Rusty Fairly reflexively raised his hand when prompted to share a high five. But when his hand met yours, he clasped it in a firm grip. You could feel the innate strength of a man who was a college football and baseball star, who moved to Santa Barbara to become a football assistant coach at UCSB, who dabbled in everything from soccer to volleyball as a P.E. teacher, and who was a fiery head baseball coach at Santa Barbara City College for 17 years.
Steve Fairly brought his father back to SBCC last Saturday. Seated in a wheelchair at the top of La Playa Stadium, Rusty waved at the Vaquero football team that had taken a 23-0 halftime lead over L.A. Pierce College. The players saluted him back with a tip of their helmets. It was just as Steve had intended. He pulled his father out of an Alzheimer’s care facility for a few hours, out into the brightness of a breezy fall day, so he could be surrounded by people who loved and appreciated him.
There was a more intimate gathering after the stadium appearance — about a dozen former Vaquero baseball players had an early dinner with their old coach. He guided SBCC to a 255-160 record (.614 winning percentage) from 1965 to 1981. They won the Western State Conference title in 1972.
Gary Woods, who made it to the major leagues, was there, along with his brother, Clancy Woods. There was a contingent who came from Lompoc to play for Fairly — Leroy Grossini, John Lizarraga, and Dave Aragon among them. There was Dave Fredrickson, a catcher like his coach. Fairly smiled pleasantly as they recalled what a red-headed firebrand he was.
“One time he smashed all our bats. We had to borrow bats from Ventura to finish the game.”
“At L.A. Valley, Rusty got tossed in the third inning. A van appeared behind a fence near the on-deck circle. Rusty was in there sending out signals.”
“He was passionate. He had that fire inside him all the time.”
Fairly has been inducted into the Santa Barbara Athletic Round Table as a coach, and he’s also in the halls of fame at Long Beach City College and the University of Denver. He did it all for Denver’s Pioneers in their 1954 Sun Bowl championship season — quarterback, defensive back (he led the nation in interceptions), punter and placekicker. He was nicknamed “the Mad Magician.” Denver scored a 28-20 victory over Utah, then coached by “Cactus” Jack Curtice, who later had Fairly on his staff at UCSB.
Steve Fairly related a source of his father’s athletic ability: “He grew up on a chicken ranch. He said, ‘Those damn roosters will kill you. When I went out to feed the chickens, I had to run for my life.’”
Rusty Fairly devoted himself to community service after his career in sports. He was elected to the Santa Barbara City Council. His political strength resided in his openness and friendliness. He was a member of the coffee party. He liked to meet with people early in the morning at Mel’s Cocktail Lounge. It served his inclination for thrift. The coffee was free.
Alzheimer’s has taken a toll on some of the most vital people I’ve ever known. Dave Gorrie, a UCSB Hall of Famer as an all-around athlete and baseball coach, is in a memory-care facility in Texas. Yet as they fade away, these men’s inspiration to others remains strong.
MAGIC SHOW: Roaming up the aisles of the Arlington Theatre as assuredly as he once led the Lakers’ fast break at the Forum, Magic Johnson gave a commanding performance last Friday in his lecture titled The Magic of Winning. Addressing the audience as “young people,” he stressed the importance of practice. Before the 1986-87 season, he had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar teach him the sky-hook, and it was his “junior sky-hook” that beat the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals.
Johnson applied the same diligence to his business ventures, making Starbucks profitable in the inner city by substituting sweet potato pie for scones and beefing up the concessions at his movie theaters because his people don’t do dinner and a movie; they do dinner at the movies.
Asked to pick an all-time NBA team, he started with himself, joined by Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Abdul-Jabbar, Tim Duncan, and Kobe Bryant as the sixth man.
Magic said Bryant may have surpassed his five championship rings but for his parting with Shaquille O’Neil. “I’m still mad at Shaq,” he said. “Can you imagine if those two stayed together? You’re splitting up because of a disagreement of whose team it is? Are you serious?”
Even though new Lakers coach Byron Scott was his teammate, Magic called the Lakers’ failure to bring back Phil Jackson “a critical mistake. We blew that. He doesn’t belong in New York.”
As a team owner, Johnson is more involved with the Dodgers now. He expressed confidence that the wrangling over TV money will be resolved next season, and their telecasts will return to homes throughout the Southland. If that doesn’t happen, we ought to bring Magic back. He’ll have some ’splainin’ to do.
GAUCHO COMEBACK: Cal Poly had UCSB on the ropes — a 2-0 lead in the second half and Wade Hamilton, the Big West’s top goalkeeper, crouching between the pipes, as imposing as Madison Bumgarner on the mound. It looked as if most in the crowd of 14,345 at Harder Stadium, second-largest on-campus crowd in NCAA soccer history, were in for a huge disappointment. The Gauchos moved the ball skillfully but couldn’t get a finishing touch … until Ludwig Ahl made it 2-1 with a well-timed connection in front of the goal … and then Nick DePuy tied it up, flicking the ball over the goalie after a brilliant pass from Axel Mendez. Hamilton withstood a sustained barrage in overtime, but the 2-2 draw felt like a UCSB victory. The teams will meet again on the Mustangs’ turf at San Luis Obispo on Sunday.