Call it the biggest pep rally in UC San Diego history.
The small school band belted out the fight song, dressed in their uniform of Hawaiian shirts. Peppy cheerleaders performed, not in front of athletes, but dignitaries in suits.
Two massive television monitors played slick, goose-bump inducing videos about athletic excellence and ambition.
This was a momentous day on the massive campus in La Jolla, and UCSD didn’t hold back its pride or joy.
“A great day for the university, and a great day for San Diego,” Mayor Kevin Faulconer said from the stage erected on the floor of RIMAC Arena.
UCSD on Monday announced it will begin a journey to join the Big West Conference in 2020 and become a participant in NCAA Division I athletics. It will be the third university in the county with that status, joining San Diego State and the University of San Diego.
The Tritons’ fate was determined two weeks ago, when the Big West’s board of UC chancellors and CSU presidents voted to invite UCSD and Cal State Bakersfield to join the nine schools already in the conference.
UCSD will begin playing a full schedule in the Big West in the fall of 2020, spend four years in a reclassification period, during which it cannot reach the postseason in most sports, and then have full-fledged Div. I status in the fall of 2024.
A student referendum passed last year that approved the increase of fees to pay for Division I athletics will eventually support scholarships worth $5.8 million. The school will begin parsing out financial aid to athletes in the coming year and reach its full allotment in 2020.
A frequent contender for national championships in numerous Div. II sports, UCSD now can aspire to the lofty heights of March Madness in men’s basketball and the College World Series in baseball, though realizing those kind of goals could be years or decades away.
UCSD Athletic Director Earl Edwards doesn’t lack the confidence that they’ll get there.
“The thing that’s exciting for me,” Edwards said, “is that we’re a little different. We’re not the new kid on the block who’s trying to crawl up. We’re the new kid who is setting the standard in terms of financial stability, in graduation rates of student-athletes. We’re going to go into the league as more or less the standard than the new kid on the block.”
UCSD invited some influential people to its party Monday to highlight its belief that moving to Div. I will have significant impact on and off the campus, and among the speakers was former Mayor Jerry Sanders, the CEO and president of the Chamber of Commerce.
“This is a transformational moment for San Diego and UC San Diego,” Sanders said.
He looked up and pointed to the dozens of Div. II and Div. III championship banners that line the arena.
“Absolutely the best-kept secret in San Diego,” Sanders said, “and now everybody in the nation gets to know about this on a frequent level.
“This has been a long time coming,” he added. “I talked to Earl about this a long time ago. Earl is a force of nature and he refused to give up. He kept going at it.”
It was a twisting, uncertain path UCSD took to get to this point.
After the Tritons’ bid for Big West membership in 2010 failed because students rejected a referendum, the latest effort began in May 2016, when UCSD’s students overwhelmingly voted to raise student fees to support entrance into the Big West. In January, the UCSD faculty approved a rise to Div. I with 62 percent in favor.
But in April, the Big West announced its board had voted down UCSD’s entrance, leaving the school in a precarious position. It needed to be accepted by September 2018 for the student vote to still be valid.
Big West Commissioner Dennis Farrell said Monday that in the months that followed, chancellors and presidents began to discuss adding two schools — UCSD and Bakersfield, a Div. I Western Athletic Conference member that also had been previously rejected by the Big West.
The combination would continue the balance of school affiliations — five UCs (San Diego, Davis, Santa Barbara, Irvine, Riverside) and five CSUs (Bakersfield, Long Beach, Fullerton, Northridge, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo), along with Hawaii.
Farrell said the balance on the board wasn’t as important as the appeal of the schools.
“There was a belief by the CSU presidents that Bakersfield deserved to be in as much as the belief among UC chancellors that UC San Diego deserved to be in,” Farrell said. “I don’t think there was ever a concern of keeping the voting balance. That never really came up.”
Farrell, a San Diego State graduate, added, “UC San Diego has been on my radar screen for probably 10 to 12 years. They fit more of a Division I profile as a university than they do Division II. Most Division IIs are private, liberal arts-type of colleges or smaller public universities.
“UC San Diego is a major research university with a large student population and a growing alumni base in a major market.”
UC San Diego is the nation’s fifth-largest research school. But it isn’t well known beyond Southern California, partly because campus life is very low key.
Students have long joked that the school’s initials stand for University of California Social Dead.
“I want us to be University of California for the Socially Dynamic!” UCSD’s fifth-year chancellor, Pradeep Khosla, said Monday. “I think this change is going to add energy and vigor to the campus. It will create things to talk about. It’s going to pump up our alumni base.”
The school has 185,000 alumni, including J. Craig Venter, a seminal figure in the Human Genome Project, and Nick Woodman, the founder of GoPro. But the campus has historically struggled to connect with alumni. Only two years ago, it lacked a comprehensive, up-to-date list of its alumni.
The situation has started to improve; the campus received two huge private donations from alumni this year, including $75 million from Taner Halicioglu, who helped create Facebook.
The move into the Big West could eventually result in more gifts — something the university covets. The school is suffering growing pains. Enrollment has soared by more than 7,500 over the past five years, hitting a record 36,624 this fall. The campus will have 40,000 students by 2021.
UCSD — which is halfway through a $2 billion capital campaign — needs money to cover student scholarships, an expanded faculty and new buildings.
Making the move to Division I will yield dividends, said David Brenner, a basketball fanatic who serves as dean of UC San Diego’s School of Medicine.
“At halftime (of games) they usually give you an opportunity to tell your story on TV,” said Brenner. “And you can do it for free.
“This also would give alumni a reason to return to campus. San Diego State, which has a fantastic venue, does this very successfully. It’s so exciting to watch.”
For faculty who have opposed UCSD’s move to Div. I, much of the concern expressed has been about the university lowering its standards in pursuit of titles. Edwards insisted that would not be the case.
“Our expectations will be the same,” he said. “We’ve been successful losing Div. I athletes to the Ivy Leagues and Stanfords of the world. Those will be the same type of students we will continue to recruit. … I’m convinced that for recruiting on a national scale, there’s enough athletes out there who would love to come to a world-class institution like UCSD — and, let’s face it, it’s San Diego. Do I need to say more?”
The coaches for UCSD’s 23 teams now face a challenging, and probably daunting task of switching gears to recruit Division I athletes who also will qualify academically. Many of them already are mapping out their strategy.
Women’s basketball coach Heidi VanDerveer is among those relishing the opportunity.
“The transformation of this campus over the last five to 10 years … it will be the same thing moving forward,” she said. “We’re going to look back on this day, and say ‘wow.’ It was a landmark day in school history.”
UC San Diego’s timeline to Division I
2018-2020: UCSD begins increasing the amount of money it offers for scholarships, beginning with one-third of its total allotment and reaching full spending by the fall of 2020. Two sports — men’s volleyball (2017-18) and women’s water polo (2019-20) — begin Big West participation.
2020: The Tritons begin a full Big West Conference competitive schedule in the fall.
2020-2023: UCSD begins a mandated four-year reclassification period, during which it cannot compete in the postseason in most sports. The exceptions are men’s volleyball, men’s and women’s water polo, and fencing, because those are sports with only one division in the NCAA.
2024: Beginning in the fall, UCSD will be a full member of the Big West and eligible to compete for all conference and NCAA championships.
Staff writer Gary Robbins contributed to this report.
1:15 and 6:30 p.m.: This article was updated with additional information.