Hornets football hasn’t beaten UC Davis since 1999. Countless losses, anemic funding, scant fan base, little hope—Sac State can’t win for losing.
So why not get it off your chest?
No need to feel guilty. You’re not the first to say it. Davis fans will be chanting it in unison when the Hornets butt helmets with the Aggies at the annual Causeway Classic this Saturday. It’s not like they don’t deserve the sobriquet. So just say it already.
OK, maybe that’s not fair. Sure, they’ve won only one game thus far under first-year head coach Marshall Sperbeck. They’re 26-60 for the millennium. During the school’s history, they’ve lost to UC Davis a painful 38 times in 54 contests, including seven straight losses in the Classic. An eighth straight loss this Saturday seems almost a certainty. Sacramento State can’t win for losing.
But there’s more to Sac State’s losing ways than wins and losses, Xs and Os. Some make the case that Sac State’s is a broken program. Others contend the Hornets simply can’t get over the hump—they can’t pull out the close win, can’t get a break, can’t not blow the game. The team threw five interceptions, missed two field goals and repeatedly choked in the red zone in a 17-3 home loss to Big Sky Conference No. 1 Montana. A week later, in near-blizzard conditions in Bozeman, the Hornets seemed to have the game in hand against Montana State before giving up 20 points in the final 16 minutes.
Last week’s game against the Eastern Washington Eagles looked like more of the same as the Hornets fell behind 31-10 early in the third quarter, sending a good portion of the already meager fan base packing. One young girl begged her parents to leave. Dad said no, but the kid wouldn’t back down. “We’re down three touchdowns,” she cried. Minutes later, the family of four headed to the exits. Others followed suit.
They all missed the fireworks.
Down 38-24 late in the game, red-shirt freshman quarterback Jason Smith hit senior Ryan Coogler for a 62-yard touchdown, bringing with Hornets within striking distance during the final minutes. A taste of honey.
Which quickly went bitter. When kicker Juan Gamboa missed the extra point, leaving the team down eight points, it all seemed for lost. But the Hornets got a lucky break when the Eagles fumbled a snap inside their 10-yard line on the next possession. First and goal, eight yards to go for a sweet victory. Earlier that week at practice, head coach Sperbeck had drilled the team for this exact game situation. The offense, which hadn’t scored a touchdown in the two games going into the Eastern Washington match, had no excuse—they knew what they had to do.
Would this time around be different? Could Sac State mend its losing ways? Would the Hornets finally get over the hump?
Hard for the money
Some critics argue that it’s not a matter of Sac State football getting to the next level. The team moved up to Division I in 1996, but since then the Hornets haven’t been able to win in the increasingly competitive world of NCAA football.
This year, Hornets football is at a crossroads. They’ve got a new coach, Sperbeck, who has a new attitude toward discipline and recruiting. The university’s new athletic field house will be completed early next year, to the tune of $11 million, which in theory will make Sac State more attractive to athletes and prospective recruits. A new sports and recreation complex, costing upward of $80 million, will be completed in 2010. And there are tentative plans for a $30 million-plus makeover to Hornet Stadium, though there’s no official timeline for construction.
“I want a new arena for the Kings to play in, but there isn’t one yet,” poked Grant Napear, who does color commentary for the Sacramento Kings and Oakland Raiders, and hosts KHTK 1140 AM’s Sportsline radio show. “Talk is cheap. After a while, you’ve got to do it.”
The university is doing something: They’re spending money—lots of it. But are they spending it wisely? And are they prepared to do what it takes to nurture a winning football program? After years and years of losing, do they even know what it takes to be competitive in modern NCAA football?
“To be honest with you, I don’t think that they do,” said former Hornet head coach Steve Mooshagian. “After being at both [Fresno State and the University of Nevada] for as long as I was, I don’t think that they have the funding or the finances to do it.”
Not only does the team lose, it loses in empty stadiums. Last Saturday’s thrilling back-and-forth battle against the Eagles took place in front of a paltry 4,607 fans, according to the university. But SN&R photographed the Hornet Stadium bleachers and counted less than 1,500 fans in attendance. “Sacramento State, being a commuter school, is really hurt by the lack of fan support,” Napear explained. Lack of attendance equals weak ticket-sale revenue, which all comes back to the bottom line for the university. This shortcoming in revenue sets off a chain reaction of tough decisions that have an adverse affect on the struggling football program.
