UC Santa Barbara has a now-you-see-it, now-you-don't, hold-on-there-it-is-again history when it comes to college football. Hang around for the latest installment of the Gauchos' sad-sack trilogy, because it might have a happy ending.
Part I--The Pre-Protest & Hippie Years
Santa Barbara, which began playing football in 1921, was a modest college division team for nearly 50 years. Over that period, it played in four bowl games, none of which you've ever heard of. The Gauchos whipped Willamette in the Potato Bowl, 46-7, in 1948. They lost in something called the Citricado Bowl against the San Diego Marines in 1956. They dropped the '64 Aztec Bowl to Mexico Poly and, the following year, they were beaten, 18-10, by Cal State Los Angeles in the Camellia Bowl.
Stay with us, it gets worse.
With their glossy tradition behind them, the Gauchos decided in 1970 to move up to the NCAA Division I level. That idea lasted all of two years. UCSB broke into the big time with a 2-9 record, then in a masochistic move upgraded its schedule more so that the first two games of '71 were at Washington and Tennessee. The Volunteers won, 48-6, while the Huskies and quarterback Sonny Sixkiller deep-sixed the Gauchos, 63-7, and, as it turned out, the entire program. After that dreary 3-8 season, the administration dumped football as an intercollegiate sport.
The problem, however, transcended athletics. Said one UCSB coach: "This was a politically aware campus. In '69, we had a kid get shot and a bank was burned down up here. Football was seen as part of the Establishment. It was physical and violent and military-like. It was seen as something that UCSB wasn't going to be anymore. Students weren't attending games, they were out sitting on the freeway."
Even though the administration blamed high operating costs for the program's demise, some said football was merely a scapegoat. "Hell, we made a lot of money by going to Tennessee and Washington," current assistant coach Steve Retzlaff says. "We got around $40,000 per appearance to get the crap kicked out of us. It's just that football was easy for them to get rid of."
Part II--The Post-Hippie Years
For 12 years, 17,000-seat Harder Stadium became a soccer field. The all-time low point and ultimate indignity for Santa Barbara football. The sport was completely gone and hardly spoken of--until two students, Brad Tisdale and Gary Rhodes, began a grass-roots movement to bring it back.
Part III--Football Revolution
With Vietnam pushed to the back of Santa Barbara's consciousness, Tisdale and Rhodes tried to bring intercollegiate football back by getting petitions signed and putting them to a student vote in 1983 and 1984. If the students agreed to pay a couple of extra bucks per quarter, the new program would fly. But both times, the initiative failed.
From 1983-85, Santa Barbara had a club team, made up of "just a bunch of guys who wanted to play football," said Tisdale. The Gauchos played schedules that included the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo JV team, a squad from Edwards Air Force Base and semi-pro teams--the Ventura County Americans, Southeast Los Angeles Bengals and the San Fernando Valley Freelancers. A game against Marines from San Diego was canceled because the Marines were sent to Lebanon.
"We called ourselves the Dirty 30," said Retzlaff, who played defensive tackle in '83 and '84 before becoming an assistant coach. "Some of the guys we had on our team probably weren't even enrolled in the school. Looking back, some of those players now are probably in jail somewhere."
There were growing pains. In 1984, the Gauchos played Azusa Pacific, an NAIA Division II school that featured running back Christian Okoye. Okoye, a 240-pound track-and-field athlete from Nigeria now with the Kansas City Chiefs, had never played organized football before. Against Santa Barbara, on his first-ever carry, the sprinter ran 76 yards for a touchdown. His next carry was a 45-yard touchdown run. Though he played just one quarter, Okoye rolled up 176 yards.
When the club team played the San Fernando Valley Freelancers, Retzlaff said the semi-pro players got off the bus smoking cigarettes, carrying cases of beer. "They were more concerned about their beer than us," he said. "But they looked like a bunch of criminals. We were kicking an extra point in that game, when one of their linebackers walked up to our center on the line and booted him in the head. When the ref jumped in to stop him, the guy punched the ref in the mouth. It was wild."
