Standing in front of his uniformed Santa Barbara High School junior varsity baseball team, longtime coach Bill Oliphant thanked the school Tuesday for allowing him to first begin coaching decades ago as well as for his latest opportunity — becoming the namesake of the field used for team practices.
The field, which sits adjacent to the Santa Barbara Junior High campus, is used by the Dons for practice, and now will be called Oliphant Field. Dozens of Dons — past and present — gathered on the field Tuesday to support and celebrate their coach.
The Santa Barbara school board approved naming the field after the coach last fall, and signage declaring the space "Oliphant Field" has been installed on the backstop.
Santa Barbara High School Principal John Becchio recalled teaching P.E. on the field earlier in his career and seeing Oliphant working with the kids he coached.
He said varsity coaches Fred and Donny Warrecker and George Rempe all benefit from players who leave the junior varsity team and Oliphant's tutelage equipped with baseball fundamentals.
"Bill is taking on the young kids and giving them what they need to get to the varsity level," he said.
Fred Warrecker recalled growing up with Oliphant on Santa Barbara's Westside, and when Warrecker began pitching for the Santa Barbara Foresters, a college summer baseball team, Oliphant was always hanging around the field as a 12- or 13-year-old, catching balls in the bullpen.
Warrecker recalled close games and rivalries playing out on the field, and the ups and downs of coaching for which Oliphant was there.
Former player Colin Eaton recalled the first time Oliphant asked him if he wanted to catch during a game, a chance to play in a position that helped him gain confidence on the field and in other areas of his life, too.
It was "a magic time" before the closing of Laguna Park, the Depression-era park that formerly sat at Garden and Cota streets and where many of his Little League games were played. He also recalled watching the Foresters practice there.
Oliphant went on to Santa Barbara High School, where he played basketball and baseball before graduating in 1964.
Despite a "congenital lack of talent" and weighing 94 pounds when he arrived at Santa Barbara High School, athletics became a part of Oliphant's life, and later, coaching.
He graduated from Santa Barbara City College and served in the U.S. Army. While he was there, he learned that several friends he had played with in Santa Barbara's peewee leagues were killed in Vietnam.
After returning to Santa Barbara, Oliphant began teaching special education at La Cumbre Junior High, coaching basketball and basketball for several years, and recalled the excitement of being hired by Santa Barbara High School as a coach.
Oliphant had been teaching for 35 years when the district offered him an early retirement in 2008, but allowed him to continue coaching.
Before Oliphant spoke, Superintendent David Cash officially announced the name of the new field to applause.
"Every great teacher is also a coach," he said. "The educators amongst us understand that, not only has he been a great coach but a great teacher, influencing lives inside and outside the classroom."