And, according to Mooshagian, the university has yet to fully address these problems. “I don’t know what they want, but I know that changing the coach won’t matter. They could bring in Vince Lombardi or Mike Holmgren, but until they change the infrastructure, the results are going to be similar.” This year, even with nine starters returning on defense, the results indeed are status quo: another losing season and one of the worst starts in the past decade.
Mooshagian argued that it comes down to the program being “under-funded and over-scheduled.” He’s got one thing right: Money affects the team ability to be competitive. For the 2007-08 season, the total projected football budget at Sac State is $1.6 million, which includes $661,000 for scholarships and $411,000 for operations. The remainder of the money goes toward salaries, including approximately $120,000 for Sperbeck. Mooshagian observed that this is barely enough to staff a proper football program. “We did not have a secretary for the past couple years and they do now. We did not have a full-time strength coach until last year.
“The way I look at it, they were behind times. They made the move to Division I, but didn’t do enough. They didn’t keep up with the facilities. … The [coaches] salaries were not conducive to the cost of living in Sacramento. And that’s one of the tough things: Sacramento’s one of the most expensive places to live of the Big Sky Conference schools, so a guy can make $40,000 at, say, Montana, and it goes a lot farther than in Sacramento.”
Budget constraints, according to the former coach, also affect recruiting. “They need to up the scholarship money for books for the kids. That needs to go up. They were only getting $250 for books per semester,” which, as most students will tell you, often can only cover the cost of books for a single class. Things are changing, but slowly. “It’s not easy for an athletic director. It’s not easy for a university president. I think they have made strides.”
Football budgets in the Big Sky Conference tower over Sac State’s piggy bank. First place Montana, ranked fourth in Division I-AA, or what’s now called the Football Championship Subdivision, has a bankroll of just under $4.1 million. Of the nine Big Sky football programs, only Weber State, a basketball school, and University Northern Colorado, with fewer than 11,000 undergrads, spend less than Sac State on their programs. And many of these programs’ budgets don’t include money spent on scholarships.
The budgets grow exponentially at the next level of play, in the Western Athletic Conference of Division I-A, or the Football Bowl Subdivision, which includes the University of Hawaii, Fresno State, University of Nevada and Boise State. Sac State’s athletic director, Terry Wanless, and president, Alexander Gonzalez, aspire to one day be part of this conference, which will take a significant financial commitment on the part of the university. But this is a pipe dream. “It’s not going to happen in the near future,” WAC commissioner Karl Benson told SN&R. Furthermore, the NCAA is considering a moratorium on Division I-AA schools moving up to I-A until 2013. Until then, if Sac State wants to compete at this level and the next, they’ll need to significantly bolster their war chest. The average WAC football budget, according to Benson, is around $3 million. Boise State, a former Big Sky school that went on to defeat the University of Oklahoma in last year’s Fiesta Bowl, has a football budget upward of $5 million, not including scholarships.
To make up for the lack of funding, the Hornets, who as of this week are ranked 636th in the nation, are forced to play games against competition that’s out of their league. As Mooshagian noted, they’re “over-scheduled,” or play powerhouse programs not because they have hope of winning, but so that the school gets a pay day. For example, this year the Hornets played at Fresno State and at New Mexico State. They got killed in both games—losing 24-3 and 58-0, respectively—but the Sac State athletic department raked in a cool half-million for the contests.
But Mooshagian and others say this has a negative effect on players’ morale. “When you’re playing those money games, the kids never get a chance to experience winning early in the season, and I think that takes its toll.”
Wanless, who acknowledged the Hornets would be playing fewer “money” games in coming seasons, sees them as a necessary evil. “That’s one of the things that we debate back and forth,” he said. “What we would like to do in the future is play one [money game] a year.” He disagreed that the games have a negative effect on team confidence. “We think that that’s attractive from a recruiting perspective because kids like to test themselves. Many of them think that they should play at that level, so they kind of want to show their wares, I guess you would say, against a Fresno, against a New Mexico.”
