Soldiers had returned from an overseas war. A pandemic that had killed millions was subsiding.
It was enough to convince Santa Barbara’s college president that it was finally time to play ball.
But this wasn’t the aftermath of Afghanistan or the coronavirus. It happened a century ago.
Athletics at Santa Barbara State Teachers College — the school that would become UC Santa Barbara a few decades later — arose from the ashes of World War I and the Spanish flu pandemic during the 1921-1922 school year.
COVID-19 may have forced UCSB to scrub its last three basketball games, including Thursday’s contest against Cal Poly, but the two Central Coast rivals were ready to rumble exactly 100 years ago this Friday. They tipped off inside a packed YMCA gym for the first intercollegiate basketball game ever played in Santa Barbara.
The stage had been set a few months earlier when school President Clarence Phelps appropriated $486 from his budget to field teams for football, basketball, baseball and track. Tennis would join the school’s roster two years later.
“Since the beginning of the war and until a recent time,” he was quoted as saying, “there has been practically no attention paid to athletics for the reason that there were too few men to make anything like a formidable contingent of huskies.”
Fumbling, Bumbling Start
They still looked more like mutts than huskies. The students who organized the college’s first football team outfitted themselves in hand-me-down, olive-and-white uniforms that had been donated by Santa Barbara High School.
They also had to talk local YMCA director J.C. Lewis to coach them. The Village People would’ve made an appropriate marching band for their ragtag showing in a practice game against Santa Barbara High’s second string. The backup Dons beat the borrowed pants right off the collegians, 14-0.
The Roadrunners, who’d named themselves after the skittish bird that swarmed their hillside campus, were outmatched even more when they played a pair of college teams. Wile E. Coyote should’ve scheduled them.
The Roadrunners were flattened into roadkill, 42-0, when they ventured to San Luis Obispo for their first real game on Nov. 5, 1921.
Santa Barbara’s morning newspaper remained hopeful about the following week’s game against Loyola.
“With the week of rest since their last game,” its article began, “the men have gotten over the lameness that hindered them in the game at San Luis Obispo and in the words of their captain, left guard Norval Fast, are ‘raring to go.’”
But roadblocks are difficult to avoid for any new program. An American Legion football game scheduled for that same day complicated matters. A newspaper story noted the school’s difficulty “in selling tickets for the game due to a confusion” about the contests.
The Roadrunners probably wished nobody had shown up. Loyola, one of the West Coast’s better collegiate teams at the time, pulverized them, 67-0, on Nov. 12 in the first college football game ever played in Santa Barbara.
The Shakespearean wannabe who covered the game turned brutally medieval in his newspaper report: “Loyola College yesterday defeated the pigskin tossers of the local State College in a four-act tragedy at Pershing Park.”
A Woman’s Touch
The school, anxious to turn the page to the next season, ran into another roadblock: It had no basketball coach. Lewis was handling his own team at the YMCA and, ironically enough, handed the Roadrunners their first defeat of the Santa Barbara City League season, 30-20.
The college yearbook La Cumbre later recalled the distress call that was sent up after the Roadrunners got punked by Santa Barbara High, 67-13.
“Things looked bad for basketball,” it reported, “until Miss Bradley of the Home Economics department agreed to serve as coach.”
Professor Alice Bradley, who had won the right to vote barely a year earlier, was the players’ choice to coach their first men’s basketball team. She broke the proverbial glass ceiling 56 years before management consultant Marilyn Loden had even coined the phrase.
The Bradley Bunch won its next four City League games. By the time the Roadrunners had drilled the Standard Oil team, Lewis was gushing about the crowds they were drawing at his YMCA gym.
“The games are proving unusually popular with the public and the spectators’ gallery is always full for the games,” he said. “They are the only ones played publicly in Santa Barbara and are free.”
Rallying the Roadrunners
It emboldened Santa Barbara State to charge a 20-cent admission for its first intercollegiate basketball game of Jan. 14, 1922. The morning newspaper even covered the pregame, campus rally. The opponent, after all, was their hated rival from SLO.
“Speeches by the various members of the team and school songs and yells were made to awaken enthusiasm for today’s struggle,” the article said.
Norval Fast, the football lineman, volunteered to serve as the basketball team’s student manager. He stirred up the rally by mentioning their gridiron defeat at Cal Poly.
