As was captured in our “Year in Review,” the 2014-15 season for UC Riverside sports was a unique mixture of disappointment and failure, as well as unprecedented success. When further brought to light, it can be said that the collective inconsistency throughout the year is an unfortunate reflection of the athletic department in its entirety — unsteady and unpredictable.
It was 2001 when UC Riverside made its transition to the NCAA Division I (the highest level of collegiate athletics) as members of the Big West Conference. Since then, the Athletic Director position has seen a total of four different tenures begin and end. Amidst these resignations stands a common theme of lofty expectations left unfulfilled.
This theme was particularly notable during the tenure of UCR’s most recent resignee, Jim Woolridge. Woolridge stepped into the AD position on an interim basis in 2013 after the departure of Brian Wickstrom, however, he was quickly given the full-time title by Chancellor Kim Wilcox in January of 2014.
After spending six years as UCR’s head basketball coach and over 30 years coaching throughout both the National Basketball Association and the college ranks, Woolridge was expected to finally establish leadership and credibility within the department. Unfortunately, like his predecessors, his aspirations proved too lofty.
Yes, he was able to successfully hire former UCR alum and Angels star Troy Percival to coach the Highlanders baseball team — a move that triggered plenty of excitement throughout the Highlander fan base. However, after just 10 months at the helm, Woolridge resigned on October 30, 2014, due to reported friction within the department. His abrupt resignation left goals such as developing an innovative multi-purpose center unfulfilled.
Now, nine months after his departure, the position is held on an interim basis by former Assistant AD Janet Lucas (three ADs in three years, if you’re counting) until the search for Woolridge’s successor concludes.
Finding his replacement has been a long, ongoing process for UCR and Chancellor Wilcox. Perhaps too long. When coupled with the position’s apparent instability over the years, the ambiguity of such an elongated search has led many outsiders to question the direction of the athletics department as a whole. Former president of the UCR Athletic Association board, Mike Marlatt, relayed this sentiment in a recent interview with Press Enterprise.
“The thing that’s frustrating to me and many other people […] is how it seems to be going backwards and not forward,” Marlatt said. “It seems every time you (UCR) get a step ahead, you take two steps back.”
Frustration appears to be nearing its peak among UC Riverside supporters. Fortunately however, the search is finally nearing its conclusion. In early June, Chancellor Wilcox narrowed the AD search down to two highly-qualified candidates: Donald R. Reed and Tamica Smith Jones.
Reed is the current Senior Athletic Director for Academics and Sports Management at SUNY Buffalo and has administrative experience at New Mexico State, Arizona State and Iowa State. Meanwhile, Jones formerly served as the athletic director and senior woman administrator (SWA) of Clark Atlanta University from 2006 to 2013. She currently coaches basketball and volleyball at Clark along with a myriad of other schools and is the senior associate AD for internal affairs and SWA at Texas-San Antonio.
Both Reed and Jones clearly have proper leadership experience. However, the main concern in regards to UCR is their level of commitment to turning around a program that has been in flux since its transition to Division I.
If there is a silver lining to this constant turnaround within the athletics department, perhaps it is the fact that it has still been less than 14 years since the school fully integrated to DI athletics. It traditionally takes over a decade for a school to develop credibility when making this transition; so, it is certainly not too late to turn things around as a program. Yet with pressure mounting, there is a reason Chancellor Wilcox was so vague about his timetable for the search — the proper time is necessary to truly get this hire right.
Beyond just prior experience, there has to be a level of personability and dogged dedication from the next AD. The hope is that whomever Woolridge’s successor may be, they can provide resoluteness to an otherwise unsteady department and that the question of who is in charge becomes less concerning than the true goal, which is bettering UCR athletics. As for now, the search continues.
UPDATE: As of Monday evening, UC Riverside officially announced the hiring of Tamica Smith Jones as its next Athletic Director.