It’s another lose-lose for the Hornets. They’ve lost their last six money games by an average of 30-plus points. What’s more valuable: $500,000 for the athletics department, or avoiding early season blowouts?
Either way, the athletics department needs money. There are 19 other sports at Sac State, and many of them have fared rather well considering the university’s limited budget. “The sports that are successful at Sacramento State are lower-budget sports, the volleyballs, the gymnastics, the tennis program,” Mooshagian said. Wanless, who turned around a struggling athletics program at the University of North Dakota before coming to Sacramento, is proud of his department. Last year, eight Hornet sports programs won conference championships. And Sac State has taken the last three Causeway Cups, an annual competition with UC Davis that factors all athletic programs the two universities have in common, not just football. With the success of other sports at Sac State, why not punt football?
Part of the problem may be the university’s unwavering belief that football, like their other athletic programs, eventually will succeed. “I honestly believe that, given time, [Marshall Sperbeck] will win a national championship in football on this campus,” Wanless proclaimed.
Others remain critical. “I don’t know if they should in fact eliminate the program, but it just seems to me that since I’ve been in Sacramento, they can never move forward,” Napear observed. “They’ve gone through numerous coaches, and yet, year after year after year they are struggling to win games.” A culture of losing
“I personally don’t think Sacramento is a very good college town. I’ve lived here for 20 years, and I have not seen this community embrace collegiate sports the way some other towns do,” Napear said, using TV ratings as evidence. “When there are big college-football games on, in Sacramento the ratings are lower than other cities in America.”
Wanless begged to differ. “Communities support winning programs. That’s a fact of life no matter what part of the country that you’re in.”
For the record, Sac State football hasn’t had a team win consistently since the 1982-86 seasons, when then-head coach Bob Mattos had five consecutive .500-or-better years. They did, however, have a couple successful years in the late ’90s under then-head coach John Volek, who’s now athletic director at Sierra College in Rocklin. “I liked breaking the attendance records and having the success we did,” Volek said, noting the 1999 Causeway Classic, where 20,993 fans packed Hornet Stadium to watch Sac State beat the Aggies 48-27. This was the last time the Hornets got the best of UC Davis.
“With Del Oro, Granite Bay, Grant, there’s a lot of great high-school football in this area,” Volek said. But this torch of success on the prep level hasn’t been passed on to Sac State, which is something both Wanless and Sperbeck intend to change. “You bring a local interest, in such ways that you get moms and dads, uncles and friends, and businesses associated with [the team],” Wanless explained, hoping that this new approach will increase revenues and endear communities.
“I think Sacramento’s a great high-school-football area, but I don’t think it’s a great college-football area,” offered Mooshagian, who took a few months off after Sac State opted not to renew his contract last fall and now coaches wide receivers at University of San Diego. “There’s a lot to do with attitude. It’s a culture that Sacramento has to overcome. I come down here to the University of San Diego, and the culture here is winning. The attitude here is winning. And it’s something that takes time to develop.”
It also takes money. Sac State hopes that making an effort to bring in local athletes will pay off down the line.
“[We] could say that we’ve recruited Sacramento in the past. If you look at statistics, I don’t know that we’ve recruited [the region] effectively,” Wanless admitted. Mooshagian was criticized for not reaching out to local high schools, and indeed the current Hornet football roster has tapped very few prospects from the Sacramento Valley. Only 18 of the 79 Hornets listed in the media guide hail from the Sacramento region, including Lincoln, Auburn, El Dorado Hills, Loomis and Penryn. According to Wanless, the university intends to offer 20 scholarships for football next year, 10 of them being reserved for high-school and junior-college athletes from the area. But this may prove difficult in practice.
“It’s a lot harder to get the community college and JC kids in there than any other school in our conference,” Mooshagian recalled. “We lost a lot of kids to the Portland States and the Montanas because they don’t have the same English and math requirements that you do in the California State system.”
