This story by Tod Leonard ran in the San Diego Union-Tribune on May 26, 2018.
UC San Diego softball coach Patti Gerckens was home recently when a neighbor came walking by with his dog.
The man wore a San Diego State baseball cap, and Gerckens thought it was an opportune time to needle him a little bit.
“We’ve got to get you some UCSD stuff,” she said.
The neighbor knew Gerckens worked on the La Jolla campus.
“Oh, they’re Division II,” he responded.
Like so many of her UCSD colleagues have done in recent months, Gerckens then provided a friendly news bulletin: The Tritons are headed for Division I.
“Man, is that going to change,” Gerckens, laughing, said of the man’s attitude. “I think once this thing starts spreading, people have no idea how big it’s going to be.”
In late November, in a pep-rally atmosphere at RIMAC Arena, UCSD announced that it had been accepted into the Big West Conference, opening the path for the Tritons to rise to NCAA Division I status.
It’s not a process for the impatient.
UCSD will begin playing a full schedule in the Big West in the fall of 2020, spend four years in a reclassification period, during which it cannot reach the postseason in most sports, and then have full-fledged Div. I standing in the fall of 2024.
Six years seems a long time to wait, but after the Div. I announcement, the band and cheerleaders had barely exited RIMAC when Tritons administrators and coaches began to wrap their heads around their new-world future.
Change will seemingly be here in the blink of an eye.
Among the most pressing concerns:
How recruiting – who and where? – will change.
How to begin using the scholarship money, first available to coaches this fall.
How the cultures of their programs might be altered with the infusion of money and status they haven’t had.
How soon they can legitimately think about winning championships at a school accustomed to hoisting a lot of trophies.
“We now have all of these things that are attractive from an athlete’s perspective,” said women’s water polo coach Brad Kreutzkamp. “We have the education, we have the competitiveness, and now we’re going to offer scholarships on top of that. I’ve joked around that we don’t have any excuses anymore, and I better get going.”
Every UCSD coach has similar stories about recruiting. In the past, they’ve targeted top-level students and accomplished athletes. They sold their school on its highly ranked academics (tied for ninth among public universities in the latest U.S. News and World Report rankings); its location near the cliffs of La Jolla; and its long history of athletic success.
That was plenty to get an enthusiastic handshake from many families. But in some cases, the decision came down to two factors that UCSD couldn’t control: scholarship money and program status.
“That’s where the conversation ended,” Kreutzkamp said.
Other than small stipends, UCSD has never offered scholarships at a university that in 2018-19 will cost an estimated $31,095 per year for California residents and $59,109 for out-of-state students.
Possibly just as big a factor: UCSD was Div. II, with no chance for athletes to regularly be on TV or reach the pinnacles of their sport, such as March Madness or the College World Series.
“When you talk to a high school recruit and his parents, they’ve grown up dreaming of playing Div. I basketball,” men’s basketball head coach Eric Olen said. “They’ve watched the NCAA Tournament. So there is a little bit of that stigma to Div. II.”
Olen estimated he lost a half-dozen players per year to other schools when they would have been a strong fit at UCSD. Other Tritons coaches can reel off in the dozens the athletes they’ve relinquished to schools with similar academic standards — Stanford, Cal, most of the UCs, military academies, and the Ivy League.
“When the recruiting process starts, about 90 percent of the people who reach out to me already think we’re Div. I and have scholarships,” Kreutzkamp said. “And then the conversation turns to the other schools and what they’ve been offered, and I tell them we don’t have money.”
That is quickly changing.
Of the 23 sports programs at UCSD, 10 will be fully funded by 2020 — baseball, softball and the men’s and women’s teams in basketball, soccer, volleyball and water polo. Other sports will get smaller portions of funding, according to UCSD Athletic Director Earl Edwards.
Coaches have been given one-third of their scholarship allotment for 2018. Another third will follow in 2019, and the final third comes in 2020. The total scholarship pool has been projected at $5.8 million, with the money being raised through a fee increase to fund athletics approved by students in May 2016.
Some of the coaches have aggressively dived into using their allotment, while others are being more conservative.
Kreutzkamp said he believes 50 to 75 percent of his most recent recruits signed because they could get scholarship money. Included among those is current freshman Ciara Franke, a standout player from La Jolla High who had numerous offers from Div. I programs.
“When it came to the money, I could compete. I could match it,” Kreutzkamp said. “With a number of these gals, they had no reason to say no.”
Gerckens said she’s excited to be able to offer incoming athletes financial aid.
“I’m happy to give them the money they deserve,” she said. “Their parents spent a lot of money on summer ball and all kinds of lessons just to prepare to get here.
“We are still going after the high-caliber, intelligent student. And truthfully, I really do love that. But it’s exciting to be able to embrace everyone, to be able to give them some money.”
