Santa Barbara High School coach J.T. Stone, shown celebrating a CIF playoff win with his “Golden Tornado” football team, will begin his 10th and final season with the team when it plays host to North Torrance at Peabody Stadium on Friday. (Gary Kim / Noozhawk photo)
Mark Patton

Abel Renteria proved adept at sensing the blitz last year as Santa Barbara High School’s elusive, sophomore quarterback.

He got blind-sided this season, however, before he could even take the field for Friday’s home opener against North Torrance.

Dons coach J.T. Stone, Renteria’s mentor ever since he was just 7 years old, announced that he would be skipping town after this season.

“He brought us all into the weight room to tell us,” Renteria told Noozhawk. “That was the last thing anyone was expecting. We thought we were just going to have a normal conversation about something.

“But he got all emotional. It took him a while to even figure out how to say it. He started off by saying that he was going to be relocating to North Carolina. My jaw dropped … and my mouth stayed open for about 10 minutes.

“It was the most surprising news that I’ve gotten in a long, long time.”

It was already developing into a football season of change.

The Channel League has been reformed into a larger conference with the Dons, Dos Pueblos and San Marcos paired up with six Ventura County schools: Buena, Channel Islands, Oxnard, Pacifica, Rio Mesa and Ventura.

Bishop Diego has moved to the elite Marmonte League from the Camino League. Cabrillo, Lompoc and Santa Ynez, meanwhile, completed the exodus of northern Santa Barbara County schools to the CIF’s Central Section.

But the news of Stone’s move sent shock waves even beyond Santa Barbara High’s Peabody Stadium.

Seeing the Big Picture

Over the last two decades, nobody had invested more into developing football talent throughout the South Coast than Stone. He started his Big Picture Athletics Training Program “for the youth of the 805” area code not long after completing his own career as a record-setting quarterback at both Dos Pueblos High and Santa Barbara City College.

“It starts with the youth,” he said. “If you can do as much as you can to provide opportunities for them, and put them into a position to be coached the right way, you’re going to get a better kid by the time he gets to high school.”

When Stone took over as Santa Barbara High’s head coach in 2013, sophomore Brent Peus became the first of his four Big Picture quarterbacks to earn All-Channel League honors. Stanford wound up recruiting Peus as a preferred walk-on.

“I had a couple of other guys before Brent, too,” Stone said. “At Righetti I had T.J. Jordan and Justin Level, who went on to Idaho State.

“I had Paul Avila at St. Joe, and Curry Parham for a little bit there, too. I’ve had my hand in developing a couple of kids in the area who are now coordinating at their old high schools. It’s pretty cool to see that.”

Kai Puailoa-Rojas, another one of Stone’s pupils, starred as a quarterback at Ventura’s St. Bonaventure High. He’s now competing for a starting spot at the U.S. Naval Academy as a slotback.

Peus led a parade of Stone’s protégés to Santa Barbara High. He was followed by Frank Gamberdella, who’s now a senior quarterback at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut, and Deacon Hill, a redshirt freshman at Wisconsin.

“He’s all about all of us — all of us players — making sure we’re all good in life and good in school, and especially good in football,” Hill said. “He just brings that passion. It’s like a father-figure type of passion.

“He brings that to the table, and you start gravitating toward him.”

Like Father, Like Son

Abel Renteria augmented his passing prowess by rushing for 484 yards and 12 touchdowns last year for the Santa Barbara High football team.

Abel Renteria augmented his passing prowess by rushing for 484 yards and 12 touchdowns last year for the Santa Barbara High football team. (Gary Kim / Noozhawk file photo)

Poncho Renteria, the All-CIF Southern Section quarterback on Santa Barbara High’s Division 2 co-championship team of 1989, signed his son up for Stone’s Big Picture Training Program nearly a decade ago.

“My dad had coached with him and knew he was the real deal,” the younger Renteria said. “He turned out to be the perfect coach for me.”

Renteria made few mistakes last year while leading Santa Barbara to an 8-4 record and the CIF-SS Division 6 quarterfinals. He completed 67.3% of his passes (107-for-159) for 1,499 yards, 19 touchdowns and only two interceptions. He also ran for 484 yards and 12 additional scores.

“He had everything to do with getting me ready to start as a sophomore,” Renteria said of Stone. “The plays we run are the same I learned when I was younger. I just kept getting better at them throughout the years.

“He was also good at explaining stuff to me. He made it easier to understand than most coaches would.”

Stone also made it easy for Renteria and his teammates to understand his decision to leave. As a special education teacher and football coach, he would never be able to buy a home for his family in Santa Barbara’s ultra-expensive real estate market.

