An Upward Trajectory for UCR Athletics

Director of Intercollegiate Athletics Tamica Smith Jones reflects on her first year at UCR

Tamica Smith Jones poses with Scotty Highlander, with dance team member Estefania Lopez (left) and cheerleader Kaitlan Trujillo (right). Carrie Rosema

When Tamica Smith Jones joined UC Riverside as the director of intercollegiate athletics in July 2015, it was because Chancellor Kim A. Wilcox wanted an accomplished leader who was focused on student success, an effective recruiter, and someone to build and maintain strong community ties.

Smith Jones, who had been the athletics director in her Atlanta, Georgia hometown at Division II Clark Atlanta, and the senior associate athletic director for internal affairs and senior woman administrator at the University of Texas in San Antonio, knew that UCR was a rare addition to Division I in the last decade. “Before I came here, Chancellor Kim and I had a conversation about where he envisioned the program. It was very enlightening and authentic.”

At her campus visit, Riverside reminded her of her hometown: warm, diverse and engaged. “When I got on campus, it was even more of a good feeling of warmth and familiarity from the standpoint of some of the things that I’ve seen from my 18 years in collegiate athletics. I’ve witnessed coming onto a campus with limited resources, having to be creative, getting the energy up and really just engaging more than the Riverside community — but also reaching outside in our conference in the national landscape.”

On choosing Smith Jones, Wilcox said, “Tamica Smith Jones has dedicated her career to the success of student athletes, and her enthusiasm for UC Riverside and its mission will carry through in helping our Athletics program excel in coming years.”

A year into Smith Jones’ tenure, UCR — a member of the Big West Conference, and a competitor in 17 sports at the NCAA Division I level — has had a stellar year in track, women’s basketball, golf and more. Smith Jones has been appointed to the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Sports Committee, a five-year term that is, in her words, “A pretty big deal.” Among these accomplishments, Smith Jones reflects on the year that’s gone by. “My goal this year was to elevate our profile very clearly,” she said. “I wanted the trajectory of everything to go up–the expectations, the energy, the engagement. This year will serve as our platform for next year as we continue to build a sustainable program.”

In her own words, Smith Jones discusses the top accomplishments of her tenure so far:

  • Building the Buzz on UCR Athletics – on and off campus.
    “UCR has been known as a high-profile academic institution with a low-profile athletic program. That has not been the case anywhere else that I have been, so I really had to communicate with leadership and educate different departments on campus the landscape of college athletics in Division I. It is very competitive in this industry. Whether it be scholarships being offered to student athletes, the facilities, being able to make sure that they are competing in the best venues, or that everybody has a place to practice and compete. As a Division I school, we have to build our buzz, build our brand and get people to buy into it. That’s what I’ve spent a lot of my time on, trying to attract the 18- to 25-year-old student demographic on campus, and our surrounding community as target audiences. We started looking at what other schools are doing, even in our conference, in other schools in Division I, and I think we got a better understanding of who we want to model now! We send out something from UCR Athletics and it’s tagged reposted. I’ve seen the Riverside community repost things about UCR Athletics. So that’s exciting.”

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  • Elevating the Success of Student Athletes and Coaches.
    “The coaches are a great group of competitive coaches and had a good camaraderie already in place. They just didn’t have much direction and hesitated to invest totally in a turnstile program. Now that I have had a year to get us more organized, we have become more transparent and team-oriented. I think it really allowed the coaches to focus on working hard at developing relationships across the department, campus and community. Now, coaches have an expectation to strive to be the best in Big West but at minimum be at the top third of conference standings.
    “When I was researching our program, research showed that we were at the bottom in most sports. We turned that around this year with our best-ever finish in the Big West Conference Commissioner’s Cup standings finishing in fourth place after never having finished higher than seventh in our previous 14 years. This season, we also won eight individual and team conference championships, and had three teams and more than a dozen individuals compete in national postseason events. Included in that run of success was the program’s first NCAA Division I National Champion in track athlete Vesta Bell who won the NCAA Championship in the indoor weight throw.”
  • Engaging the Community.
    “We’ve been on our Highlander support campaign since I’ve been here. We had a Welcome Back Picnic with all the student athletes and coaches with 400 people in attendance — our Athletics Association and key campus administrators came to engage our students. I may be just too team-oriented to just cut people out, but I believe if we’re to celebrate our student athletes, you have to invite everybody, you know? So, we started having that mindset that we’re going to start supporting each other, that if nobody came to our events, 300 student athletes and the 100 coaches and staff will be there. That has been a huge success thus far, as we saw increases in attendance by as much 28 percent in some sports!”
  • Changing UCR’s Game Day Experience.
    “Instead of putting on a game, we put on a whole event. Now it’s sports and entertainment. When people come to the game, they have fun, from the time they’re parking to the moment they watch the game. We were able to work with TAPS and other concessioners to get an Athletics protocol in place so visitors, donors and supporters would know where to park and go routinely. People who need assistance, we would shuttle them in a cart. We became more hospitable and really considered the experience a lot differently, which I think has been a huge success.”
  • Advertising Athletics.
    “We can’t afford to really advertise on billboards (they cost $16,000!), but I spoke with Rep. Andy Melendrez, who is on our Athletics Association Board, and some other officials who helped us get access to billboards in the community. In addition, a men’s soccer alum came through big winter quarter discounting a billboard at the 91 and 15 freeway in the Inland Empire. We got a billboard up during our Women’s Basketball 16-0 run in March, which was perfect timing. We’ve been broadcasting athletic events and the highlights and the Women’s Championship in golf, Vesta Bell’s National Champion [win] in the indoor weight throw, the Big West Champion and individual champion in cross-country. We’ve been able to partner with sponsors to promote on city billboards since March and we only had to pay $1,000 to do it. That’s a huge success, especially for the community that spends a lot of time on the highway. First thing in the morning, they see ‘UC Riverside Athletics.’”