“On November 5 last year, we sent a team to San Luis Obispo and they came back defeated by a score of 42 to 0!” he shouted into his megaphone. “This time we are going to do all that is humanly possible to pay back this old account!”
Sportswriters of that era constantly referred to the advantage of the “heavier” athlete. But coach Alice, a nationally renowned nutritionist, was way ahead of her time.
“Although outweighing the local team, San Luis Obispo discovered within the first five minutes of play that she was up against a hard opponent,” the newspaper reported. “San Luis played a fighting game, but weight failed to triumph over speed.”
The Roadrunners ran right past the Mustangs, 46-39. A reporter noted a vigilance so determined that Henry Minetti, the game’s leading scorer, played “against odds, suffering from a lame leg and a nosebleed incurred early in the game.”
But coach Alice, who won eight of the 11 games she coached in her only season, made sure it concluded with style and grace: She invited the players and rooters from their Ventura opponent to join them at a dance after the final game.
Marquette coach Al Maguire is credited with nicknaming the NCAA Basketball Tournament as “The Big Dance” during his run to the 1977 championship. It had been a tangible idea for coach Alice 55 years earlier.
Dismantling the Color Barrier
College athletics evolved quickly on Santa Barbara State’s Riviera campus. Otho Gilliland, a former star running back at Penn State, was hired to coach its teams beginning in the school year of 1923-1924.
The Roadrunners immediately avenged the shellacking they got from Loyola by blanking the Lions in their football season opener, 13-0. They also beat Cal Poly, 22-6, and finished the year with a 3-3 record.
Theodore “Spud” Harder brought more change in 1934 when he was hired to coach football. He convinced the school to trash its nickname, disparaging the roadrunner as a “spindly legged bird.” The student body, weary of having to side-step the foul droppings of the fowl creatures, jumped right aboard Harder’s bandwagon by arranging a referendum.
But more significantly, Harder and Willie Wilton, who took over as head basketball coach in 1937, were pioneers of social change in college athletics. Both were among the first of their profession to recruit black athletes.
Harder remained steadfast even when it resulted in the late cancellation of a football game at Texas Mines, the precursor of the University of Texas at El Paso. Its coach had informed him that Santa Barbara couldn’t play lineman Mel Dennis and end Larry Pickens because of their color.
“I asked him why,” Harder told me during an interview more than three decades ago. “The guy told me that they’d be run out of town. I said that if they couldn’t play, then we wouldn’t come.”
Harder was as victorious as he was virtuous. His 1936 team went 9-1, rallying to defeat New Mexico A&M — later renamed New Mexico State — in Christmas Day’s Sciot Bowl, 25-14.
Also in 1941, Wilton’s 22-10 basketball team advanced to the NAIA Final Four in Kansas City despite being stripped of its leading scorer. Missouri’s Jim Crow laws had barred its black center, Lowell Steward, from the court. Steward had told Wilton to not repeat Harder’s boycott, insisting that it was “the chance of a lifetime” for his teammates.
He watched the tournament from the arena’s rafters but didn’t take the discrimination sitting down. He graduated a year later to become a war hero, flying 143 combat missions over Europe as a fighter pilot with World War II’s famed Tuskegee Airmen.
From Money Woes to Beating Foes
The Gauchos have navigated their share of turbulence throughout their first century.
A lack of funding during the Great Depression forced them to pause baseball competition during the early 1930s.
Budgetary concerns also prompted them to drop football in 1971. A student-led resurrection put the Gauchos back in the saddle during the mid-1980s, but UCSB gave up the pigskin for good in 1991.
Wilton, however, initiated a string of successes on the basketball court that have continued for eight decades under coaches Art Gallon, Ralph Barkey, Jerry Pimm, Bob Williams and now Joe Pasternack with last season’s twirl in The Big Dance.
UCSB began making major inroads in women’s athletics in 1972 when coach Chris Accornero guided her women’s volleyball team to the first of three consecutive national Final Fours.
Volleyball Hall of Famer Kathy Gregory took that torch in 1975 and ran with it. She retired in 2012 as the fifth-winningest coach in NCAA women’s volleyball history with 882 victories. She was named AVCA National Coach of the Year in 1993 and took the Gauchos as high as No. 5 in the national rankings of 1997.
Gregory’s “devotion to women’s growth in the sport” was recognized in 1981 when she received the Salute to Women Award.
UCSB enjoyed immediate success when it signed up for NCAA women’s soccer in 1983. Carin Jennings-Gabarra, a winger from Palos Verdes High, arrived that same year. She wound up scoring 102 goals while winning All-America honors during each of her four years.
