Mike Moropoulos: 1930-2020

Mike Moropoulos was truly a man for all seasons. He coached football, swimming, baseball, and golf. He fished for calico bass and trout. He dived for lobster and abalone. He hunted pheasants and ducks.

In all those pursuits, Mike preached and practiced good sportsmanship. You must observe the rules and regulations. You do not demean your competitors. You do not catch more than you can eat (or give to friends for their meals). You take both victory and defeat — whether it’s winning a big game or getting skunked on a long day’s fishing trip — with gratitude and humility.

Credit: Dick Martin

Moropoulos instilled those values during a 35-year career as a coach, teacher, and administrator at Santa Barbara High. There was no other school that mattered to the Los Angeles native after he graduated with a teaching credential from UCSB, where he was captain and MVP of the Gaucho football team in 1954. He proclaimed his devotion with a vehicular tattoo, a personalized license plate that read: SB DONS. His wardrobe consisted of various combinations of the school’s colors, olive green and gold.

He was in the middle of some of the most cherished memories of Dons’ football fans. He was line coach in 1960 when Santa Barbara won the CIF large-school championship, defeating Centennial in the L.A. Coliseum. Later in the decade, the Dons’ defensive front included Bob “Big Man” Pointer, at 447 pounds the largest player in the land. One night he intercepted a pass and chugged almost 10 yards before several Camarillo players tackled him. Years later, Moropoulos said he could still hear the wildly roaring crowd at Peabody Stadium. The best player he remembered from that era, in both character and physical talent, was fullback and linebacker Sam Cunningham. Mike was head football coach in 1977 when his son, Craig Moropoulos, quarterbacked SBHS to a league title; and in 1980, when Randall Cunningham, Sam’s younger brother, led the Dons to a record 13 consecutive victories before losing to Long Beach Poly in the CIF final.

Coach Mike Moropoulos with Randall Cunningham at the SBHS-San Marcos Alumni Game in 2010. | Credit: Dick Martin

“I am grateful for my experience in high school,” said Randall Cunningham, a four-time All-Pro quarterback in the NFL. He was the all-time leading rusher at the position when he retired, but he never would have made it, he said, if Moropoulos had not tempered his instincts when he was young and raw. “From the first day, he told me: ‘If you run, you will not play quarterback for me.’” Cunningham said. “He didn’t want me to be injured. That is the best thing that could have happened. I worked on my passing and became a complete quarterback.”

Booker Brown said Moropoulos was a no-nonsense coach who laid the groundwork for him to become a rising star as an offensive lineman at SBCC, USC, and, ultimately, with the San Diego Chargers. “You weren’t going to talk back to him,” Brown said. “He taught me the fundamentals: footwork, keep your head up and butt down, how to pull, how to trap block. He taught me to keep my composure. I came out of high school knowing how to play football.”

After Moropoulos died last February 16, three weeks short of his 90th birthday, it seemed fitting for a memorial celebration of his life to be held at Peabody Stadium, the shrine of SBHS football. But the reconstruction of the stadium was still incomplete, and the COVID pandemic has since put off indefinitely any large public gatherings.

Moropoulos cared about all Santa Barbara Dons, not just budding football stars. He became the school’s second athletic director in 1965 and served until his retirement in 1989. Soccer and volleyball teams were established on his watch, as well as the entire girls’ sports program.

Moropoulos had a strong friendship with Sut Puailoa, a former UCSB teammate and coach at crosstown rival San Marcos High, known as the “Smilin’ Samoan.” Mike could have been called the “Gregarious Greek.” When both were done with prep football, they teamed up again to coach a club team at UCSB in the mid-’80s.

Between scholastic seasons, Moropoulos enjoyed the great outdoors. He and soul brother Bud Bottoms would go trout fishing in the Eastern Sierra. He had a love of the ocean that was spawned when, as a hungry college student, he would dive for abalone in the Carpinteria Reef, once plucking a limit of five in a single dive.

Mike Moropoulos at his other favorite pastime, fishing. | Credit: Dick Martin

Nothing made him happier in his retirement years than seeing a youngster catch his first fish at Cachuma Lake. He hung out at the lake with Neal Taylor, an expert fly fisherman and nature guide. One of the best things I did as sports editor of the News-Press was to talk Mike into writing a weekly outdoor column for the paper. He diligently put his knowledge into words and presented solid scientific information about fish and game. The depletion of abalone that he once harvested raised his awareness of resource management.

“My excuse, a lame one at that, was that I was uneducated about the issue of conservation,” he confessed. “Your kids and mine will not have, and should not need, that weak rationale. Education is the answer.”

My favorite column of his pulled at the heartstrings. It was about his last hunt with Kota, a beloved black Labrador, before he had to put the dog down. It was a wonderful revelation of Mike’s humanity.

He is survived by his wife, Pat, a teacher herself, and sons Chris and Craig, SBCC’s head football coach for the past 13 seasons.


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