Something Significant: One Simple Thing – The Legacy of U.C. Davis Football

Something Significant: One Simple Thing - The Legacy of U.C. Davis Football | - image via Unsplash

“If we can understand even one simple thing in depth, we will have greatly expanded our capacity for comprehending the nature of the universe and life itself.”
(David R. Hawkins)

A few months back, I watched an interview with the four coaches of the University of California, Davis football team since 1970. The interview was celebrating the 100th year anniversary of UC Davis football.

I played strong safety for the Aggies in the early ‘80s. Seeing three of my former coaches tell their story touched powerful emotions in me. I began reflecting how much these men and the culture they created had influenced the trajectory of my life. It made me ask myself, “How significant was my time as an Aggie in shaping the man I have become?”

What follows are my observations after interviewing Coach Jim Sochor, Coach Bob Foster and Coach Bob Biggs.

One simple gesture…

Coach Foster shared a lesson he learned early in his coaching career about the power of believing in others.

He had just moved into a new job and new house with his wife and young son. They had run out of money and couldn’t afford to buy milk for their son. They didn’t want to ask their parents for help, so Coach went to see the business manager of the high school and ask for an advance on his salary so they could buy groceries.

Coach Foster said, “I’ll never forget it… he just reached into his pocket and gave me a $50 bill. He didn’t even want to let me pay him back. What a significant moment that was for me…”

Coach Foster choked up while telling me this story that happened fifty years ago. The people who help you along the way have a big influence on what you end up doing yourself. This one simple gesture has been remembered for a lifetime, and it helped define a coaching philosophy based on believing in and helping others.

One simple discipline…

I remember driving up to Davis in September 1979 to join the football team. One of the striking memories I have from the first practice was learning about the Helmet Rule. At Davis, a player’s helmet was never allowed to touch the ground unless his head was in it. This rule was passed along and enforced by the players, not the coaches. It was strictly followed!

This one simple discipline represented a deep respect for our equipment and our football program, and set us apart from every other team. It made us different and we liked that.

One simple lesson…

Coach Sochor’s coaching philosophy was deeply influenced by the spiritual teachings of the Tao Te Ching. Coach believes that when you go with life and it’s natural laws, life is really not that hard and you’ll have a great chance to succeed.

When coaching, he didn’t use fancy words or esoteric eastern philosophy with us, he translated the lessons taught by the Tao into language we would understand.

During the interview he said, “The most important thing I taught the team was to be self-referral.”

Self-referral meant we were expected to take personal responsibility for how we prepared. Coach Sochor taught his staff and players that success is not about luck, or breaks, or injuries, or where you play. Even the opponent became relatively insignificant. If a starter was injured, his replacement was expected to be ready, fully prepared, and able to perform all aspects of the game plan. No excuses.

Coach Sochor taught us that our power comes from within.

This one simple lesson has empowered thousands of U.C. Davis players and coaches over the years. We have learned that success is all about us – how well we prepare and how we play the game, whether its football, career, family, or life.

One simple idea…

As the new head football coach in 1970, Coach Sochor wanted to establish an identity for the team. He sought to develop our central values, to define what makes us unique, singular and different from others. He called this our “specialness of place.”

He talked about trust, unity, and togetherness. He would say, “You have decided to be here, not Notre Dame, or Texas, or Berkeley.” He expected us to be fully and completely invested in the program. He expected us to be a team, every player a contributing and valuable part.

He emphasized our uniqueness, our non-scholarship status, and the fact that we didn’t have the advantage of spring practice. He called us the “Ivy League of the West.”

This one simple idea is Aggie Pride. We were the Aggies, we were together, we were different, and we liked that.

One simple act…

All three of the coaches talked about helping others achieve success. They spoke about genuine love, along with a deep belief and trust in others. Coach Biggs described his transition from pursuing a career based on money to choosing a career based on helping people. All three said helping others achieve their goals was deeply rewarding.

Coach Foster’s story about a young man named Clayton captures the beauty and power of this principle. The simple act of a trusted leader showing his belief in you can be very, very powerful indeed.

When Coach Foster was a high school head track and assistant football coach, an inner-city kid was transferred into the school. This kid had a juvenile detention back ground. He had real problems. Coach said he was just a “bad guy” with really bad grades.

Coach Foster talked this boy in to joining the track team. He began having some success in the first couple of meets. Then, still early in the season, another track athlete had money stolen from his locker. Coach informed all the students in the school, “We have fingerprints, and I’m going to fingerprint every guy in the school until I find the thief unless someone admits to taking this money.”

Clayton came in to confess. Coach wondered what he should do with this guy. He thought, “If I call the police, he’s going to jail.”