Still, Gerckens — in her 26th season leading Tritons softball, which won the school’s last Div. II national title in 2011 — is cautiously approaching how she’s going to divide the softball money, and she notes that there could be tradeoffs.
“Money doesn’t solve all problems, and sometimes it creates some,” Gerckens said. “You have to be smart.
“We’ve always done a pretty good job of getting to know our kids. And probably the biggest downfall would be if you don’t get to know them and offer them money. You haven’t found out if they fit into your culture. We don’t want a whole bunch of entitled kids.
“When we didn’t have money, we knew why they wanted to come here, and we still want that.”
The new challenge for UCSD’s coaches is to continue to find athletes who qualify academically while also raising the overall skill level of their programs. Most of the coaches say they have several players they believe could already be playing in the Big West, but that they need more of them.
“It’s about expanding our pool so that it allows us to try and recruit at the highest level that we can,” said Olen, a five-year head coach whose basketball teams have won more than 20 games in each of the last three seasons.
“We didn’t feel like we fit with a lot of places in Div. II, but from a recruiting standpoint, that also set us apart. The challenge now will be less about identifying guys who fit academically, but it will be more competitive in terms of the other schools recruiting them, and us trying to separate ourselves from them.”
Edwards cites basketball as a sport that should benefit from finances that will allow coaches to cast a wider recruiting net beyond California and the Southwest.
“If there’s a major basketball tournament in Atlanta, and that’s a tournament our coaches wouldn’t traditionally go to, now they’ll go to that,” Edwards said. “That’s more of what I’d call one-stop shopping.”
Few coaches will have more of an initial challenge to compete in the Big West than baseball’s Eric Newman.
In his seven seasons, the Tritons have been a regular contender for titles in the competitively tough California Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA), and this week they advanced to the Div. II championship series for the second straight year. Last year they made it to the title game before losing to West Chester (Pa.).
In the Big West are traditional powers such as Cal State Fullerton, Long Beach State and UC Irvine, and the conference has sent teams to the College World Series in each of the last four years.
The difference between those teams and UCSD right now: pitching and defense.
“They pitch and defend at a very high level,” Newman said. “They usually have at least one Friday night power arm that is a top-3 round draft pick. That’s something that we will have to start recruiting and working to develop.
“On the offensive side, that kind of varies a little bit. There are some programs with a West Coast-style offense — a little bit more small ball. Others bang it around. There are coaches in the conference who are very good at adapting to their talent level.”
Newman has eight true freshmen on his team this season, and he believes several of them came to UCSD with the hope of getting some scholarship money. He understands that as more scholarship players come in, there might be a challenge to maintain camaraderie and avoid jealousy among teammates.
“I haven’t sensed a lot of that,” Newman said. “I think people have appreciated our honesty. We’ve laid our cards on the table, and our players and parents have understood that, ‘Hey, you know, this stuff is changing.’ ”
One team on campus already knows exactly what it’s like to compete in the Big West. The conference initiated men’s volleyball this season, and the Tritons were among six schools to compete.
It was a rough start for UCSD, which finished last in the regular season at 0-10. Long Beach State won the conference tournament final against Hawaii and earned a third straight bid into the NCAA Tournament.
With no divisions in NCAA men’s volleyball, UCSD has been playing scholarship schools for years. The Tritons have had their share of big wins against the likes of UCLA and Pepperdine, and this season they beat USC for a second straight year.
But UCSD has never been close to playing on a level court without scholarships.
“We have some nice players in our program,” said 13-year head coach Kevin Ring. “We just need to improve our depth and improve our upper play a little bit.
“We work as hard as anyone else out there. You want to get that payoff.”
Given Ring’s first experience with the Big West, he’s not sure how other programs will perform when they’re faced with the transition.
“That’s the million-dollar question,” he said.
“We have some great coaches in our department and players who are coming in that are driven. I think there’s a real buzz about it. But it’s not easy to win against schools that are fully funded, and we don’t have a history.”
The history that UCSD likes to tout is that its move from Div. III to Div. II in 2000 was nearly seamless for many programs. Under coach Brian McManus — still at UCSD after 31 years — the women’s soccer team won the Div. II national championship in its first two seasons.
That, most would agree, was a far different task, in a completely different time in college sports history, than what UCSD faces now.
Edwards, who oversaw the transition to Div. II and spearheaded the Div. I drive, said he believes UCSD will be competing for championships in most sports by the time it has full Div. I status in 2024.
“My coaches might think I’m crazy,” Edwards said with a laugh.
Amid so much change, Edwards and his coaches maintain the belief there is something special about the athletes and students UCSD attracts.
“I do think there’s a uniqueness about us,” Edwards said, “that gives us the ability to be successful. The fact that we’ll be on par with schools from a scholarship standpoint gives me a lot of confidence moving forward.”