By Bill Sheehan
After being named president of Cal State Fullerton a year ago, Fram Virjee, along with his wife, Julie, quickly immersed themselves in campus life.
The Virjees moved into the C. Stanley Chapman house, the school's presidential residency in downtown Fullerton. "We knew that we would do that from day one," said Julie. "We want to be part of the community. We want to be here at 7 a.m. for events or at 11 at night, and we've done that almost every day."
"We love seeing the symphony and choral groups perform," said Fram. "We love going to the opera and plays and the visual arts, and going to engineering and business fairs."
In fact, it is wildly apparent that the Virjees love all things CSUF — from exploring the academic excellence and wide-ranging experiences of Fullerton's diverse student body to meeting with alumni around the country — and their Titan Pride is certainly on full display when it comes to athletics. Fram played water polo in high school and at UC Santa Barbara. Julie was a high school athlete and played intramural sports at UCSB. And two of their three sons played Division 1 water polo and have several national championships between them.
By warmly embracing Titan sports, the Virjees have become the "First Fans" for the school's 15 teams and its Spirit Squad. They frequently attend games and sports-related events, and greet as many student-athletes, coaches, alums and fans as possible.
"I remember them coming to one of our first games," said Titan softball coach Kelly Ford. "I was amazed that they showed up and figured they would be attending one competition for each sport that semester. Then I saw them again, and again, and again. They started developing relationships with the players and as well as their parents. I thought, "This can't be real.' "
Titan baseball coach Rick Vanderhook recalled that when last season's team got off to a slow start, Julie phoned him before a Sunday game. "She said she had made some 'good luck' oatmeal bars for the team and wanted to drop them off before church," said Vanderhook. "And the team started winning right after that."
"Fram and Julie are extremely unique for their passion as a president and the first lady," Vanderhook said. "When my mother passed away this summer and we were preparing to hold a celebration of life for her, Julie called my wife asking if she could bring something. But it's not just people from the athletic department -- they treat everyone on campus this way."
Jim Donovan, in his sixth year as Fullerton's athletic director, said the Virjees' support of the myriad activities and events across the campus has left him in awe.
"The energy they bring is amazing," said Donovan. "My guess is that they have been to more than 60 games and fund-raising events since January.
"They want to make Fullerton a first-choice university. They want to continue all of our progress and bring us to the next level, and that includes Titan athletics," he said.
'Scholars first and athletes second'
Intercollegiate sports play an important role in promoting the Cal State Fullerton brand, Fram said, but academics remains the pillar of the university.
"There is a reason we refer to our athletes as scholar-athletes. They are scholars first and athletes second," Fram said. "That shouldn't diminish anything they do on the field or on the court or on the pitch. But they are here first and foremost to get an education.
"One of the things I love about Cal State Fullerton is that we are a NCAA Division 1 school. This is big-time college sports, but we don't lead with that. Kids don't come here for sports and then take academics second. They take academics first."
To ensure the academic success of Titan student-athletes, the university created its Titan Athletics Academic Services, which works closely with faculty, coaches and other student support services. Fram joined a few Titan athletic officials on an overnight trip to Florida a few months ago to secure an NCAA grant to refurbish and upgrade the Athletics Academic Services center.
"Anyone who has seen the amount of time and dedication that our scholar-athletes put into their sports knows that they give up a lot of social and casual time to represent us as Titans. So we owe it to our scholar-athletes to help them succeed academically. I want our teams to win, but much more important to me is that these athletes graduate with knowledge that holds them in great stead long in the future."
Athletics serve as a front porch for the university, Fram said. "Our scholar-athletes are our first-line ambassadors. Everywhere they go, they are wearing Titan gear. And even if they don't, everyone knows they are Titans."
One of those ambassadors is Jake Pavletich, a redshirt senior on the Titan baseball team. He said his fellow student-athletes have taken notice of the Virjees' warmth and enthusiasm. "I
haven't seen anything like it in my five years at Fullerton," he said. "They don't think of us just as athletes, they think of us as family," said Pavletich.
Before one game, the Virjees were making the rounds and joined a tailgate party hosted by Pavletich's parents. "Mrs. Virjee came up to me later and said, 'Jake, your parents know how to throw a pregame party,' " said Pavletich. 'She's one of our biggest supporters and is like a second mom."
Commissioner's Cup a sign of achievement
The Virjees cite several highlights in their first year of cheering on Fullerton sports teams.
In June, Cal State Fullerton won its first-ever Big West Commissioner's Cup, which is awarded to the school with the best overall finishes in the conference's 17 sports championships.
"The Commissioner's Cup is a validation and a wonderful demonstration what Jim Donovan and the athletic department have done with this program," said Fram. "If you look where we were when Jim came in not only from a win-loss record, but also on graduation records, it's incredible. It started with recruiting the best people we can find. We have teams that play together – those are the teams that win."
The award was an uphill achievement, said Julie. "It's taken years of doing the right thing," she said. "Everyone has come together and done the hard work. That's what makes it so sweet."
