The man behind UC Merced's Bobcats' rise

vpatton@mercedsunstar.comJanuary 9, 2012 

There's an old saying that mighty oaks grow from small acorns.

While David Dunham's skill set is more suited to sports than dendrology, the proverb fits the 39-year-old Mercedian like an Air Jordan.

Since his hiring at UC Merced in July 2005 as the campus' director of recreation and athletics, Dunham has played a central role in establishing the foundation of the university's sports program. The seed Dunham helped plant more than six years ago sprouted in rare form last year with the Golden Bobcats' acceptance into the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics' California Pacific Conference, and the launching of the school's men's basketball, women's volleyball and men's and women's cross country teams.

Despite those successes, Dunham is looking ahead, with his eye on building a sports program that could one day achieve national recognition. It's a tall order for anyone to achieve, but Dunham has proven he's up to the challenge.

The positive signs are evident. All of UC Merced's varsity home games have been packed, and community enthusiasm for the sports program has never been stronger. So far, tickets for every varsity basketball home game at UC Merced have sold out.

"We have been busy here. It's been tremendous change, but it's been great," said Dunham with a wide smile, wearing a gold and blue Golden Bobcats jacket. "The thing that has been the most exciting about it is not only have our students been behind what we're doing, but the community has as well."

Before being hired at UC Merced, Dunham worked as associate director for intramural sports and sports clubs at UC Davis. His career was jump-started while a freshman at the University of Texas, where he worked as an intramural basketball official. "From that moment on is when I got hooked onto this realm of what I do," Dunham recalled.

Program's humble start

After he came to UC Merced in 2005, Dunham was literally a "staff of one," having been given a computer, desk, a blank slate and a mission to build a stellar sports program. Since then, Dunham's office space isn't the only thing that's grown. He now oversees a staff of around 15 employees who handle everything from the school's outdoor program, to intramural, club and varsity sports.

The programs have also grown by leaps and bounds. UC Merced began club sports in 2007 with basketball and volleyball, and today there are 14 club sports at the campus. In addition, the once-small intramural sports program has grown to 75 teams over the years, including flag football, indoor soccer and basketball.

Dunham said building the sports program has been a team effort between staff, students and members of the community. "So many people have worked so hard to get us where we are," Dunham said. "We've been very focused. We've made a lot of sacrifices, I think. It's a lot of work."

The efforts of Dunham and those who work with him came to fruition in September, when UC Merced's first varsity sports team -- the women's volleyball team -- played it's first home game.

Dunham said the atmosphere was electric, and seeing the smiles on the faces on students and community members was well worth the effort put into building the sports program. "That's really what I am here for. To help the students and to provide services for them. And to see them so excited was phenomenal," Dunham said.

Jane Lawrence, UC Merced's vice chancellor of student affairs, credited Dunham for his efforts in building the sports program. Even more important, Lawrence said Dunham cares deeply about students, and he plays equal attention to promoting men's and women's sports. "(Sports) is a wonderful rallying cry that brings the community together," Lawrence said. "David, because of his experience, has really helped us begin the process of building intercollegiate athletics on the campus."

Edirin Egbikuadje, 24, a senior from Modesto who plays on the campus' soccer club sports team, said he's noticed how the school's sports programs have grown over the years. "There's always something to do," Egbikuadje said.

As for the future of UC Merced's sports program, Dunham said that as the campus grows, residents can expect to see more athletes from the school competing nationally. Dunham said the school may even compete at the NCAA Division II level one day. "We're going to get some phenomenal athletes here. You don't always have to be the big powerhouse school to do that," Dunham said. "And I think what we are trying to put together here is a program that really values the scholar athlete. It's going to be exciting to see."

Managing Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsunstar.com.

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