Extra Credit With Chiampi

Courtesy of Ryan Cady

Courtesy of Ryan Cady

SPIRIT: Professor Chiampi of Italian bleeds blue and gold, inspiring students to attend Irvine athletic events.

Last week, I sat down with James T. Chiampi, a full professor of Italian who’s been teaching at the University of 40 years. Over his long tenure here, Professor Chiampi  has shown an unwavering support of Anteater Athletics and remarkable team spirit, even going so far as to offer extra credit in his classes for those students who attend home games. And I wanted to know, where does team spirit like this emanate from?

Ryan M. Cady: So to start, did you play a lot of sports growing up?

James T. Chiampi: Oh yeah, I played touch football, I played JV basketball. I was actually very good. If you got me the ball at my spot, ka-ching, it was money.

RC: Any in college?

JC: High school. I was extremely reliable, but I’m really too small to play any sport. I’m 5’5”, so you know, I played the in-field. I was a pretty good hitter on the JV team. And while I’m not much of a threat at basketball, if I manage to get free in my spot (which was anywhere around the foul line) it was money. The funny thing is — I gotta tell you a story. I was in the middle of my divorce and my son was getting married, and I thought to myself, ‘Am I gonna go to the wedding and just be angry and hostile and generally obnoxious?’ So I thought, ‘Let me go play some basketball.’ So I go to the basketball courts at the ARC, and I get on a team that’s pretty weak. They pass me the ball, I put it up … BRICK. And I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m never gonna see the ball again.’

When you’re my age — what was I at the time, 61? I thought I was never gonna see the freakin’ ball again. In any case, it was a weak team, so I got the ball again. I put it up from the side, ka-ching, beautiful, money. I get the ball again, up near the top of the key, I put the ball up, count it! Next time I get the ball, they shout, ‘Don’t let him shoot! He’s money!’ Two 19-year-olds double-team me, I pass the ball away. Well, at this point I’m thinking to myself, ‘Whoa, I’m gonna live forever.’

I went off to my son’s wedding walking on air. I thought I was gonna live forever. Getting double-teamed by two 19-year-olds when you’re sixty? That is flattering.

RC: So it’s pretty safe to say you’ve always supported athletics?

JC: Oh yes. I really started in earnest after I’d been here around seven years in 1980, when Bill Mulligan came. I should say that before that, I really only went to sports that my students were playing on. I really never went in any organized way, but if a student invited me to one of her water polo games, I went — and I didn’t know water polo from a hole in the way. But, in any case, I’d go. Volleyball, I’d go to a game if I had a player on the team — same with women’s basketball. But then in 1980, this remarkable guy — my former wife told me, ‘You know, they’ve got this guy coming from a JC, and he’s bringing these remarkable players with him.’ That was Bill Mulligan.

The year is 1980. It’s the first game of the season. They win the game by some incredible score, like 125 or 140, some incredible score, because Mulligan was the great theoretician of the running gun offense, and it was the most exciting game of basketball I’ve seen in my life! From then on, from 1980 until today, I have missed very few home games. I bleed yellow and blue.

RC: And that’s sort of your motivation in offering your students extra credit for supporting athletics, right?

JC: Ah, you’re gonna include that part in the paper as well! Well, look: I believe that this is a remarkable university. When I began teaching here, there was no tuition, just “fees.” And the fees were a joke. A joke. Roughly the equivalent of two meals in a good restaurant. For that, they had this incredible faculty. World-class people, for peanuts. I love this place, and I really want to create team spirit. Because for zero money, you can see some darn good basketball at UCI. The best volleyball in the country. We have been volleyball champions — and I don’t miss a volleyball home game unless I’m damn near at Death’s door. I didn’t go to the championships this year because I came down with a kidney stone. I thought I was giving birth to triplets!

So, I want to tell you, yes, I am a fan, and yes, I give one point of net extra credit, net! After all the mathematics have finished you get 1 point more in all of the categories I grade — that’s how much I love sports at UCI. You come and greet me at halftime at a basketball game, or between sets at a volleyball game, ka-ching.

RC: Is there anything sports-wise that you’re really looking forward to, or any particular upsets this year that you-

JC: Oh, big upsets this year! This year … what’s that four-letter-word for that university up the road? UCLA? They stole away Coach Speraw. To me, I worshipped the ground that Coach Speraw, our men’s volleyball coach, walked on. I thought he was the greatest thing since sliced bread. He was the cat’s testicles. He was, ya know, way up there.

So, we got a new guy, and I didn’t know what the heck was gonna happen. Well, this new guy brings in a whole new system, the guys buy into it, and we’re national champions. Against everybody’s expectations. He comes in, we began the year at number one, and what did we lose? Five, six games all season? And we win the national championship against a team that beat us twice? Once at home? BYU! Crushed us at home? Jeez. Talk about upsets, that was one.

And then the way the basketball team defended the Bren! We lost one home game, LSU. We defended the Bren. Those are two remarkable things that I can speak of. I don’t follow baseball too much, or water polo. Though, when you think of it, we’ve been open since 1965, and you go into the Bren, and you take a look at all the banners that are there for NCAA championships, we have been disproportionately successful in many, many major sports. Take a look at baseball, take a look at sailing, take a look at crew, take a look at swimming — whatever the hell interests you. Except the thing I really love: basketball. Now, I love volleyball as well — almost as much — and we have national championships in ‘07, ‘09, ‘12 and ‘13. There are only, what, four teams that have more national championships that we have? We’re only open since 1965! Come on! We’re just wonderful in volleyball.

And I can’t wait for the day when Coach Turner — I told Coach Turner, “I’ve been coming to games since 1980. I’ve missed very few home games. Unless I’m at Death’s door, my behind’s in that seat. So, before I die, can you please take us to the big dance? The first round of the NCAA? Then I can die a happy man. Then I can die with no regrets. God can take me.