Larry James’s fingerprints are on almost every diploma earned by UCSB intercollegiate athletes in the past 30 years. As the assistant athletics director for student services, James ushered athletes through the admissions process, linked them up with housing, monitored their academic progress, and frequently became their most trusted confidant on the campus.
It was all behind-the-scenes stuff, but late last month, James held the spotlight for an hour or so during his retirement party, and he was publicly and profusely praised for a job well done.
“I was like an ambassador for the program,” James said. “You’ve got 20 sports and 44 coaches. None of them can go to the admissions office. I have to take care of all their requests.” When a prospective athlete’s qualifications were questionable, James had to decide whether to go to bat for him or her.
“Larry’s casual and self-deprecating, but he’s not afraid to tell a coach, ‘No way,’” men’s soccer coach Tim Vom Steeg said. “Once he pushes an athlete through admission, he takes it personally. He’s their friend for four years and beyond. He’s one of the all-time great people I’ve worked with at UCSB.”
Vom Steeg’s recruitment of international players kept James busy dealing with the requirements of the university and the NCAA. Just this week, the Gauchos have added Ludwig Ahl, an outstanding Swedish player, to their roster.
David Campbell is learning the ropes as James’s successor. He was on the Gaucho men’s basketball staff for 12 years. “I can call a bunch of people because of the inroads Larry made,” Campbell said. “You have a late admit, the dorms are full — Larry knows who to call.” And James knew how to keep the fuss level at a minimum. “He might be the calmest individual I’ve been around,” Campbell said. “Larry had a nice temperament in dealing with coaches’ anxieties,” said Bill Villa, the retired director of admissions.
One of the success stories of James’s tenure was that of Paul Johnson, a highly sought basketball player out of Santa Barbara High in 1988. Gaucho assistant coach Ben Howland got Johnson to commit to UCSB, but his grade-point average was barely sufficient for special consideration, James said.
“I go into the admissions office with the transcript,” James said. “Ben’s outside waiting for me. I bring it to the analyst. I said, ‘Can you look at it and make absolutely sure that it’s okay?’” James attained the necessary approval. “Ben wiped the sweat off his brow,” James recalled. “It was like I saved his job.” Johnson became a key player on the Gaucho team that upset No. 1 UNLV in 1990. “Paul Johnson never went on academic probation,” James said. “He did his schoolwork every quarter, just like he played defense on the basketball court. He was a tenacious defender.” Johnson earned his degree and has pursued an entrepreneurial business career in Los Angeles.
“Larry had great relationships with the players from my era, guys like Mike Meyer, Carrick DeHart, and Idris Jones,” Howland said.
“Bill Villa trusted my instincts,” James said. “I wanted them in school because they needed an opportunity, not just because they were athletes.” James has a personal stake in providing educational opportunities. “I came from the segregated South, working in the fields,” he said. “If I didn’t have basketball skills, I wouldn’t have gotten to college.”
James grew up in Alabama, where he had to avoid certain restrooms and drinking fountains. The swimming pools were off-limits. “I still don’t know how to swim,” he said. But he learned how to play basketball and became a member of the Kentucky State Thorobreds, a team that won three consecutive NAIA championships. His teammate Travis Grant is the all-time leading scorer in college basketball. When the Lakers made Grant their No. 1 pick in the 1972 NBA Draft, James made the trip out west with him.
“Travis bought a brand-new Cadillac, but he didn’t know how to drive,” James said. “I did most of the driving across the country. Travis got the hang of it during the daytime, but I wouldn’t let him drive at night or on the freeways when we hit L.A.”
James gave some thought to professional basketball, but he was more attracted to the idea of continuing his education at UCSB, where his older brother was teaching black studies. He’d been to enough Lakers parties with Grant. “Travis said, ‘You don’t have to leave. I’ve got plenty of money.’ I said, ‘Travis, that’s your money; I’ve got to make my own.’”
James earned a master’s degree at UCSB and landed a job in the athletic department. He served under nine different athletics directors. His favorite was Al Negratti, the man who hired him in 1976. Negratti — who insisted on being addressed as “Dr. Negratti” — was an intimidating presence who wore dark glasses in a darkened office in Rob Gym. “Dr. Negratti was one tough Italian,” James said. “He was like a father to me. I was the only African American on the staff here for a long time. I felt kind of like a Lone Ranger. When somebody shows they care about you, it makes a big difference.”
In retirement, James said, “I’m not going anywhere. I’ve been in the same house for 40 years.” He and his wife, Beverly, have two grown daughters. They had a son, “Little Larry,” who ran into the street and was killed at age 3. “It was devastating,” James said. When innocent students died in the Isla Vista tragedy last spring, James engaged with their grieving schoolmates. “I was able to go there and provide some comfort,” he said.
James did leave an impression of his basketball ability at UCSB. For years, he dominated the recreational Noon League at Rob Gym. His fellow players named an award after him, along with this declaration: “At 6’3”, he could jam with either hand, his jump shot was sweetness itself, and his moves under the basket were unstoppable … A better player, more humble athlete, and truly respected individual was never experienced on the floor.”
MR. & MRS. SMITH: In the movie of that title, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are assassins hired to kill each other. In the 34th Santa Barbara Triathlon this weekend, Jason and Adrienne Smith will be trying to leave each other in the dust. “We’re in constant competition to say ‘I win,’” said Jason, who married Adrienne Hengels last year after they were Santa Barbara’s leading male and female finishers in the long-course triathlon. “We race to the restroom; we race through dinner; we race to bed. We race our cars on our way home from yoga.” The Smiths will line up together on East Beach at the 7 a.m. start of the triathlon on Saturday, August 23. The long course consists of a mile ocean swim, 34-mile bike ride, and 10-mile run.
The popular sprint triathlon on Sunday will include a 500-yard swim, 6-mile bike ride, and 2-mile run. Hollywood producer Randall Emmett, who did his first triathlon here last year, is sponsoring the sprint course. Emmett has befriended Luke McKenzie, a six-time champion of the famed Ironman, who will make an appearance here this weekend.
The designated charity this year is Girls Inc., which has trained 24 girls with no previous experience to participate in the parent-child sprint division. Triathlon director Joe Coito says late volunteers are welcome. Call 682-1634.
More like this story
For more sports, including a weekly highlight schedule, see independent.com/sports.