Bob Williams professes a “What, me worry?” attitude about his uncertain future as UCSB’s head basketball coach, but he was visibly anxious during the final minute of what may have been his last game at the Thunderdome. He had removed his jacket and was pacing in front of the bench, shuttling players in and out of the lineup, agonizing over a foul here and a turnover there, even though the Gauchos held an 11-point lead over UC Riverside last Thursday night.
“I’d sweat if it was a 30-point lead,” Williams said. “Our guards are loose with the ball … and we’re not making free throws.”
The lead was reduced to nine, then to seven, then to five … until, finally, a pass-and-dunk between freshmen Max Heidegger and Christian Terrell put a cap on UCSB’s 68-61 victory. It was a sweet ending for guard Eric Childress, the only senior on the team, who hit five three-pointers in the first half and scored a career-high 21 points.
It also prevented the Gauchos from adding to the most losses in a season in the history of the men’s basketball program. They are 5-21, and they play their last two regular-season games on the road — where they are winless — against Cal State Fullerton and Cal Poly.
Williams has been coaching the Gauchos for 19 seasons, making him the longest-tenured NCAA Division I coach west of Tom Izzo at Michigan State. His 312-259 record puts him 90 wins ahead of the previous winningest Gaucho coach, Jerry Pimm (222-202 in 15 seasons), and he has 501 victories in his overall career (counting his records at Menlo College and UC Davis).
Although Williams has had only three other losing seasons at UCSB, it does not bode well for a coach to hit rock bottom, even at a school where coaching turnovers are rare. Pimm had some spectacular successes, including an NCAA tournament win, but he was out after his fourth straight losing season, 7-19, in 1997-98.
“A season like this is never acceptable,” Williams said in an interview last week. Winning games is part of his job, for which he’s paid in excess of $300,000 a year, a modest amount among his peers in the business but generous in terms of UCSB’s payroll. “If basketball coaches across the country make more money than English professors, it’s a different kind of job,” he said. “Professors aren’t out recruiting their students, and if that student flunks the English class, there aren’t headlines about what a crummy job they did. They take no responsibility if the kid flunks that class. With four or five wins, we’re flunking. That’s headlines.”
Williams also said he was responsible “to bring in people that represent the university well and to make sure they make academic progress — this year we’re a failure on that.” Three Gaucho players, including their two most productive big men, became ineligible because of academic deficiencies in December. “That’s absolutely on me,” said the coach.
In other matters — “helping kids grow up, coaching character, trying to give them life lessons, making them better human beings at the end” — Williams feels that he and his coaching staff have achieved success.
A season-ending injury to leading scorer Gabe Vincent further depleted the Gauchos early in February. They scrapped to wins over Hawai’i and Riverside despite playing patched-together lineups of inexperienced freshmen and sophomores.
“I’m not judging on wins and losses; I’m judging on effort,” observed Gary Cunningham, who was UCSB’s athletics director when Williams was hired after winning the Division II national championship at UC Davis. “This team has never given up. They play hard every game. They’re just short-handed.”
Nevertheless, there is speculation that the 63-year-old Williams, whose contract runs out in August, is coaching his last Gaucho games. He is not losing sleep over it. “I understand the questions, but to me it’s a nonsubject,” he said. “The subject to me is the 12 kids I travel with right now and the staff that I work with. I don’t spend any time on unknowns.”
Williams said he has had “great discussions” with current athletics director John McCutcheon. “He’s a good AD, and he understands the game,” Williams said. Any decision to initiate a change in coaches would ultimately have to be approved by Chancellor Henry Yang, who holds the purse strings. And given the limitations of its athletic budget, UCSB’s best hope to replace Williams would likely be a diamond in the rough, not a proven head coach.
“There’s a time frame on everything,” Williams said. “There’s a time frame on our lives. I’m just not privy to it.”
Alan Williams, aka “Big Sauce,” was a prodigious rebounder and scorer for UCSB at 6’8″, and he is dispelling doubts he could be a force in the NBA. The undrafted center for the Phoenix Suns had 17 points and 15 rebounds Sunday against the Milwaukee Bucks. … Northeastern’s Bolden Brace, a freshman out of Santa Barbara High, hit a school-record 10 three-pointers and scored 40 points in the Huskies’ 105-104 overtime victory over Elon last week.
GAME OF THE WEEK
3/3-3/4: Men’s College Basketball: GSAC Tournament at Westmont The fourth-seeded Warriors, 14-1 at home, will host the quarterfinals and semifinals to determine the opponents in the Golden State Athletic Conference championship game Tuesday (3/7) in Fullerton. Fri.: No. 3 The Master’s (23-4) vs. No. 6 Arizona Christian (18-11), 5pm; No. 4 Westmont (23-6) vs. No. 5 William Jessup (18-12), 7:30pm. Sat.: Higher seed vs. No. 2 Biola (26-4), 5pm; Lower seed vs. No. 1 Hope International (24-6), 7:30pm. Murchison Gym, Westmont College, 955 La Paz Rd. $5-$10. Call 565-6010.
SB ATHLETIC ROUND TABLE ATHLETES OF THE WEEK
Noam Dessibourg, Dos Pueblos wrestling
The Swiss exchange student pinned two opponents and had two major wins in the CIF Divisional Finals before losing the 160-pound title match in overtime.
Paige Hauschild, San Marcos water polo
The senior posted seven goals and four steals as the Royals, who made it all the way to the CIF finals, scored an 11-4 quarterfinal win over Corona del Mar.
Michael Stefanic, Westmont baseball
The junior infielder slugged a solo homer in a 6-1 first-game win over Biola and won the nightcap with a two-out, two-run single in 10th for a 6-5 win.
Sierra Altmeyer, UCSB softball
The sophomore infielder went 4-for-4 against No. 20 Missouri with two homers, including a two-run shot in the final inning to cap a 6-5 win.