For several decades in the 20th century, Santa Barbara was like the fictional town of Dillon, Texas. It could have been the setting for the TV series Friday Night Lights. The Santa Barbara Dons were a juggernaut in Southern California high school football. They had a domineering coach, Clarence Schutte, and a high-profile booster, Max Fleischmann. The town was predominately blue collar and turned out generations of rough-and-tumble boys whose dream was to be wearing the olive and gold at Peabody Stadium, the only place for the townspeople to be on autumn Friday nights.
When San Marcos High opened in 1959, the area was growing, and there was enough talent to go around. The Royals-Dons “Big Game” drove the city into a frenzy. Upward of 10,000 fans filled La Playa Stadium, and when the game was played at UCSB in the ’70s, attendance swelled to 16,000. Dos Pueblos High opened to accommodate the booming population in Goleta, and all three football teams thrived. Besides mixing it up with the Dons and Royals, the Chargers played their home games at UCSB and scheduled such powers as Mater Dei and
St. Paul. Meanwhile, the Carpinteria Warriors were a perennial power in the smaller-school ranks, and Bishop Diego also fielded strong teams.
How times have changed. Two years ago, Santa Barbara did not win a football game. Last season, San Marcos went winless. Dos Pueblos provided a bright spot, winning its first league championship since 1979, while Carpinteria and Bishop Diego also qualified for the CIF playoffs, but all three teams were ousted in the first round. Ventura County schools like Westlake and Oaks Christian have achieved the prominence Santa Barbara schools once had.
Football coaches point to the rise of club programs in other sports that demand a year-round commitment. “You’ve got baseball that plays all year round, basketball plays all year round, soccer plays all year round,” San Marcos athletic director Abe Jahadhmy said. “We used to have two or three baseball players on the football team. Last year, Dos Pueblos was the exception. They had athletes from other sports playing football. If we can get that back, we’d have more competitive teams. But that’s a hard sell these days.”
Schools with booming enrollments can still find a supply of football players, and some of them are turning football into a year-round deal. “Westlake has a seven-on-seven game every Saturday in the spring,” said Carpinteria athletic director Van Latham. “There are traveling seven-on-seven teams. Kids are being recruited, and they play all over the country during the summer.”
Rather than go that route, Santa Barbara’s football coaches would like to see athletes play multiple sports. “If you start letting the kids think they’re all going to be Division 1 players if they just stay in one sport, that’s all they know,” Dons coach Jaime Melgoza said. “That happened with my daughter in soccer, and by the time she was a senior, she was just so burnt out. Club, club, club … travel all year round … kick, kick, kick. It took a toll on her. If you’ve got an athlete who’s a Division 1 talent, he can play whatever he wants and be good at it, like a Roberto Nelson [who excelled in football while earning a basketball scholarship to Oregon State].”
Melgoza did say that “football’s a little different. You’ve got to love the game. It’s hard work. It’s not an easy sport to practice or coach. You’re playing every play. Every single down, offense, defense, special teams, everybody has a job. You’re going to be hit. You have to go all-out. If you sit back and take it, you’re going to get beat.”
Jeff Menzel was a San Marcos athlete who had a bright future in volleyball — he became an All-American at UCSB and is now off to play professionally in Spain — but in 2006, he decided to play football for the Royals as a wide receiver, and he is glad he did.
“I had always been a gym rat when I was young and was successful at pretty much every sport I tried, so football was just another challenge for me,” Menzel said. “I loved the large-team aspect of football. There are so many athletes on the field at once, you need them all to be on the same page in order to have a successful team. If one man made a mistake, it could cost the whole team the game, and the coaches knew that and demanded that perfection.
“The football mentality was perfect for me. I love the in-your-face, don’t-complain, put-your-head-down-and-work mentality,” Menzel continued. “I think that that kind of mentality was ultimately good for me as a person, but I know it’s hard for some coaches and players in the volleyball world to relate to. I had a great time playing football and don’t regret it at all. If anything, I regret not playing more. I think football builds a different aspect of character that more people should experience.”
Dos Pueblos coach Jeff Uyesaka said the character-building comes from “leaving it on the line to the point you’re totally exposed. In this age group, they can be macho with each other, they can have egos, but on the football field, they’re going to win, they’re going to lose, and they’re going to cry when they don’t realize why they’d be crying over a game because it means so much. It’s such an emotional collision sport that I think it becomes overwhelming for them. These guys are rubbing elbows and bleeding together, and it bonds them. I’m not saying it’s a better or worse thing, just a special kind of bond.”
The dangers inherent in the violence of football can scare people off. Dare Holdren, a former head coach at San Marcos who is helping out with the Royals this year, put it in perspective.
“There’s an element of risk in everything,” Holdren said. “More kids get hurt skateboarding or jumping off a rock at Red Rock than they would out here playing football. The majority of injuries aren’t serious. I can understand people taking that situation under consideration, but you only live once, and if you’ve never been on that field under those lights with those thousands of fans at the Big Game or against DP … there’s something to be said for taking the risk.”