Jennings-Gabarra continued on to win MVP honors at the 1991 FIFA Women’s World Cup after leading Team USA to the gold medal. The dignitary who presented her the Golden Ball called her “the female Pelé,” and who would know better? He was Pelé.
Women’s basketball took a major leap of its own at UCSB with Mark French, a professorial coach who would challenge his players by lending them thought-provoking novels.
He won 438 games in 21 seasons — an average of nearly 21 per year. His 2004 team had a season for the history books, advancing to the NCAA Sweet 16 before losing to eventual champion Connecticut.
Men’s volleyball has come tantalizingly close, reaching the NCAA championship match five times with coaches Rudy Suwara (1971 and 1974), Gus Mee (1975), Ken Preston (1988) and Rick McLaughlin (2011). The Gauchos did win USVBA national crowns in 1969 and 1974.
A volunteer coach recently made one of the most tangible contributions in UCSB sports history. John Arnhold, who’s been helping with the Gaucho women’s tennis program for last several years, and his wife, Jody, donated $5.25 million to build a new campus tennis stadium.
A Gaucho was also at the center of two of the more compelling moments in sports history.
Michael Phelps would not have won his record-setting eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics if not for the unexpected heroics of Jason Lezak, a 1998 graduate of coach Gregg Wilson’s thriving UCSB program.
At age 32, Lezak was just trying to keep his head above water in a sport where age is an anchor. He was, in fact, the oldest swimmer on the U.S. Olympic Team.
Phelps’ heart sank as he watched the Americans flounder after his opening leg of the 4×100 meter freestyle relay. France had taken a 0.59-second lead by the time Alain Bernard — the world record holder in the 100 free — dove into his anchor leg.
“The Americans? We’re going to smash them,” Bernard had crowed during an interview before the race. “That’s what we came here for.”
Lezak did indeed trail Bernard by three-quarters of a body length when he followed him into the water. In the 100 free, a lead of that margin is as good as a mile. But 46.06 seconds later, the Gaucho out-touched the Frenchman at the wall with the fastest 100-meter split in history.
Sports Illustrated deemed it the greatest single performance of any American at the 2008 Olympic Games. The race has also been described as the greatest relay in swimming history. Lezak’s margin of victory, after all, had been a 0.08-second blink of the eye.
He will even watch its replay in disbelief.
“It doesn’t seem like it’s me, even after it happened and we won the gold medal,” Lezak said at age 36 while preparing to swim in London for his fourth Olympic Games.
Old Gauchos, after all, never die. They just keeping working for their seventh Olympic medal.
Coming Through in a Pinch
Coach Andrew Checketts had summoned the third-string catcher to pinch hit with the bases loaded during the bottom of the ninth inning of a game the Gauchos trailed 3-0.
It seemed to be the Gauchos’ destiny again with Cohen facing a pitcher who hurled 100-mph lightning bolts off the mound. The Chicago White Sox had made Louisville’s Zack Burdi their first-round draft pick just three days earlier.
But this David-vs.-Goliath moment was made into the stuff of Gaucho legend by a television clip that would be replayed for many days to come: It showed Cohen yanking a walk-off, grand-slam home run over the right-field fence … the Gaucho dugout erupting in a volcanic celebration … and Cohen’s mother, Lynda, struggling to see it all through the backstop screen and a flood of tears.
Checketts was so stunned that he had to count his players as they rounded the bases to make sure they had actually won.
He could’ve traced the starting point back 100 years. The college yearbook staff explained the significance of those humble beginnings when it included athletics in its 1922 edition.
“In one sense, athletics have not held a place of great importance during the past years,” the staff wrote. “We have not attained championships nor even victories; but when we compare athletics of the current year with athletics of the previous year, we felt that a place should be given it.
“This year we have organized athletics though under great difficulties, obstacles and handicaps. The athletic manager, the team captains and the men who have had the courage to come out and stick to it are to be congratulated; and we do congratulate them.
“We are behind them 100 percent strong, and with their pluck and our backing and pep, the season of 1922-23 will see not only great improvement, but something of real athletics.”
They’ve lived by those words now for 100 years and counting.
— Noozhawk sports columnist Mark Patton is a longtime local sports writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Noozhawk Sports on Twitter: @NoozhawkSports. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook. The opinions expressed are his own.