In perhaps the most somber scene of the 80s cult classic, “The Breakfast Club,” Andy, the school’s wrestler, sobs over his father’s unrelenting pressure for the boy to, “Win! Win! Win!” Oftentimes, we as a student body view our athletic department in the same way. Win at all costs despite the difficulties that lie amid running a fairly young Division I school. But in the words of The Smiths, these things take time. And according to Interim Athletic Director Jim Wooldridge, UCR’s time is approaching sooner than later.
Over the summer, men’s basketball head coach Wooldridge was selected as the interim director following Brian Wickstrom’s departure to the University of Louisiana at Monroe (ULM). With a wealth of experience and a knack for likeability with humble Southern upbringings, the Oklahoma native hopes to transform UCR into a formidable program within the landscape of the Big West Conference as well as see that success manifest into a greater experience for student-athletes and the student body alike.
In an interview with the Highlander, Wooldridge spoke about the importance of improvement, the gratifying tribulations of competing at the highest level in college sports as well as his time spent in the NBA.
Following the exit of Wickstrom, things could have headed south for UCR fairly quickly during the summer. With a program still well within a self-building phase, the university required a figure who knew the university’s needs and could swiftly integrate into the vacant position. Insert longtime coach Jim Wooldridge.
With a professional career spanning over 30 years, Wooldridge is no stranger to collegiate athletics, and found that his new position was very similar to coaching.
“The goals are the same. We want to be more successful. We want the student-athlete experience to be the best it can be,” he stated. “We want to present ourselves to the student body, faculty and staff on our campus in a positive way, and hopefully for our athletic department to be an entryway to (UCR).”
Although the Highlanders have enjoyed isolated areas of success within their 17 programs, the department as a whole has suffered many more heartbreaking defeats than victories. They have, however, focused on a renewed participation and engagement of the student body as the sole engine to fueling their long road to the top.
“One of the goals that we have (started to) emphasize and prioritize within the department over the last couple of months is connecting our student body to our student athletes and the Division I athletic department. It’s something that’s important to me to accomplish because we are here for them.”
UCR Athletics has employed a series of projects to get the 20,000-plus students that populate the grounds of UC Riverside more involved in sports, including the development of the Student Advisory Athletic Council (SAAC), a program designed to connect student-athletes to campus and vice-versa. They have also made a concerted effort to connect to students through social media with the ultimate goal of making the sports programs more visible. The university has also focused on getting the surrounding areas of UCR involved with trips to local chambers of commerce by student-athletes as well as a prize package giveaway in partnership with the Riverside Transit Agency (RTA).
An integral aspect of his plan for the university includes committing to the tried-and-true coaching philosophy of improvement. Throughout the department, from student-athletes to administration, the key is to make every day better than the previous.
“To me the only way to go about this job is everyone tries to get better today. And you keep adding those days up, and you’ll have more success. It takes a lot of work and many working parts. A lot of people doing specific things for the department that tie into one another. And you become a big team moving this department forward.”
There was a pungent aroma of disappointment after the announcement was made that UCR’s bid for a multi-purpose arena dubbed the C-Center was put on hold indefinitely. The project’s future seems uncertain, but according to Wooldridge, the arena hopes are still alive and kicking.
“We’re going back to the drawing board and I think we’re all aware at UC Riverside that there is a need for a gathering place for convocation. You see graduation where it’s 100 degrees and we’re doing graduation outside. Seminars, concerts and sporting events,” he explained. “There is all kinds of activities that we need to have a facility for. Everyone agrees on (the C-Center). Now where, when, how much, scope of the project and all these things are yet to be determined, but it is something that UC Riverside, sometime in the future, will have.”
The interim athletic director also shed some light on the immense difficulty it takes to run and maintain a Division I athletic program that is competing against the best universities in the world. UC Riverside joined the Big West Conference and the NCAA Division I in 2000 after being a primarily Division II athletic program.
“There is only 340 or so Division I programs in the world, which means … the competition is the highest it can be in college sports, the very highest. We compete against USC, UCLA, Carolina, Michigan, Texas, and we play for the same championship as them. We have to provide more scholarships than Division II by a long shot, millions of dollars worth of scholarships,” he stated. “So how do you build a department? Little by little, year by year, you have to grow, but you have to work at your pace to keep up with the advancement of Division I athletics. Everything is a process. It’s challenging, it’s really competitive, but it’s the best level to be in because it is the best.”
Not too many individuals can claim to have worked in the NBA in any capacity. Many students would be surprised to know that Wooldridge was an assistant coach for the Chicago Bulls during the 1998 and 1999 seasons. He mentored and witnessed the growth of Elton Brand and the player formerly known as Ron Artest, Metta World Peace, as well as working for one of the top franchises in the NBA.
“It was the most exciting time of life for me. The experience was beyond what I could have hoped for. Great organization, great coaches, wonderful group of people to be around,” he gushed. “Best competition in the world. I got to see it all first row. Back then Kobe Bryant was a young player. Shaquille O’Neal and those kind of guys were running around the league. It was a lot of fun trying to coach against them.”
Improvement is the name of the game for the Highlanders under the leadership of Wooldridge. The department hopes to continue building upon something special with every single member doing their part. “There is so many things out there for us in the future. It’s going to be a fun and interesting time to help continue to build that pathway to more success, but I really look forward to the challenge.” The Oklahoma native envisions the whole university in the same breath of college’s upper echelon and knows the hard work it will take to get there. He hopes that all his fellow Highlanders are along for the ride.