By Mark Bryant | Special to The OBSERVER

Mark Orr talks with former Sac State assistant coach CJ Cox during a 2017 practice. Prior to being hired by Sac State, Orr, 46, made history as the nation’s youngest athletic director when St. Mary’s College hired him at age 29. Jessica Vernone, Courtesy Sac State Communications

On another electric autumn Saturday night at Sacramento State’s Hornet Stadium, the football team, supercharged by a roaring crowd, came through with a final drive ending in the go-ahead touchdown.

The Hornets delivered a final defensive stop, which sealed yet another win to keep alive an undefeated season. Final score: Hornets 31, Idaho Vandals 28.

That clutch win served as a tuneup for the game of the year Saturday — the Causeway Classic, historically dominated by rival UC Davis.

The Aggies entered Hornet Stadium on a five-game winning streak, 6-4 overall, and tested the undefeated Hornets before a record crowd of more than 23,000 hollering fans, finally falling 27-21 and giving the Hornets their third Big Sky Conference title in a row.

The win gave 11-0 Sac State its first undefeated regular season. The Hornets enter the Football Championship Subdivision (FBS) playoffs seeded second, matching their national ranking in the media and coaches’ polls entering the Causeway Classic. 

This all comes as a shock to longtime Sac State followers. After all, the Hornets were known as the doormat of the Big Sky in many sports, including football and basketball.

How times have changed. The Hornets have won 19 consecutive Big Sky football games since 2019. The October victory over Idaho equaled their win total from their first seven seasons in the conference (1996-2002.)

The main man responsible for the Hornets’ sporting success not just in football but across the board the past few years is Athletic Director Mark Orr. The native Sacramentan has spearheaded the program’s turnaround and transformed a moribund program.

Orr, 46, brings a youthful, animated and personable approach to building winners. He excelled in sports including football, basketball, baseball and track at Christian Brothers High School in the early 1990s and attended Cal on a football scholarship.

Three reconstructive knee surgeries in four years ended his career as a player, but his fire for sports never waned. He made history as the nation’s youngest athletic director when St. Mary’s College hired him at age 29.

Since Orr arrived in April 2017, Sac State has won 11 Big Sky championships: three in football, two each in baseball, track and women’s golf, and one each in softball and men’s golf.

“I have always felt Sacramento would support college sports done in the right way,” Orr told The OBSERVER. “We have seen how this city supports the Kings and high school sports. This is a huge sports community. As a native of Sacramento, I love this city. My entire family is here. It’s personal to me to have a program our campus and city can be proud of.”

A People-First Approach To Crafting Culture

Sac State Athletic Director Mark Orr stands on the sideline during the Oct. 29 Hornets’ 31-28 victory against Idaho. The Hornets finished the regular season with a perfect 11-0 record to cap the first undefeated regular season in school history. Orr, a native Sacramentan, has spearheaded the program’s turnaround and transformed a moribund program. Russell Stiger Jr., OBSERVER

Orr said his approach to building winners at Sac State has been simple.

“Hiring the right people has been the most important thing,” he said. “You must surround yourself with the best people you can, along with the best student-athletes. If you can be successful at hiring the right coaching staff, you’ll win a lot of games. If we do that, the support and the facilities will come. We’ve been changing the culture to a successful one that’s relevant in our community.

“That’s our secret formula: getting the right people, recruiting the right athletes, and telling our story, which is defined as making sure we are connected to the community.”

Two of Orr’s hires have paid off handsomely.

Coach Troy Taylor guided the Hornets past the Aggies using a variety of runs, passes and surprise plays. Taylor was a star quarterback at Cordova High School before setting records at Cal that stood for many years. He won four straight section championships as co-head coach at Folsom High School, including a state title.

Sac State’s previous five football coaches departed with losing records.

“I had to make some tough decisions in order to make changes,” Orr said. “Hiring Troy to lead our program was a difference maker and a game changer. I knew he would turn the program around. I knew he would bring change because I believed in him. It happened sooner than I thought, but there was never a doubt in my mind.

“It’s been pretty remarkable. We’ve been successful in recruiting local talent that we’ve been able to keep in town.” 

Though his name has come up as a potential candidate for jobs at larger schools, including Cal, Taylor has made it clear he intends to stay.

“I have no intention of leaving here,” Taylor said. “I’m having a great time. I love where we live. I love our football program, love our players, our coaches.”

Following the close win over UCD, Sacramento State fans stormed the Hornet Stadium field in a wild celebration.

“It’s great. We love Sacramento and they love us,” Taylor said.

Orr appears to have made another major breakthrough coaching hire. David Patrick, a veteran college and international men’s basketball coach, was hired in April. He has coached winners wherever he goes, including stints at Nicholls State, St. Mary’s, LSU, TCU, UC Riverside, Arkansas and Oklahoma.

“He is one of the best basketball coaches in the country,” Orr said. “He’s worked at the NBA level. He is one of the best recruiters. He has been able to assemble a talented team this year that has the ability to participate in March Madness and the NCAA Tournament. I think the pieces are here to do that.”

With an overhauled roster, including six transfers, the Hornets look to improve on their 8-12 record and ninth-place finish in the Big Sky.

“It starts at the top with (Orr) and (University President Robert S.) Nelsen”, Patrick said in a recent interview. “All of us coaches here get along. We all pull for each other. I’ve been at some places where it’s compartmentalized. Our guys are out at every football game, staying to the end, cheering them on. That’s not always the case at other places. That’s the great thing about Sac State. We all support each other.”

Event Center Is Key To Long-Term Vision

Mark Orr was hired as Sac State’s athletic director in 2017. Orr was a standout student-athlete at Christian Brothers High School. “As a native of Sacramento, I love this city. My entire family is here. It’s personal to me to have a program our campus and city can be proud of,” he says. Rob Neep, Courtesy Sac State Communications

Patrick most recently was on Oklahoma’s staff. He expects his program to mirror football and be successful right away.

“This program has all the characteristics in place to compete for Big Sky championships,” Patrick said. “I’ve been around winning at every stop of my coaching journey, and that is the DNA I will instill in this program.”

The Hornets’ men’s basketball team opened this season winning three of its first four games. Sac State lost at No. 8 UCLA, but rebounded to win at UC San Diego and Denver. The Hornets then beat UC Merced in their home opener at The Nest, one of the nation’s oldest Division I college sports venues.

Orr is organizing support for an on-campus arena. “We are going to continue to try to get support and continue our fundraising efforts,” he said.

Sac State has completed a commissioned feasibility study for a multipurpose event center on campus, which is part of the university’s overall capital campaign plans, along with several academic and student life projects, Orr said. “We are currently seeking donor and corporate support for the event center, and we have received a significant amount of interest.”

The Hornets also are getting it done in the classroom.

“We have a cumulative GPA of above 3.0 for all of our teams. Our student-athletes graduate at a higher rate than regular students,” Orr said. “Our student-athletes are involved in community service and cleanup projects in our community. We are developing athletes, but we also are developing future leaders. That is a big priority.”

He noted that the 17,500 at Hornet Stadium for the victory over Idaho was a bigger crowd than the Kings’ announced attendance (14,618) that same night at Golden 1 Center.

“We want the alumni, students and the people of Sacramento to be proud of our teams,” Orr said. “For the longest time, we weren’t able to do that with our university. We hope we have instilled a sense of pride in our community. We want to get youth involved and see it as a place they can come to see games. We are reaching out to youths for future support, athletes and students. We’re changing the mindsets. We want to get folks to come to our campus and interact with our program.

“We are Sacramento. We have to embrace that and represent Sacramento. We’re excited and we’re enjoying it.”