During his 25-year career at UCI, athletics communications director Bob Olson never saw anything like the history-making sports season of 2006-07.
In June, his office was still playing catch up from the media buzz created by the men’s volleyball team’s first-ever NCAA championship title when the baseball team began making headlines – competing for the first time in the College World Series and putting “’Eater Nation” on the map. Suddenly, everyone wanted face time with the Anteaters.
“Once the baseball team beat Texas, requests for photos and interviews flooded in,” Olson says. “UCI was on the national stage.”
He and his communications colleagues, including Stacey Shackleford, Fumi Kimura and Erik Wirtanen, were swamped. They fielded questions about the coach, the players and the anteater’s origins. They made travel plans. They worked overtime. Vacations were put on hold. Yet they weren’t complaining – because they all had a blast.
“We all wanted to be here when things came together – and they did, with 29,000 fans on their feet in Omaha cheering for UCI,” Olson says. “Now, we’re not just the school with the funny nickname. People know we have a credible athletic program.”
Olson says UCI players’ unaffected, never-say-die attitude won the hearts of many fans and the media.
“TV producers liked our athletes because they’re outgoing and fun-loving,” he says. Volleyball team captain Brian Thornton even spiked a pie in teammate Matt Webber’s face during an interview on ESPN.
“You could tell our teams had chemistry,” Olson says.
Arguably the craziest day of a wild season was June 18, when the baseball team defeated Cal State Fullerton in the longest game in CWS history. That day, the volleyball team was in Washington, D.C., with 18 other national championship teams, being feted by President Bush. Talk about product placement: For the White House photo with the team, the president cradled a stuffed anteater. Later, in a Rose Garden speech, he singled out UCI’s mascot.
“When the president says, ‘Go Anteaters,’ it doesn’t get much better than that,” Olson says.
Olson and his fellow staffers handle publicity for UCI’s 23 intercollegiate teams; the teams’ collective performance earned the university’s first Division I-AAA Athletics Directors Association All-Sports Trophy for 2006-07, for best all-around sports program (non-football schools). In addition to its volleyball and baseball triumphs, UCI had strong showings in men’s and women’s golf, men’s and women’s swimming, women’s tennis and sailing.
Now that people proudly wear their coveted T-shirts saying “’Eater Nation” and “fear the snout” – a phrase that caught on after Shackleford included it in a press release for the NCAA men’s volleyball championship – Olson will help the Anteaters capitalize on their newfound fame. (For starters, “’Eater Nation” will be emblazoned on the floor of the Bren Events Center, according to Paul Hope, associate athletic director/facilities and events). Such names have cache, however, only when teams win. Olson, who recently received the 25-year award from the College Sports Information Directors of America, looks forward to more crazy years like this one.
“We’ve shown athletics can be a quick path to expanding exposure to UCI,” he says. “You can’t put a price on the publicity generated by our baseball and volleyball programs.
“Our teams have demonstrated to the country that we have a balance between academics and athletics, showing we have a great collegiate experience at UCI.”