Another high point was Jace Chamberlain's walk-off homer at Stanford that advanced the Titans to the NCAA baseball super-regionals. "In the ninth inning, with two outs, and a freshman that had never hit a home run before -- that was unbelievable," said Fram.
The Titans winning their first Big West Conference Men's Basketball Tournament men's in 10 years was another memorable moment. "When our fans rushed the floor at the Honda Center, it was incredible," said Fram. "And the trip to Detroit for the NCAA tournament, being part of March Madness, was very special."
Julie also was very impressed by the athletic graduation banquet. The student-athletes chose the awards, voted on them and produced the program. "They created a really special event. They have given their all with their leadership, discipline and time management. I love all the teams. They know I'm their mama."
A special connection with Titan softball pitcher
Perhaps the most poignant moments for Fram and Julie involve Titan softball pitcher Taylor Dockins, who has been battling cancer for more than two years.
The righthander from Corona, a former high school player of the year, tossed a no-hitter against the University of San Diego in February as a freshman. A month later, her team hosted "No One Fights Alone Night" in its conference opener against UC Santa Barbara, distributing T-shirts and #TaylorStrong wristbands to fans. Dockins registered a complete- game victory that night.
Fram wrote an article in the Orange County Register about how the Cal State Fullerton family rallied around Dockins. "The whole community came together for that game to support Taylor," said Fram. "You can't get more meaningful than that. All the women on both teams wore emerald green ribbons in their hair -- the color of liver cancer awareness."
Dockins, who is currently undergoing treatment, said she often gets texts of support from Fram and Julie.
"He was a Division 1 athlete, so he knows what we are going through," said Dockins "He's like a second dad. I don't have the words to explain how incredible it is to have that type of support."
The Virjees have Twitter accounts and tweet about campus activities and events each day. "The purpose of social media is to create a sense of excitement and interest and community on campus and off," said Fram. "Among our goals is to draw our alumni back onto campus and draw the business community from Fullerton and Orange County into what we are doing on campus."
Fram occasionally tweaks Cal State Fullerton's arch-rival, Long Beach State, in a tweet. "You have to have some fun. [Long Beach State] President [Jane Close] Conoley and I are good friends. Long Beach is a great institution; it is the second-best CSU. I do occasionally poke fun at the [baseball] Dirtbags," said Fram. "I never start, but I always finish."
Cal State Fullerton and Long Beach State are often labeled "commuter schools," but Fram isn't buying those stereotypes. "First of all, we are not a commuter school. We have to get over our inferiority complex. We are an amazing first-tier Division 1 nationally-ranked university. Titan athletics, just like the performing arts, the business school and other departments, makes us who we are.
"We have more attendance at athletics events than we have ever had in our history. There has been a tenfold increase since Jim [Donovan] got here. But it still needs to be more. It's a key to creating community."
Permanent home for Athletics Hall of Fame endorsed
The Cal State Fullerton Athletics Hall of Fame lacks a permanent home on campus, with Titan sport trophies and awards scattered across different buildings. "I believe we should have a single location to house our Hall of Fame. The trophies should be together somewhere," said Fram, who said funds would have to be raised to create a display site, either in the Titan gym or student union.
Asked to name a men's and women's team he would like to add if the opportunity arose, Fram picked the sport he's most fond of – water polo. "If we started both men's and women's water polo, they would be instantly competitive because Orange County is a water polo mecca. And we need to find another sport where we can beat Long Beach," said Fram. "We've got to find some benevolent donor to give us a new pool. We do that, we'll start the programs."
Fram often hears from alumni and fans about resuming or launching sports such as football, gymnastics, wrestling, men's volleyball and women's sand volleyball. "It's all of matter of funding. We have to find more funding to expand into more sports. It all depends on what our amazing alumni can do to create the funding."
What motivates the Virjees to reach out to so many of Cal State Fullerton's roughly 40,000 students?
"We have realized that everyone comes to campus with a story. Whether we hear them one-on-one or in a group, we want to acknowledge and support them. Each athlete has an incredible story. We are here to help them succeed and find the right path," said Julie, who along with Fram co-founded the nonprofit Yambi Rwanda. Julie heads the organization, which provides a comprehensive range of services and support for the people of Rwanda.
Fram was a partner in private practice at the prominent Los Angeles-based law firm O'Melveny & Myers for nearly 30 years. He was coaxed out of retirement to serve as executive vice chancellor, general counsel and secretary to the board for the Cal State University system. On Jan 1, he took the reins at Cal State Fullerton.
"Students ask me all the time: 'Why would you want to do this job?' If I were the CEO of a business, I could measure my success by several methods. Here, you have to go on faith," said Fram. "I know they are going to be the leaders of our community, state, nation and world, but that will happen 10, 15, 20 years from now. So I just have to go on faith. I tell them I'm here because I trust that you are going to make this world a better place than it was when I came into it."
Student-athletes, Fram said, are well-positioned to become some of those future leaders.
"There is no better place to learn leadership, discipline, teamwork and collaboration than on a team in a Division 1 sport."