Mike Warren
Former UC Santa Barbara linebacker Mike Warren brought plenty of spirit to Gaucho football during his four seasons as its head coach. He returned to UCSB as coach of its club program in 1985 and continued for three more seasons after it was elevated to intercollegiate status in 1986. (UCSB Athletics photo)
Mark Patton

Mike Warren was an undersized linebacker with supersized grit.

UC Santa Barbara listed him as 5-foot-10 and 200 pounds when he played football for the Gauchos during the mid-1960s. The measurements were probably a stretch on both accounts.

His heart, however, had been steeled for tackling the biggest tasks.

It defined all 76 years of his life, which reached its end zone with his sudden death on Jan. 23. His family plans a celebration of life once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.

Warren, a blocking back for Glendale High’s Class of 1963, was told by doctors to give up football after he injured his back as a UCSB freshman. He ignored their advice and rehabilitated his body during the next two years.

“I went to all the games,” he would recall a few decades later. “I watched the Camellia Bowl on TV, with my heart in my throat.”

He turned 21 the following year, in 1966 — old enough to sign the medical waiver that would relieve UCSB of its liability and thrust Warren back into harm’s way. It was the ultimate display of backbone.

He explained his risky choice this way:

“A lot of things changed for me when I went to college. I had two wonderful sisters but no brothers. But all of a sudden I had a whole bunch of brothers — fraternity brothers and teammates who’ve remained close to me ever since the fall of 1963.”

Shrine Game All-Star

Jack Curtice, an old-school Kentuckian in the swan song of a distinguished coaching career, took a shine to his plucky Gaucho. He started him as a junior and made him a co-captain as a senior.

Mike Warren

Mike Warren, a successful football coach and athletic director at several South Coast high schools and colleges, also was a longtime board member of the Santa Barbara Athletic Round Table. (Noozhawk file photo)

“Coach Curtice took me under his wing,” Warren said. “It was so much fun playing for him. We traveled first-class and were really on the move upward.”

The undersized linebacker came up big for the old coach, earning selection to the 1967 Shrine College All-Star Game.

Curtice also picked him as the perfect candidate to take his coaching torch. His recommendation got Warren a summer internship at the Goleta Boys & Girls Club, and then successive stints on the football staffs at Santa Barbara City College and Glendale’s Hoover High.

Warren, a history major at UCSB, prepped for a career in education by earning a master’s degree in education and administrative services at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.

From Carpinteria to Lompoc

He got his first head coaching job at Carpinteria High School in the fall of 1971. He went 33-7 in four years with the Warriors and then 94-28-3 during 10 more seasons at Lompoc High.

The hand of Curtice, renowned nationally as “Mr. Forward Pass” for his innovations in the passing game, continued to guide Warren in many ways.

“I think I used the shovel pass that coach Curtice invented in every game I coached,” he said.

Warren took Lompoc to eight league championships and four straight appearances in the CIF-Southern Section finals, from 1977 to 1980.

But he was also mentored by Curtice to value sportsmanship and character above all else. It left him unafraid to risk success in pursuit of those purposes.

No player was ever more affected by that than Sheldon Canley, his star running back in the early 1980s.

“One day in my junior year, I came strolling into practice about 15 minutes late on a Tuesday,” Canley said. “I forget why, but here I come, and coach Warren runs right up to me and says, ‘Canley, you’re not starting Friday night.’

“And I said ‘OK’ and went on into practice.

“Come Friday night, I put my helmet on, getting ready to go out there. And coach Warren says, ‘Take that helmet off.’

“And I thought, ‘Whoa … He was serious’.”

Canley — whose son, Sheldon Jr., acquitted himself well as Lompoc’s latest great running back — recalled that life lesson when he was inducted into San José State’s Spartan Sports Hall of Fame in 2010.

“I’m 42,” he said, “and to this day, I’ve never again been late to anything.”

Getting Kids Onboard

I once asked Warren to list his greatest achievement. I thought he’d mention one of those CIF finalist seasons. His answer, however, was more simple and altruistic: “Just getting the kids through the school door.”

“All kids want to be on a team, whether it’s your team or the one across the street that’s running down the alleys, spraying graffiti,” he explained. “That’s a team, too, and you’re in competition with them.