But the Gauchos won, 83-0. It was time to get serious about football again.
In 1985, the referendum to bring back football finally was passed by the students, who agreed to pay an extra $1.50 each quarter--handing the program $68,000 annually. Mike Warren, a successful coach at Lompoc High, was hired as head coach and by the 1986 season the Gauchos, after 15 years, were playing college football again--this time in Division III.
Against mostly Division II and III teams, they were 4-5 last year, including a 17-14 win over Okoye and Azusa Pacific.
Stay with us, it gets better.
This year, Santa Barbara has a 6-2 record with wins over Azusa Pacific (34-7), Claremont-Mudd (17-13), Redlands (35-14), La Verne (35-12), Pomona-Pitzer (55-0) and St. Mary's (16-13).
Coaches and administrators say the win over St. Mary's, a Division II school that grants about 20 scholarships, is a high point for UCSB, which grants none. "And if we beat Cal Lutheran, that will be our best win ever," said Warren. The teams play today at 1:30 p.m. at Harder Stadium.
Troubled past aside, the Gauchos' born-again program is getting better, growing faster than anyone imagined. Some Division III teams are even begging off the Santa Barbara schedule, which has resulted in UCSB turning to Division II teams. The 1988 schedule includes five Division II schools: Cal State Hayward, Chico State, Sonoma State, St. Mary's and Humboldt State.
Opinions vary, even in the school's athletic department, in regard to where the program is headed. Some say the Gauchos, who have been drawing crowds of about 3,000, are bound for the Northern California Athletic Conference, a nonscholarship Division II league that includes UC Davis. Others say the NCAC schools are too far away, that the Western Football Conference is the best option.
Said Retzlaff: "The WFC wrote us a letter just the other day, asking if we could see ourselves there. We should be in a conference that suits us best geographically. That would be the WFC."
But Warren disagreed, saying: "We would be foolish to join any scholarship conference. Davis has been good over the years, but it'd be interesting to see if they could beat WFC teams week after week."
According to Athletic Director Stan Morrison, a former USC basketball coach, there is still another alternative. "There is a strong move nationally among some Division I schools who want to play football to cut back their programs. There might be a Division I-AAA created. A lot of schools want to play football on a different level. That way we could keep it at that level and still provide the football experience."
Because UCSB is Division I in 20 other sports and has an enrollment of 18,000, Division III schools voted against allowing the Gauchos to play for the Division III national football championship.
As for the WFC and NCAC, Morrison said, "It's possible."
Already, Santa Barbara measures itself against schools such as UC Davis and Cal Lutheran, not Redlands or Pomona-Pitzer. Coaches specifically point toward Davis in discussing immediate goals.
"They've won the NCAC for 16 straight years," Warren said. "And it all began for them after we dropped football and they got all our guys. Now we're getting some of them back."
Two years ago, Warren began a comprehensive recruiting program, contacting 1,000 prospective athletes, 700 of whom visited the campus, Warren said.
"We're going after the best athletes available," he said. "If we don't get them because they're offered a scholarship, fine. But there's a fine line between those athletes who do get scholarships and those who don't. A lot of people would be amazed at the number of kids who come see our campus. There are a lot of blue-chippers whose parents can afford to pay for college."
Warren added that the program has benefited mightily from scholarship athletes at Division I schools who discovered that being on scholarship is like having a job. "There's a lot of pressure in those programs," he said.
The coach listed three such current players who "could play anywhere": linebacker Klaus Leitenbauer, a transfer from Air Force; Sean Russell, a receiver from San Diego State; and Tim Lorenz, a defensive tackle who transferred from Hawaii.
Indeed, it looks as if the saga of Santa Barbara could have a happy--instead of a hapless--ending after all.
Certainly, by Retzlaff's way of thinking. "I can't imagine a place that's more fun than this," he said. "We tell recruits that they can sit out in Davis, which is, well, Davis, or they could be here in the sun, on the beach, with all the pretty girls.
"This is just a great place."
Maybe even for a football player.