The temperature was an inescapable topic when John McCutcheon decided to make a mid-winter move from New England to Santa Barbara. McCutcheon, the director of athletics at the University of Massachusetts for the past 11 years, will become the boss of UCSB’s intercollegiate sports on March 2. He spoke to reporters in Amherst after the word got out in late January, explaining, “When the chancellor called me last night and made the offer, I said, ‘This really isn’t fair, when it’s going to be minus-6 here.’”
It will be a return to familiar surroundings for McCutcheon. Prior to taking the UMass job, he spent 12 years as athletics director at Cal Poly. At both schools, he had a reputation for seeing projects through — a baseball stadium at Cal Poly and a major football upgrade at UMass.
McCutcheon, 61, made an introductory visit to UCSB two weeks ago. Chancellor Henry Yang expressed confidence that he had the right man to promote excellence in athletics while respecting the academic standards of the school. “We are the cradle of Nobels,” Yang said proudly.
In a question-and-answer session with the media, McCutcheon projected ease and polish. He outlined three guiding tenets: “To give our student-athletes the best possible experience … to build winning programs … and to do it the right way.” He described his role as a facilitator who will strive to provide support and resources for the 20 Gaucho teams “and then stand back and let the coaches coach and let the players play.”
The big questions are temperature-related. How much fire will McCutcheon bring to this job, most likely the last of his career? Will he be able to warm up old and new donors needed to keep the Gauchos competitive on a national level? Will he help stoke up the enthusiasm for UCSB athletics that has been simmering on campus and in the community?
Although he said it is premature to get into specifics, McCutcheon did indicate his interest in improving facilities. There is a proposal to put lights in Caesar Uyesaka Stadium, home of the Gaucho baseball team. McCutcheon said half-jokingly that he was ready to sign up pledges on the spot. “That’s one of our priorities,” he said of the baseball program, which would start the 2015 season last weekend with a four-game sweep of Brigham Young. “We have a great coaching staff, a great team … Let’s make it as exciting a place to come as we possibly can.”
Likewise, he wants to bring more excitement for Gaucho basketball games at the Thunderdome, “whether that’s through the addition of video replays, things like that — physical improvements we can make in the facility, make it a more fun place to come and enjoy a game. It’s very competitive these days with what spectators can get right on their TV sets at home in high definition. We need to find a way to compete with that, so that when you come into the arena, you get a different experience than you can get at home.”
A key ingredient, he added, is “how the teams are doing on the court.” The Gaucho men’s team is in good position to make a run for one of the top seeds in the Big West Tournament, while the women are the only winless team (0-23) in NCAA Division I basketball. “We’re going to do all we can to support Bob [Williams] and the women’s program to be successful,” McCutcheon said, mentioning only the men’s coach by name. Carlene Mitchell’s future as women’s head coach will be an issue for him to deal with after he becomes the Gaucho sports boss in the last week of the regular season. “On the women’s side, I will say my concern right now is for those young ladies on the team,” McCutcheon said. “[Losing every game] isn’t a fun experience … It’s not something they want to go through; it isn’t for the coaches, either. My focus right now is to give them every kind of the support we can, so they deal with that, deal with academics, and deal with everything else they have going on in their lives until we get to the end of the season and go from there.”
TARK THE SPARK: The Thunderdome did not need a video board to stir up the crowd during the 10 seasons (1983-92) that Jerry Tarkanian dominated the Big West Conference with his UNLV Runnin’ Rebels. Too much of a rogue to fit in at a UC school, Tarkanian was a perfect fit in Las Vegas and a good friend to former UCSB coach Jerry Pimm. Because of UNLV’s national ranking, the Big West could count on one or two other teams being invited to the NCAA tournament. The Gauchos made it in 1988 and 1990.
Three of the five largest crowds in Thunderdome history — exceeding the official capacity of 6,000 — came through the doors when the Runnin’ Rebels were on the floor. Pimm’s Gauchos upset them three times, most memorably in 1990 by a score of 78-70. UNLV subsequently won the national championship (also known as the NCAA title, but not in Tarkanian’s dictionary) and put together a 45-game winning streak that ended at the 1991 Final Four.
I met Tarkanian early in his career at Vegas — before the school joined the Big West — when UCSB played in a December tournament known as the Rebel Roundup. With an impish smile on his face, Tarkanian regaled a gathering at a pre-tournament reception with stories about his players. His affection for them was apparent in his description of Lewis Brown, a 6’11” man-child.
“Lewis was from the next world,” Tarkanian said. “I never could figure him out. We had an assistant who took charge of Lewis and set up these goals for him. Lewis would pay attention, then go out and do the opposite. By January of that season, our assistant was a vegetable. If Lewis was a jerk, you might understand him. But he was a nice kid. He told me, ‘Coach, I like you. I’m gonna plant fruit trees in your backyard.’ I said, ‘Hell, I’ll plant the trees. Can’t you just play basketball?’”
Tark’s talent for getting young men from diverse backgrounds to play basketball together at a breathtaking pace earned him widespread respect. Jerry Tarkanian passed away last Wednesday, February 11. I expect that Dean Smith welcomed him through the pearly gates last week.
CIF PLAY-OFFS: It is an exciting time of year in high school sports. The CIF Southern Section winter play-offs begin this week. Can the Santa Barbara Dons live up to their high seedings in both the boys’ and girls’ basketball tournaments? Will the San Marcos boys be able to recover from the injuries that slowed them down late in the season? Will the Bishop Diego girls thrive against comparable small schools in the 5A division? Will the five home matches in boys’ soccer Friday — at Dos Pueblos, Santa Barbara, Carpinteria, Cate, and Laguna Blanca — be a springboard for one or more teams to make a long run? How far will the San Marcos Royals be able to carry the torch for local girls’ water polo?