After 33 illustrious years at UC Davis – 13 as head coach – Sandy Simpson will call it a career.
Simpson, a former UC Davis basketball player, said he decided to retire in order to have more personal time.
“It’s kind of cliché in the coaching world to say that you want to spend more time with your family,” Simpson said. “For me, it really was wanting to spend more time with my wife and three kids.”
The decision to retire after the 2010-2011 season caps an incredible journey and for Simpson, it couldn’t have gotten off to a better start.
“It literally was a dream come true,” he said. “Having an opportunity to come back was perfect because I’d been other places and saw how other programs operated. Coming back to this philosophy – one that I really respected and believed in – was important.”
That philosophy is one that preaches respect, teamwork and initiative – qualities that Simpson embodies.
“He’s a man of integrity and a man of character,” said senior Paige Mintun. “He’s a great role model for other coaches and for us because he always practices what he preaches. He’s just a great guy.”
For Simpson, coaching is all about the players. He realizes basketball is just a game and the real value lies in teaching the players how to be good people, not just good athletes.
“What I always tell them is that intent counts,” he says. “You’re going to make mistakes. Your conscience will tell you right away if you made a bad decision. You literally can’t hide from it. If you try to do the right thing for the right reasons, even if it doesn’t work out, in the long run you’re going to be just fine.
“When a player leaves my program, I hope they understand that in the end, basketball is just a vehicle for learning those things.”
Simpson is so selfless that his fondest memories revolve around his athletes. Whether it’s advancing to the final four with a team that featured two athletes who are now on his coaching staff or watching his team cut down the nets a season ago, Simpson always puts his players first. Nobody knows this better than those who have played under him.
“I wouldn’t be here without him,” said associate head coach Jennifer Gross who will take over for Simpson after this season. “He recruited me as a player and he recruited me as a coach. I owe him so much.”
The one memory Simpson will never forget, however, was the alumni game during the 1992-1993 season.
“My wife played for the alumni in that game,” he recalled. “I kind of knew who she was so I asked her to go to lunch after the game. In my eyes it wasn’t a date but she says that it was. I thought it was just catching up. We went to lunch and two and a half weeks later, we were engaged.”
For a man who has both given and received so much from this program, it makes sense that leaving would be hard. While it certainly won’t be easy, Simpson is completely at peace with his decision.
“I’m in a position where I have the opportunity to spend more time with my family and hand things off to somebody who I really feel will take this program to even greater heights,” Simpson said. “We’ve laid a good foundation. We’re going to be a contender for a while.”
Thanks to Gross, Simpson knows that the team is in good hands.
“If I put aside the fact that I recruited her and look at it from a distance, I’d say that she’s one of the best young minds in the country,” Simpson said. “When she came on board I knew what I was getting in terms of a person. I knew she was smart but I didn’t know how good of a coach she is. She’s more than ready.”
The players agree.
“In most programs, you don’t know what to expect when a coach leaves,” said junior Kasey Riecks. “We’re really, really grateful to have Jen step up.”
Though the Aggies clearly have a bright future beyond this year, their sights are set firmly on one common goal: To qualify for the NCAA Tournament, Simpson said.
“That’s the next step for this program.”
While he understands that his retirement is significant, Simpson hopes that the focus remains on his players, especially the seniors.
“I hope [the focus is still] on Paige and [senior Heidi Heintz],” he says. “You hope it’s all for Heidi and Paige but it’s not just for them. It’s for all of us. If people lump me in with the seniors, that’s fine but I don’t want this to be Sandy’s last tour. That’s not what it’s about at all.”
Unfortunately for Simpson, he’s made such an impact on the lives of those around him that they can’t help but adopt his selfless state of mind.
“With his retirement announcement, it gives us that much more incentive,” Mintun says. “This is such a special team especially because it’s his last year. We really want to do this all for him.”
Before you prepare your farewell speech, remember one thing: There are still games to be played and tournaments to be won.
Simpson says it best.
“I’m not retired yet.”
MARK LING can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.