    The UC Riverside Women's Golf Team won the first Women's Golf Championship in the Highlanders' 15-year membership in the conference this year.

    The UC Riverside Women’s Golf Team won the first Women’s Golf Championship in the Highlanders’ 15-year membership in the conference this year.

  • Championing the Classroom.
    “We hired a new academic director, we hired some new counselors, and we reassessed how we help support the student athletes to maintain academic integrity. My biggest job has been to give out the expectations to staff; the other one is just holding us all accountable. Coming to Riverside really proved that you really could balance the academic enterprise and expectation of the scholars that we were recruiting and the athletic interest and competitiveness and beyond the national scene if you focus on that. From an academic standpoint, I’m asking coaches to strive for 3.0 team GPAs and that student athletes will graduate at 100 percent. I know it’s a tough task, but that’s what my expectations are and nobody is flinching at that. Everyone is striving to achieve it.”
  • Building a Network of Athletic Administration.
    “No matter if it’s Division I, Division II or Division III; whether you’re talking to athletic directors, vice presidents, vice chancellor of student affairs or presidents, you have to be prepared to engage and to educate – listen and learn. That’s what I do on the national level with the conferences that I attend. I went to the NCAA Inclusion Forum, which focused on how to be more diverse and inclusive in our affairs. I spoke on a panel with women of color. I go to make sure that I am able to put Riverside on the map. It may end up that one day they want to host a championship or bring a conference to Riverside. It’s just a matter of exposure and potential impact.“A few months ago, I was invited to a Division I only Athletics Director Conference called the Collegiate Sports Summit. I engaged with Arizona State University’s athletic director and many others at that event, which puts me in the room with some of the best programs in the country. Those kind of conferences really just give you a chance to get some ideas, build a network of resources that you do call upon and in some ways, they can help us build what we’re trying to build on our campus. Bridging those relationships is priceless because they may even help secure guarantee games and tournament entries that your coach can’t [get] and need you to make an administrative call. When I got to Riverside, one of the first things that my coaches did a lot of was, ‘Do you have any contact with so-and-so schools because we can’t get games and we can’t do this?’ There was no school that they asked me about that I didn’t have a contact with. We were able to get some things done.”


Moving Forward

“At UCR, I’m really most excited about seeing the campus and community embrace athletics at a higher level,” Smith Jones says. “We are encouraging everybody in the Highlanders’ extended family to assist us with the “Three Ps”: Promoting UC Riverside Athletics; being present at our events; and partnering with us to find win-win opportunities that bring all of us together in pursuit of something truly special.

“We are also hard at work improving our facilities through projects both big and small. The most impactful to our student-athletes is the creation of the Bear’s Den as we replace our 1950s-era changing areas with a series of state-of-the-art locker rooms, meeting rooms and a nutrition bar and other items befitting a Division I athletics department.

“Lastly, we will continue to engage with our alumni through an Athletics Directors Meet & Greet Tour, and team-specific outreach to solidify the bond that runs through all those who have been members of the UC Riverside family.”

Smith Jones’ ultimate goal is to build a culture of tradition and support, where all 20,000-plus students are coming to the games, the faculty and staff support the student athletes as part of the fabric of the campus, and the athletics department and Riverside community become synonymous with one another.

“I want it to become very clear that you come to Riverside and you win. You win in the classroom. You win with the community. You win championships in sports. And when you graduate with your degree, ultimately we would like to see you remain here to start careers and families.”

 

 

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