Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Basketball Homecoming

Bob Williams was the first coach I worked with when I started at UC Davis in 1995. I was still a relative greenhorn in sports information and was slightly more than intimidated by Williams who was building a highly respected Div. II program.

Three years later, he led UC Davis to the pinnacle of Div. II basketball, taking a non-scholarship Aggie team to its first-ever Elite Eight in Louisville and, ultimately, an improbable national championship. It was a professional and personal highlight I will never forget.

His star rose quickly after that and with the NCAA trophy having barely collected California dust, Williams was scooped up by UC Santa Barbara where he has since resided and has enjoyed success.

Thursday brings Williams back for his annual visit to Hamilton Court with all of his championship memories and an NCAA banner hanging overhead. He'll shake hands with public address announcer Larry Swanson, former Associate Athletics Director and his longtime friend, and he'll say hello to the staff and Aggie supporters who were part of that title.

And then he'll toss his fondness for UC Davis into his bag as the Aggies and Gauchos do battle at The Pavilion. Memories only go so far.

My guess is most of the students and many of the fans in the stands won't know his Aggie background but I'll never forget my time working with Bob and the memories that came with him having fun at my expense. 

I was barely acquainted with him and on my first roadtrip when the coaches and I made our way for some late-night fast food. Believe me - well, you don't have to if you know anything about me - but it was the last kind of meal I needed and Bob knew it. He could see it. Heck, we could all see it.

I ordered a combination-something, jumbo size of course, and, here's the kicker, a large Diet Coke. Like Diet Coke was the elixir for the billions of calories waiting for me at the drive-thru window. I relayed my order to Williams - remember, I barely knew him which mattered little to him - and he slowly turned around from his driver's seat to look at me in the back, gave me a long stare and said, "Geez, Robles, what the &$#* are you getting Diet Coke for after all of that?" 

I loved it. I also lost my appetite. Temporarily.

A bookend memory to my tenure with Williams came at the press conference the day before the 1998 NCAA Championship game when he held comedic court with the assembled media. Asked how his team was faring on the nearly week-long trip, Williams mentioned it was worse for Swanson and I who were rooming together and he joked had started bickering like a husband and wife because we both "snore like a couple of buffaloes put in a cage."

Beautiful. Especially in newspaper print.

Williams won 156 games for the Aggies, went to the NCAA Division II postseason four times and, of course, helped bring home a national championship. He'll also bring a very talented UCSB team into the Pavilion 

He still calls me "Los", a nickname he gave me many years ago and for which I never got a good explanation on its origin, and I'll look forward to saying hello. I'll also remember what he taught me, particularly with being accountable and taking ownership for mistakes, a lesson I still carry to this day. I thanked him for that when we chatted briefly last year.

I hope the Aggies beat the Gauchos. He'd want me to do nothing else.


It's not the season anyone following the Aggie men's basketball team expected, let alone the players and coaches who are in the midst of it. The resolve to turn things around is definitely there. No one's given up on the year and they hope no one's given up on them.

Injuries, a young roster and a difficult schedule - including a nearly month-long roadtrip - provide legitimate excuses but Coach Jim Les is not into excuses and neither is his team.

Coach Les talks about focusing on the process, on getting better. The players have been saying the same. Get a little better everyday. 

The record may indicate otherwise, but this team has a dangerous side. The Aggies are among the top three-shooting teams in the country, ranking 29th in three-pointers per game (8.2) and 38th in percentage (.383). Pretty impressive.

Tyler Les has proven to be one of the most effective Division I shooters as well, rising to 10th among all Div. I players in the latest rankings by making 46.6 percent of his three-pointers. Oh yeah, and he's 46th in the NCAA with 2.7 made per game. 

There are times when he seems more comfortable shooting from the midcourt stripe than the three-point line.

Yes, the Aggies looked at double-digit deficits in the first halves of their first four Big West games but in three of them they came back to either tie or take the lead, and in the other (at Big West leader Long Beach State) they battled back to within two.

Three league losses have come by a total of seven points, two of the games against teams (UC Riverside, Cal State Fullerton) that are currently tied for second. A couple of minutes of the basketball gods shining on them rather than against them and they'd be 3-3 instead of 0-6.

I love watching Coach Les work the sidelines. I really think if the game didn't end he'd still love to stay out there and keep coaching. He's constantly teaching and treating every game like it's tied and every shot is the game-winner.

The Aggies are busting their you-know-whats as if they're 17-1 rather than the mirror's opposite. I see it every game. I see them diving for every loose ball, encouraging each other like each possession is their last, and I see them ready to turn the corner to better results.

The question is, will you be there to greet them? I hope you will be. 

Mike Robles, assistant athletics director for athletics communications, hopes the stands are filled for the Aggie men's basketball games against UCSB (Thu.) and on Cal Poly (Sat.). Yes, he is a graduate of Cal Poly and, yes, he grew up around the Gauchos' program but those allegiances will be put in HIS bag this weekend. He also notes he does not "snore like a buffalo." His wife has no comment.

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