Latest News

U.S. soccer star Cobi Jones, committee discuss future of UC Merced athletic program

The development of an intercollegiate athletic program at UC Merced remains completely hypothetical, despite a meeting Wednesday that featured the encouragement of a star U.S. soccer player.

While still five to eight years away, such a college sports program has sparked local interest among fans and athletes.

According to Cedric Dempsey, Wednesday's meeting of the Chancellor's Blue Ribbon Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics was an important first step in making intercollegiate sports a reality for the 3-year-old university.

Spearheaded by Dempsey and Ted Leland, the 14-member committee has been mainly comprised of UC Merced faculty, students and prominent members of the Merced community.

Included in that group is former U.S. soccer player and current Los Angeles Galaxy assistant coach Cobi Jones.

"I got introduced to the project through the chancellor's niece," Jones said. "It's something I'm very excited to be a part of.

"I went to UCLA, so I'm from the UC system. Having soccer in college was a big thing for me, and I saw this as a great opportunity to help bring intercollegiate athletics to future students."

The commission's purpose is to devise a plan for UC Merced to get an athletic program up and running in coming years.

Dempsey and Leland used Wednesday's initial meeting as a sort of brainstorming session to get a feel for what type of program the school wants to have.

"We want (the university) to think about the philosophy of the kind of program they want to be," Dempsey said. "We're going to meet back up -- probably in October -- and Ted and I will present a number options."

Dempsey added, "We're working with campus planning right now on the possibilities of facilities here on campus. We'll present what we come up with to the committee. The committee will agree on one. We'll then refine it and present it to the students and community."

Although a fully functioning athletic program will not be a reality until 2013 at the earliest, the commission hopes to have a full plan in place by January.

UC Merced Recreation and Athletics director David Dunham -- the architect of the Blue Ribbon Commission -- was pleased with the initial meeting.

"I thought we had some great discussion today," Dunham said. "Just getting this process started was huge for us.

"I think both Ted and Cedric bring a wealth of experience from some major universities as well as some smaller schools like us."

Dempsey and Leland have each worked in athletics for a number of prominent colleges.

Dempsey is a former president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association as well the athletic director at the University of Arizona, San Diego State and the University of the Pacific.

Leland's been a director of sports programs at Stanford, Dartmouth and UOP.

The duo has just started a project at Cal State Channel Islands that Dempsey said was comparable to UC Merced's situation.

"Like here, Channel Islands had no athletic facilities," Leland said. "Most universities build facilities through student fees.

"Obviously, this school doesn't have the student base to do that yet, so a lot of the funds are going to have to come from outside sources."

With UC Merced's enrollment still under 2,000 students and no real alumni base to call on for donations, Dempsey and Leland are going to have to do some outside-the-batter's-box thinking on how UC Merced should proceed.

A lot remains up in the air since there's no set budget for them to work in.

Leland and Dempsey's current charge is to come up with a number of options both at the Division II and III levels with various price tags attached. Then the commission will decide how much money can tangibly be raised.

Much more should emerge from the commission's next meeting, but all parties involved seemed pleased with Wednesday's first baby step.

"There's certainly a long way to go, but I sense a strong commitment from the university to have intercollegiate programs -- and that's the most important thing," Dempsey said.

Sean Lynch is a Sun-Star sports writer. He can be reached at (209) 385-2476 or