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Monday, September 27, 2021

A Baptism of Excellence

MARK HONBO / UC DAVIS ATHLETICS COMMUNICATIONS (left), NICHOLAS CHAN / AGGIE (right)

How coach Dan Hawkins is reinvigorating Aggie football

You’ve probably heard already, but a new era of UC Davis football is unfolding. The Aggies are competing this season under the leadership of head coach Dan Hawkins, who was hired following the completion of the 2016 football season. After six straight losing campaigns, the UC Davis football program desperately needed something to change for it to veer from the unsuccessful course it had been charting. Now, with the first half of the 2017 season nearly complete, the program seems to have found a new captain who is capable of steering the ship in the right direction.

The Aggies currently sport a .600 record through their first five contests — three of which were on the road — and have already matched last season’s win total of three. No matter the result, the team’s style of play with Hawkins influence is gutsy and entertaining. The Aggies play an up-tempo, pass-heavy attack, coupled with an aggressive defense, that has resulted in some impressive statistics and solid performances against big-time teams. So far this year, UC Davis averages one-and-a-half sacks, 343.6 yards passing, 469.4 yards of total offense and two fourth down conversion attempts per game. Hawkins knows the value of having the Aggies play what he coins as a “visually stimulating” brand of football. Moving the ball, making plays and scoring points not only gives this team a better chance at winning ball games, but also serves as entertainment, drawing much-needed attention from a UC Davis fan-base that has had little to cheer for in recent years.

But the impressive numbers and flashy game-play are still only a small part of what a coach like Hawkins brings to the table for a collegiate program. Hawkins is a well-spoken and well-traveled man who possesses a truly unique, incredibly diverse resumé that highlights his vast wealth of experience when it comes to football and life. He began his college football career at College of the Siskiyous in Weed, Calif. and soon transferred to UC Davis to play ball for legendary coach Jim Sochor. UC Davis became the birthplace of Hawkins’ coaching career, as he worked as an assistant under Sochor for a number of years after his playing days ended. Those years under Sochor still remain an influential part of Hawkins’ life. Sochor’s winning philosophy is ingrained in Hawkins’ mentality as he now coaches the Aggies generations later.

“I always tell people, [UC Davis] is my baptism of excellence,” Hawkins said. “I was on some good teams in high school and in junior college, but there was just some things here [at UC Davis] – some subtle and some not-so-subtle – that you just figure out. If you want a perpetual upward cycle, this is what you do. If you want perpetual excellence, there’s certain things you gotta do.”

Since then, Hawkins has coached at all different levels at programs across the nation and across the globe: high school ball in Sacramento, junior college ball in Weed, his first head coaching gig at Division II Willamette University in Oregon, then on to Boise State and the University of Colorado, Boulder. Hawkins has even coached in the Canadian Football League and overseas in the Austrian Football League, all packed around a two-year broadcasting stint with ESPN. Hawkins’ body of work, spanning over 30 years, gives him a worldly perspective that excellently reflects the eclectic UC Davis student body, including his football team.

“I’m into the Davis culture,” Hawkins said. “I’ve coached in 13 different countries and recognize all the international students — we have a nice international flavor on our team and on our staff, so I get that whole component and I want to be a part of that. I think football, when it’s done well, it’s marketing, it’s promotions, it’s branding. It represents the spirit of your school, the heart of your school. We want to be a vibrant part of [UC Davis], we want to be an interconnector.”

Much like his background, Hawkins possesses a mindset and personality that extends far beyond the realm of football. He recognizes the importance of a program that is “interconnected” with its school’s culture. In Hawkins’ eyes, the success of a college program is not simply measured in wins and losses. For him, it is more than just what occurs on the football field; it is building his players up to be top-tier students, teaching them to be men who work hard the right way and who will one day be “leaders in their industry and communities.” He envisions his program and his players as ambassadors of the UC Davis way of life. Hawkins embraces the high standard that UC Davis holds all of its students to, including its athletes.

“In our entire athletic department, there are 77 different majors,” Hawkins said. “This isn’t a bunch of lunk-heads. [The players on my team] are unbelievable dudes. They’re people you want to support. You come and cheer for those guys because they’re great people, they’re great Aggies.”

Underneath his obvious passion for football and for his team, Hawkins is a kind, charismatic, humorous and humble figure. It is not typical of Hawkins to talk about himself, and when he does it is often only for a brief moment. He has the ultimate trust in those around him, always knowing just how to show his appreciation for his coaching staff and players. He is cognizant of the fact that a successful program requires not just a capable head coach, but an outstanding supporting cast as well. While Hawkins admits that he still has a significant influence over his team, he claims that it is those in his supporting cast who perform the “vital components” on gameday.

“The best leader is the one where everybody says, ‘we could have done it without him,’” Hawkins said. “I really try to be that way. On gameday, if I were the one that missed the bus and didn’t make it to the game, I would probably be missed the least.”

It may sound like a joke, but Hawkins genuinely believes in his team. His players have bought into his humble leadership and, as a result, have come away with a fresh, fighting spirit that is palpable. The gritty effort, the confidence and the enjoyment displayed by this team is unlike previous years — and it all starts with Hawkins’ unrivaled allegiance to Aggie pride.

“One of our guys said, ‘Aggie pride is not just a song, it’s a way of life,’” Hawkins said. “I feel pressure to represent Aggie pride, and Aggie pride is not winning football games, it’s how you’re conducting business, how you’re responding and how you’re acting. I feel a deep responsibility to that, because I believe it is the success model for [the players] in life, it’s the success model for [the players] in football. And I know that seems corny, like it’s some movie, but it’s real to me. That’s the beauty of sport done well, because it’s a laboratory for life.”

Hopefully this re-establishment of the Aggie pride tradition will breed success, and ultimately culminate in motivated student-athletes, improved recruiting and a brighter future for this program. With four of the team’s last seven games at home, including a two game homestand,with North Dakota and Eastern Washington, UC Davis students will have plenty of opportunities to show their Aggie pride in person and to witness first-hand the new football culture that Hawkins is building.

“We need [the students’] energy and their emotion and their flavor to this thing,” Hawkins said. “Although it was in the dinosaur days, when we played at [Toomey Field] and we played big games, the students would come in there and just be crazy. It was awesome. It was a great environment, and [the students] add a lot to it. Hopefully we can get the students out here and get them engaged.”

This is a hungry, talented, and focused Aggie team that, despite two early losses to tough opponents, has the potential to finish out this season near the top of the conference. So roll through in numbers, Aggies; you won’t want to miss.

 

Written by: Dominic Faria — sports@theaggie.org

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