival?

GS: It’s been really overwhelming how thoughtful and kind everyone here has been. I really couldn’t be happier with the way I was welcomed.

AS: I know it may be way too early to be asking this, but given the commitment of the administration and the size and reputation of UC Davis, do you think you’ll break the mold of schools who tried to make the D-I transition and failed?

GS: When an institution looks at making a move like this, it has three areas it needs to address. First, is there a philosophical fit with the mission of the university? We felt that there was. Number two, looking at the school’s fiscal responsibility and budgets, can we effectively go Division I with all the teams we have in the athletic department? The students passed a referendum that allowed this move to happen from a fiscal standpoint. Third, does the university have a place to go? We wouldn’t have made this move if we didn’t have a conference to go to. I think we have an unbelievable situation in going to the Big West Conference.

Adam, we have one of the biggest college towns here at Davis and an academic reputation that’s unique, and unlike some of those other schools [that went Division I and struggled] we have football. Football will be playing in I-AA. This year they’ve got four I-AA teams on the schedule. (UC Davis Football will also be a provisional participant of Division I until 2007.) If you look at some of the more successful Division I institutions from an athletics standpoint, you’ll see that the excitement from football really helps the other sports.

I’m not saying our best days are ahead, but we’re definitely going to have some wonderful days ahead.

Learn more about Gary Stewart at the UC Davis official site.


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