For some people, a passion for sports starts early. For others, it evolves as they learn to play. And for still others, it develops later. Jeff Fenton ’80 remembers when he became a sports enthusiast: during the 1979-80 Triton basketball season.
Jeff came to UC San Diego from Los Angeles because he wanted to go away for school (but not too far), and he wanted a structured curriculum that could provide a foundation in critical thinking and writing — athletics weren’t a factor. At UC San Diego, Jeff found what he was looking for and more: after considering majors in biology, mathematics and engineering, Jeff finally settled on economics with minors in math and history, and he learned from future Nobel Prize-winning economists including Robert Engle and Clive Granger.
“UC San Diego is unique,” Jeff says. “This is only the second university I am aware of that has a banner honoring Nobel Prize-winning faculty hanging in the gym. I think that speaks to the type of institution UC San Diego is and the quality of education they offer.”
While Jeff came to UC San Diego for the academics, he also enjoyed extracurriculars. He was part of the committee that helped advise the Department of Music on artists they scheduled for campus concerts and the committee for computing technology on campus. But it was in his senior year that Jeff became a sports fan. The Triton men’s basketball team was on a winning streak in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) when Jeff started attending games. It was the beginning of a lifelong love of athletics.
A year later, Jeff was on his way to graduate school at Stanford, where he continued attending basketball games and started going to football games. Although attendance at basketball games was sparse, Jeff went to nearly every home game and got to know the players. But he wanted to know more. He immersed himself in learning about sports the old-fashioned way — at the public library, combing over local newspapers and magazines, as well as the NCAA’s weekly newspaper, to get more information about athletics history, statistics, players and institutions.
“I’m not an expert, but I am a well-informed sports fan,” Jeff quips.
Jeff continued to follow Triton Athletics as he began his career in aerospace engineering and cyber security. Under the leadership of Judith Sweet, UC San Diego Triton Athletics had grown into a dominant force in NCAA Division III, but without ever sacrificing on academic quality. So, when UC San Diego was preparing to transition to Division II in 2000, Jeff watched with a combination of interest and pride. He saw UC San Diego building an athletics program that complemented the campus’ academic rigor. After the transition to Division II, Jeff began to get more involved with UC San Diego, first as a member of UC San Diego’s Athletics Board in 2009, and then on the Alumni Board of Directors from 2013 to 2020.
“There is a common saying in athletics, that sports are the front porch of the university,” Jeff says. “Athletic success helps connect our community, alumni, current and potential students, and others to the university, and ultimately provide our students with new opportunities.”
In 2017, when UC San Diego began to eye Division I, Jeff saw a way to make an impact. With Earl Edwards now at the helm of Triton Athletics, the university launched a feasibility study and worked in collaboration with the campus community to determine a path forward. As a member of UC San Diego’s Athletics Board, Jeff helped guide the campus towards elevating the program. For Jeff, the move to Division I is an opportunity to align campus priorities and increase access to a UC San Diego education for more students.
Jeff sees athletics as a way for students to learn vital life skills — working as part of a team, dedication and time management — and support for the department is a way to ensure students receive a well-rounded education. He hopes that philanthropy can safeguard these opportunities for the next generation of students. Through a combination of annual gifts and planned gifts to support athletics, Revelle College, the Department of Economics, and Chancellor’s Associates — as well as his leadership and knowledge — Jeff hopes that he can contribute to the university’s future efforts to increase access and empower students’ long-term success.
“I want to feel that I have made a difference here,” Jeff says. “UC San Diego was so good to me, and I want to return the favor. They offered me a tremendous opportunity and I want to make sure they can continue to offer that to thousands more students — especially those who are first-generation college students or who come from challenging circumstances and need a leg up.”