Instead, Coach Foster decided to try some tough love and he got stern with Clayton, “What are you doing? You have a chance to be successful and you’re throwing it away?” All the sudden, “this tough son-of-a-bitch started crying.”

Coach reflects, “I think he’s learned a lesson.” So Foster says, “You give all that money back. And if you get so much as a traffic ticket, you’re going to jail. Now get out of my office!”

Well, Clayton went from a struggling student with Ds and Fs to straight As in his last two years of high school. He went to UCD law school, graduated, and became a successful attorney. Coach Foster says, “He turned into a great person.”

Coach told me, “Clayton called me years later… thanked me for helping his life… Awesome…”

Coach Foster’s voice was shaky as he remembered this moment with Clayton. He was emotional, with tears coming to his eyes as he told me the story. At that same moment coach said, “that was big,” I wrote down in my interview notes, “one simple act.”

I find it interesting that so often one small action can create such a big impact in a person’s life. One simple act can change a life forever.

One simple legacy…

Clayton was not a part of the U.C. Davis football program but his story represents the essence of its legacy. Coach Foster believed in Clayton and that belief empowered Clayton to believe in himself. With the power of belief and the strength of inner-confidence, anything is possible – including the daunting tasks Clayton faced in completely changing the trajectory of his life.

The spirit of belief is the legacy of Aggie Football. In the U.C. Davis football program we were taught to believe in our preparation, in ourselves, and in our teammates. We were taught to be the best we could be every day. We were told not to worry about results, such as winning games or championships, and simply focus on being our best. We grew to believe that when we prepared and played as hard as possible, we could do anything.

It was the Aggie legacy of belief that empowered the miraculous finish against Cal State Hayward in 1971. The Aggies were losing 29 to 14 with 36 seconds left in the game. At the time, Coach Bob Biggs was leading the team as quarterback. You simply have to watch this four minute highlight video to believe it — click here: The Miracle Game.

It was the Aggie legacy of belief that empowered the amazing comeback of the 1981 team. This was my team, it was my junior year and our record was one win and four losses. Our fourth loss was a 30 – 0 trouncing at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. If we lost one more game, we’d become the first team in the Sochor era to have a losing record and to not win the conference championship. Instead, we pulled ourselves together. We believed in each other. And we won 17 games in a row leading us straight through the national playoffs and into the Division II National Championship Game.

It was the Aggie legacy of belief that empowered the 2005 team to beat Stanford in Stanford Stadium. This is even more amazing when you consider this Davis team lost its opening two games to New Hampshire and Portland State, and started the game with Stanford by falling behind 17-0 midway through the second quarter. Somehow the Aggies found their inner-confidence and belief in each other. They scored 20 unanswered points and became the first non-Division I-A team ever to beat Stanford.

The Aggie legacy of belief has also affected fans. The same evening of the 2005 game against Stanford, my father was hosting a Lions Club Fundraiser. The famous Stanford and Oakland Raider quarterback Jim Plunkett was the guest speaker of the event. My dad, Paul Gersper, told Jim that his Cardinal were playing U.C Davis that evening and he believed the Aggies could surprise the nation with a huge upset. Plunkett replied, “There is no way some Division II school is ever going to beat Stanford.” Imagine his shock when they did!

One simple thank you…

Coach Biggs told me, “If your focus is on other people’s happiness and not your own, it brings the greatest happiness you could ever have.” Coaches Sochor and Foster shared similar sentiments of the rewards from their chosen life of serving others as coaches. All three expressed that life is about giving. Coach Sochor summed it up this way, “That’s really what life is all about, helping to empower our family and friends, and the teams and organizations we’re associated with…”

I’d like to thank Coach Sochor, Coach Foster, and Coach Biggs for their role in empowering me. And I thank them for their leadership, strength, and love during their many years of service to the U.C. Davis football program.

The four years that I spent immersed in the culture of U.C. Davis football influenced my life significantly. The Aggie legacy of belief has had a powerful impact on the man I am today. It helped me know that my personal power comes from within. It taught me that I could use my power to empower others. I learned that when we understand simple things in depth, we can produce amazing results.

I have also realized that I helped shape the Aggie legacy during my time at Davis. The legacy became a part of who I am, and I became a part of what the legacy is.

Every coach and every player who embraced the Aggie culture during their time also helped to shape the Aggie legacy. So, I would like to thank all the other coaches, and all the players before, during, and after my time for their contributions to our team and to our legacy.

I simply want to say, “Thank you!”

If you are inspired to get to know these leaders better, and discover how to think like they do, learn directly from the books and resources they recommend:

Coach Biggs: Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Coach Foster: Southern Poverty Law Center

Coach Sochor: Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu, Seven Spiritual Laws of Success by Deepak Chopra, and Power Versus Force by David R. Hawkins

Image via Unsplash

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