Courtesy of HIGHLANDER Archive
Title: UCR Athletic Director asks, “Where is the love?”
By: Jon Hammond S.S.W
UC Riverside’s athletic programs had one of the most successful collective seasons the school has ever seen since joining Division I in the 2001-02 season. This earned the school some much-welcomed recognition as they received the school’s highest finish in the Commissioner’s Cup standings, finishing fourth overall among a field of nine Big West Conference schools. The cup winner is determined by points awarded to every Division I program an institution has by weighing the program’s regular-season finish on a point system, with bonus points available for conference title wins. The collective effort of the Highlanders earned 1400 points with an average of 93.3 per team. If you are an athletic director looking at these standings, and see your institution finish this way, you would probably be pretty satisfied with your department. If you are like UCR’s Athletic Director Tamica Smith Jones, who just concluded her first year at the helm, you not only expected this finish, but you are already working on improving next year’s finish.
Jones came to UCR with plenty of experience for the position. Prior to her accepting the position at UCR she previously held the position of associate athletics director for internal affairs and senior woman administrator at UT San Antonio (UTSA), which is also a Division I school. While at UTSA, Jones had a myriad of responsibilities and roles to fulfill including oversight of women’s basketball, volleyball, soccer, softball, cross country, track and field, golf and co-ed cheer, as well as Title IX and gender equity, diversity and inclusion, student athlete wellbeing, life skills, community engagement and coaches development. Before her time at UTSA she lead the athletic department of Clark Atlanta University, which is a Division II school. Despite one of her previous institutions being Division II, the day-to-day responsibilities Jones had are similar to what her current position recalls. Instead of changing jobs, Jones sees it as “changing gears, and focusing on a different set of responsibilities.”
While you may think that UCR is a total upgrade from Division II programs, Jones notes something UCR does not have: Deep support from the student body. Jones believes UCR somewhat lacks the “student athletic department connection” of her previous programs. She mentions at her previous institutions “the student population felt connected and engaged to the athletic department,” mentioning that she saw better student support while at Clark Atlanta than at UCR. Jones has attended games for every UCR sport and she has seen first hand how low student attendance is and she candidly describes it as “shameful.”
When asked if she believes that UCR being a commuter school was to blame for poor student turnout she countered with, “UTSA was a commuter school as well and when we played football, we had one-third of the student body come to show their support.” UTSA has an undergraduate population of 26,215 while UCR has only 21,539, so if Jones’ math is correct, UTSA has 1,543 more students in attendance than UCR. Originally, Jones believed that if UCR athletics had more success that would draw in more student attendance. However, it did not, as 2015-16 marked the collective Highlander athletic programs’ most successful year since entering Division I.
Of course, the athletic department has looked into ways to boost student attendance. Jones believes visibility is key for athletic events, this way, students cannot say they were unaware of games taking place. One of the department’s new plans is to try and encourage students to subscribe to a short message service (SMS) to notify them of any home games or other athletics-related events ensuring that students will always be informed. Idealy, the department wants 2,000 different students to subscribe to the system with hopes those students will spread it to their friends and others.
Jones also wants the athletes of UCR to put in their fair share of effort in bridging the gap between the students and sports teams. She wants the athletes to “make friends outside of sports and join more student organizations and clubs, or even the Greek community” so that a more personal bond can be formed between the athletes and the student body.
Jones’ main goal is to create a bond between UCR students and athletes that is akin to close friendship. She wants to see athletes and students engage with one another and excite each other about upcoming games and events. Jones believes this type of bond already exists between the athletic department and the community as a result of outreach work that UCR sports programs do within the surrounding area. If UCR received unrelenting support from the community and its student body, Jones believes UCR would become “a hostile environment for opponents to play in,” as well as a target for national attention the likes of Stanford or UCLA receive. She also asserts that type of support and national attention would draw more high-level recruits to continually produce programs that people want to see play, especially the students of UCR.