This past May the NCAA made matters worse, flagging Sac State football as a poor-performing academic program in their Academic Progress Rate report. If the university doesn’t improve the performance of their football student-athletes by next season, it’s possible the school will be slapped with scholarship cuts and reductions in practice hours. Only 23 football programs in the nation were cited.
The NCAA crackdown was a major blow, but there’s another hurdle the Hornets need to overcome that may prove even more daunting: a culture of losing.
Mooshagian questioned the university’s commitment to winning. “There are a lot of people [at Sac State] that don’t want to change. There’s people that liked the way it was at Division II. People that like mediocrity. I don’t. I hated it. And that was my frustration. And that’s one of Terry’s frustrations. It’s the culture. They have to change the complete culture of the campus.
“I’d walk from the field house across the grass to the campus and people just don’t care. It’s like a whole different world.”
“There’s no school spirit.” Napear agreed. “You go to school there, you get in your car, you go to class, you drive home.”
Gonzalez and the university have hedged their bets on a multimillion-dollar plan, “Destination 2010,” which includes leisure and cosmetic improvements to the campus, including the aforementioned recreational center and field house. Like the Kings getting a new arena, Napear sees this as an essential move. “They don’t have a very nice facility, insofar as Division I college football goes. If they were serious about trying to move their program forward, the first thing they need to do is to get a better facility.” He noted that the River Cats have the No. 1 attendance numbers in the country. “I think a lot of people like to go out and watch the River Cats because Raley Field is so nice,” not necessarily because of minor-league baseball’s popularity.
Still, there are lingering doubts, namely whether a CSU school has the potential fan base. “I’m not sure people would go out and watch Sac State football even if they were winning,” Napear conceded. Mooshagian agreed: “You don’t really have the student and fan support. I don’t know if any Cal State school has it, to be honest with you.”
Over the years, state schools and small private schools with unstable programs have opted not to roll the dice. CSU Fullerton and Long Beach State cut football in the early ’90s, and have gone on to foster top-ranked baseball programs. St. Mary’s sacked their football program in 2004, citing cost as the main factor. Santa Clara University, University of the Pacific, UC Santa Barbara, San Francisco State, Hayward State, Sonoma State, CSU Northridge—all these schools have cut their football programs, citing either cost, gender-equity or lack of interest.
But the Sac State Hornets are committed to fighting the good fight. “There’s nobody that wants them to win more than I do,” Mooshagian told SN&R before leaving to a coaches meeting. His San Diego team will play UC Davis two weeks after Sac State gets their shot.
Wanless hopes that his Hornets are on the right track for Saturday’s match-up.
“Maybe we operated a little bit in what I call a maze, and now we’re on a journey. Because with a journey comes a path, and we understand that path a little better. I’m not sure everybody understands what I’m trying to say here, because with a maze you kinda go left-right, left-right sometimes, rather than having a plan and looking straight down that path. And I think that’s what coach Sperbeck has brought us. He has a total understanding.”
End of the game
Would the Hornets find their way out of the maze? Would they finally make it over the hump against Eastern Washington? They’d spent the week drilling their red-zone offense. Thursday before the game, on an unusually hot 80-plus degree October day, Sperbeck had the boys running out-routes to the end-zone corners and slants across the middle. One receiver made an outstanding grab in the back of the end zone. They also honed their running game, backs scanning for windows while defenders clogged the box.
Now they had the ball first- and-goal.
“Raise your stingers!” a member of the marching band yelled, pointing his index finger to the sky. Band mates followed suit, but hardly anyone in the student section joined in. One boy flipped the band off. A girl laughed while text-messaging. Another boy heckled the dance team: “Do some dancing, dancers!” By the way, the game was on the line.
Down to a final play: fourth and one, just three feet from triumph, which would give the Hornets incredible momentum going into the Causeway Classic this Saturday.
A loss would be devastating.
Coach Sperbeck, who runs the offense, made the call. The Hornets got set. Smith handed the rock off to senior Cyrus Mulitalo, who pounded forward. The teams collided, piled up, but neither line judge signaled touchdown—yet. An uneasy silence. Finally, across the field, Eastern Washington fans roared. The Hornets’ hopes were stung. The Eagles stopped Mulitalo inches short of the goal line.