“You better do everything you can to get them through your door.”

Warren was 40 when he tackled another herculean task: He left the high school dynasty that he’d built at Lompoc to become the head coach of a fledgling club football program at UCSB in 1985. He was given a salary of just $10,000 and no guarantee that the university, which originally dropped football in 1971, would ever upgrade the sport again to intercollegiate status.

Athletic director Ken Droscher laughed when asked about the paltry pay and Warren’s 50-mile commute.

“That will just about cover his speeding tickets,” he said.

Warren saw a bigger opportunity.

“There’s a segment of people who think I’m nuts,” he conceded, “but I wouldn’t have taken the job if I didn’t feel UCSB would eventually have an intercollegiate program.

“I haven’t talked to the chancellor. It’s just that I have convinced myself that this is a great opportunity and that UCSB is going to become a successful intercollegiate program in the near future.”

Faith, after all, is the engine that drives an undersized linebacker.

Leading a Gaucho Revival

UCSB, energized by Curtice’s protégé, did indeed rejoin the world of NCAA football in the fall of 1986.

Bill Mahoney, who retired last summer as UCSB’s assistant athletic director for media relations, said Warren turned his coaching and support staff into the type of fraternity that the old linebacker had treasured during his playing days.

“I remember how much fun it was on those bus rides up to places like Humboldt State,” Mahoney said. “Mike always made you feel part of the team, and not every coach does that.”

The football staff swelled with willing volunteers. It grew so large that Warren, over Mahoney’s objection, talked athletic director Stan Morrison into letting them take over the press box booth reserved for visiting radio.

“I was beside myself, and Mike and I actually got into it,” Mahoney recalled. “But on the next Monday or Tuesday, he sheepishly climbed the stairs of the trailer where we worked, peeked around the corner, and said, ‘Can we kiss and make up?’

“To be honest, I loved Mike. I mean that sincerely. He was a genuinely good, good, good man.”

But what effectively ended Warren’s Gaucho coaching career was that he was also a good husband to wife Nancy, and father to Kevin and Jennifer. He stepped down after UCSB’s 8-2 season of 1988.

“Little did I know that the job would be 20 hours a day,” he said. “I was certainly in Santa Barbara a lot more than in Lompoc.

“When I’d get home, everybody would all be asleep. And when I’d get up to shower and shave and leave for work, they’d still all be in bed. That got old after four years.”

A Family Affair

Warren handed his coaching whistle to Rick Candaele and returned to Lompoc High as its athletic director. He was rewarded with the thrill of watching his son star in three sports for the Braves.

Warren was still getting chills nearly two decades after Kevin’s running catch in deep centerfield at Anaheim Stadium helped Lompoc win the 1993 CIF-Southern Section Division 2 Baseball Championship.

“The best part was that, with the exception of two basketball games in a tournament down south, I saw every one of Kevin’s games that year,” Warren said. “That was such a terrific experience.”

Mike and Nancy eventually moved to Goleta. He ran a training program at Computer Motion Inc., then served as executive director at Elings Park.

Warren’s athletic career came full circle when he was hired in 2006 as both the A.D. and associate dean of educational programs at SBCC, the school where he’d taken his first football coaching job.

He retired in 2010 but never strayed far from athletics, cheering on his six grandchildren. His long-time buddy, former UCSB athletic director Gary Cunningham, also got him to join the board of the Santa Barbara Athletic Round Table.

“We were like brothers who did lots of things together,” Cunningham said.

Warren, above all, loved the fraternity that athletics often gathers. He would even help fill the room at the Athletic Round Table’s weekly press luncheons by bringing cookies and raffling them off to the student-athletes in attendance.

“All kids want to be on a team,” he’d say, repeating his anti-gang mantra of seasons gone past. “You’d better do everything you can to get them through your door.”

Noozhawk sports columnist Mark Patton is a longtime local sports writer. Contact him at sports@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk Sports on Twitter: @NoozhawkSports. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook. The opinions expressed are his own.

Noozhawk sports columnist Mark Patton is a longtime local sports writer. Contact him at sports@noozhawk.com. The opinions expressed are his own.