His youngest brother, Julyan “Ju Ju” Stone, owns a home in the Charlotte area. He spent four seasons in the NBA, most recently in 2018 with the Charlotte Hornets, before continuing his basketball career in Italy.

“Coach told us that he needs to be a good dad now and focus on his family,” Renteria said. “He said that he’s eventually going to find a coaching job over there.

“I’m happy for coach Stone. He has his own life and family. As much as it’s going to hurt us here, it’s good for him. We’ll figure out a way.”

Stone said his son, Devin, will play basketball for the Dons this winter and graduate with his senior class in the spring. His two daughters, however — sophomore Elle and freshman Jazmeen — are set to enroll this fall at Mallard Creek High in Charlotte. Both have already received recruiting interest from NCAA Division 1 basketball coaches.

“He told us that he needed to get them ready for the world,” Renteria said.

A Rock-Solid Stone

It does pain Stone to leave a Dons family that he returned to prominence. Santa Barbara hadn’t won a CIF playoff game for 30 years until he guided it to the Division 8 final in 2019.

The Dons, who change their moniker to “Golden Tornado” whenever they make the playoffs, have enjoyed that name-changing experience in each of the last three full seasons and in four of the last five.

J.T. Stone, a former record-setting quarterback at both Dos Pueblos High and Santa Barbara City College, will begin his 10th and final season as head football coach at Santa Barbara High this week.

J.T. Stone, a former record-setting quarterback at both Dos Pueblos High and Santa Barbara City College, will begin his 10th and final season as head football coach at Santa Barbara High this week. (Gary Kim / Noozhawk)

Stone’s win-loss record of 52-41 is the best of any Santa Barbara coach since the 20th-century dynasties of Clarence Schutte, Sam Cathcart, Mike Moropoulos and Lito Garcia.

“Our focus was to build a program,” he said during the Golden Tornado’s whirlwind season of 2019. “I don’t want a football team. I want to build a program. That’s the ultimate goal.”

He became its foundation instead of the rolling Stone that had marked his youth. His parents, Janet and David Stone, met while serving in the U.S. Air Force. J.T. was born while they were stationed in Germany.

“We moved to Lompoc, Virginia, Pittsburgh, Maryland,” Stone recalled. “We were all over the place until they finally came back to California and made a home in Santa Barbara for me and my brothers.

“I was in seventh grade at the time. I went to Goleta Valley Junior High and then Dos Pueblos High, and I had some wonderful teachers there. This became a special place for me.”

Santa Barbara High wasn’t the first football program that Stone resurrected. School district officials nearly shuttered Dos Pueblos in 1990 because of declining enrollment. The school’s football program suffered through that with three straight 1-9 seasons until the arrival of the tall, lean Air Force brat.

Passing on the Passion

Stone gets wistful whenever he recalls the mentorship he received at DP from head coach Jeff Hesselmeyer and athletic director Scott O’Leary. Both died at relatively young ages — O’Leary in 2003 and Hesselmeyer in 2011.

“I’d come here from Back East, but Coach Hess embraced what I had and opened up so many doors for me,” he said. “The way Coach O and Coach Hess took me in …”

He paused a moment before adding, “It wasn’t just in football. They were life coaches who helped me to understand what it is to have passion for these kids.”

Stone broke the Santa Barbara County passing record for a regular season by throwing for 2,479 yards during the fall of 1994.

“That got the ball rolling,” he said. “From there, we turned it over to Anthony Ramos, and then my brother, Jason, and the Brunner brothers. Suddenly, DP football was on the map.”

Stone helped to pass the torch to Shane Lopes after returning to DP as a coach. Nobody was happier when Lopes broke his county passing record and led DP to the 2001 CIF-SS Division IV finals. Lopes later became the head football coach at Laguna Blanca School and is now the head of its middle school.

“I coached Shane as a freshman, and it’s crazy,” Stone said “Shane is a great human being. I just love when I get to see him — this little freshman now a grown man, and successful. It’s pretty cool to see where he is today.”

He thinks his 10th and final football season at Santa Barbara High could be his best. His quarterback plans to make that happen.

“We have a lot of talent everywhere on the field, and we have a lot of back-up, too,” Renteria said. “We have a lot of people who know how to play football. The big question mark was the line, but I’ve seen a lot of improvement over these last couple of weeks.”

The Dons even made a quick recovery from Stone’s shocking announcement.

“The next practice, we were ready to go,” Renteria said. “I feel like we’re kind of lucky to be the last team he coaches here. We feel honored about that.

“And we know we have a purpose for this season. It’s to send him out with a bang.”

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.

Mark Patton

Mark Patton, Noozhawk Sports Columnist

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