UC Riverside’s newest athletic director is here to stay

Jimmy Lai/HIGHLANDER
Jimmy Lai/HIGHLANDER

Prior to meeting UC Riverside’s newest athletics director (AD), Tamica Smith Jones, I was quite unsure of what to expect. I had heard she was a “ball of energy” but still, I wondered. Is she genuinely of the high-spirited mold of which many in the athletics department have described her? What if this side of her is only accessible by those within her professional circle?

As I sat in the waiting room of her office, another question arose: what will be the worth of this interview? Funny it may sound, but given the history of UC Riverside athletics, it is a legitimate question. You see, not only is Jones UCR’s newest AD, but she is the school’s fourth AD in just over 10 years. For comparison’s sake, Pac-12 powerhouse UCLA has seen a total of two new faces at the AD position over the last three decades.

So, needless to say, UCR’s director of athletics position has not been the greatest model of stability over the years. And it is particularly difficult to overlook this verisimilitude when preparing to approach the proverbial “next one up.”

However, upon walking into Jones’ office, my questions were quelled. Her office’s domesticated aesthetic, coupled with her warm, hospitality instantly relayed that of somebody who finds comfort in their current role and plans to settle down.

Therefore, it was fitting that when I asked what she believes she offers the program at UCR, her prompt response was, “stability.” I saw her smile grow wide as her voice rose with excitement and it is in that moment that her vivacious and lively personality emerged.

She went on to enthusiastically describe her visions for UC Riverside athletics; which include — but are not nearly limited to — upgrading the facilities, developing a greater presence on campus and enhancing the growth of the fan base throughout the community.

Jones’ uplifting, positive nature and astounding bravado is wholly unique for one in her seat. Yet it is fitting as she is among a select few at her position. Throughout the vast NCAA Division 1 landscape, Jones is one of just 37 females at the helm of their respective programs. That list dwindles even further when considering African-American females outside of at a historically black college or university. And when solely microscoping UC Riverside, Jones is the first-ever female and African-American to hold the position in program history.

One would expect these milestones to bear weight on one’s shoulders, however, Jones is undeterred, professing, “[These] are high honors and definitely ones that I take with much pride. But to me, I’ve still got to work just as hard. If not harder.”

After 15 years as a Division I school (the highest level of collegiate athletics in the country) many believe UCR has yet to make the necessary and significant strides as a program, leading some to wonder whether the school remains worthy of its D-1 status. What does Jones say to this?

She immediately pointed to a few UC Riverside alumni who have made an impact at the professional level. Athletes such as Brendan Steele, who is currently ranked 76th in the world golf rankings or Jose Diaz who went second overall in the Major League Soccer supplemental draft in 2013. Jones plans to make success stories such as these the norm for UCR athletics.

“We are a D-1 program and we are here to stay […] over my tenure, you’ll see that we are able to recruit the best [athletes], retain our best athletes and elevate the profile of [UC Riverside] athletics.”

Audacious? Indeed. But Jones is such for good reason. Since she was a child, Jones has been surrounded by success. After being born in Atlanta, GA, Jones was raised in Alabama, where her mother was an accomplished businesswoman and her father owned and served as the pastor of a prominent church within the city.

As for Jones herself, she was a highly-talented student-athlete in high school who excelled in basketball and track and field, eventually earning an academics and athletics scholarship to attend Troy University in Atlanta, GA.

Jimmy Lai/HIGHLANDER
Jimmy Lai/HIGHLANDER

Jones spent two years at Troy before ultimately transferring back home to Alabama A&M where she earned her bachelor’s degree in management and also developed a close relationship with her assistant basketball coach, Walter Tullis, along the way.

“He saw something in me that I really didn’t see in myself,” says Jones.

Upon earning her bachelor’s, Tullis influenced Jones to continue her education at Savannah State, where he had just been named head coach of the women’s basketball team. While at Savannah, Jones pursued her master’s degree in public administration and also earned the opportunity to work under Tullis as a graduate assistant — her first-ever coaching job.

Just a year later, Savannah State released Tullis prior to the upcoming ‘98-99 season and it was Jones who was thrusted into the head coaching role.

Jones had a natural presence on the sideline and led the Panthers to their first winning record in five years that season. “I started really enjoying what I was doing,” she says, “I started looking at it through a different lens as a role model and an administrator.”

Yet, still looking to follow in her mother’s footsteps, Jones left Savannah State after that year with her master’s degree in hand, ready to pursue a career in the corporate world.

Or so she thought.

Shortly after leaving Savannah State, Jones got a call from her old athletics director at Alabama A&M who offered her an assistant coaching job at Morris Brown College in Atlanta, GA. For Jones, not only was this a great opportunity to continue her career, but it was a chance to return home. And from there, she says, “the rest is history.”

Jones quickly became the senior women’s administrator (SWA) of Morris Brown and moved into the same position years later at Clark Atlanta University, then again at the University of Texas-San Antonio (UTSA) where she helped significantly develop the program during her two-year tenure.

And now, finally, here she is. Holding her first position as the outright director of an athletics program.

As for what drew her to UCR? Well, it goes back to stability.

“Because he (Chancellor Jim Wilcox) wanted stability in this seat, I was serious about taking a good look at the program and [seeing] if I could advance it forward.”

And if you are worried about all those other stops in the past, don’t be. She is here to stay. “I have two small children,” she chuckles, “so I have no interest in coming somewhere for two years and then moving somewhere else.”

Jones’ commitment to UC Riverside is clear. After just about two months on the job, she took the time to extend the contracts of a majority of the Highlanders’ head coaches and assistants — an effort that she declares was all about keeping continuity within the department. Most notable of these moves was the extension of head men’s basketball coach, Dennis Cutts’ contract through 2020.

Cutts, for one, is an avid believer in Jones’ ability to turn this program around. “She’s got a ton of energy,” he proclaims, “she really has a clear vision of what D-1 athletics needs to be and is unafraid to attack issues that face this department.”

For somebody who never had visions of being involved in athletics administration, Jones’ journey to this seat — and the confidence she immediately draws from her peers — can sound quite unbelievable to many. And oftentimes, when one experiences the success on multiple levels as she as, it is credited to luck and good fortune as opposed to their talent and hard work.

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Jimmy Lai/HIGHLANDER

While good fortune certainly played a role in Jones’ ascension, I would argue it is more so a byproduct of her diligence than the presiding factor. To Jones, however, she will tell you it can all be attributed to something else entirely: her faith.

”I don’t know where I would be without having the belief that there is a higher power than what I do on a daily basis. That is [what] wakes me up in the morning. […] There is something that’s out there that is above everything that I can do.”

Growing up in a religious household, faith has been and continues to be a key point in Jones’ personal life. And as for her career, it is also faith — from various angles — that has settled her into this position today: Her parent’s belief in her as a scholar and an athlete, her former coach’s confidence that she could serve as an assistant and her past administrator’s faith that she could assist in turning a program around.

And now, as UCR athletics looks to become a consistent and competitively palatable program, their faith rests entirely in her.

Her aspirations are lofty. Her personality is vibrant. And her drive is unparalleled. Yet, the question still remains, can she get it done?

Well, if her past is any true indicator of what lies ahead, I have enough faith to assert, she will.

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