The first Round Table president and founder, Jerry Harwin (left) and Bill Bertka, who succeeded him | Credit: Courtesy

They may be rivals on the field, but off the field, on most Mondays at noon during the school year, local coaches and student athletes and supporters come together as a community where sports are the topic of discussion at Harry’s Plaza Café. This weekly press luncheon has been hosted by the Santa Barbara Athletic Round Table (SBART) for the past 53 years.

It all began with the founding of the Round Table organization by civic leaders Jerry Harwin and Caesar Uyesaka. They had been the operators of the Santa Barbara Dodgers, a Class A minor-league baseball team. When the team was moved to Bakersfield after the 1967 season, Harwin and Uyesaka shifted their focus to create an organization that would offer recognition and support to Santa Barbara’s indigenous sports teams and athletes. 

A flyer publicizing a 1971 SBART luncheon featuring Jim Ryun as guest speaker | Credit: Courtesy

The inaugural SBART event was a Hall of Fame banquet on June 22, 1968. The first notables selected to the community sports shrine were tennis star Keith Gledhill; baseball slugger Gene Lillard; Lou Tsoutsouvas, a Santa Barbara Don football player who became known as Stanford’s Iron Man for playing 60 minutes per game; Clarence Schutte, who coached the Dons to three CIF football championships; and Max Fleischmann, a benefactor of local sports, among other things.

At annual banquets since then, the SBART Hall of Fame has grown to 173 athletes, 61 coaches, and 104 sports officials and community members.

The press luncheons were the brainchild of Bill Bertka, then a city recreation director and host of Sports with Bertka radio and TV programs. As the Round Table’s second president after Harwin, Bertka came up with the idea of weekly meetings to highlight the performances of teams and athletes. The first luncheon took place at Harry’s Plaza Café on September 14, 1970. Coaches from UCSB, SBCC, and five high schools — Santa Barbara, San Marcos, Dos Pueblos, Bishop Diego, and Carpinteria — previewed the upcoming football season.

A consistent trait of the coaches over the years has been to accentuate the positive. UCSB coach Andy Everest screened game films there. In 1971, the last year the Gauchos competed in Division 1 football, he showed them marching down the field to take a 7-0 lead at Washington. The film ended there; the Huskies actually won the game, 65-7.

In the early years, prominent guest speakers enlivened the luncheons. They included Lakers star Elgin Baylor and announcer Chick Hearn, world-record miler Jim Ryun, decathlon champion Bill Toomey, and Adolph Rupp, a crusty former Kentucky coach who voiced the quote, “It matters not whether you won or lost, but how you played the game,” and proclaimed, “That’s a sorry philosophy of life.”

As schools expanded their athletic programs — CIF girls’ sports were introduced in 1975 — so did the agenda of coaches appearing at the luncheons. Harwin, who lived to be 100, would enforce time limits. Seated next to the podium, he would give a poke to anybody who spoke too long.

Bertka’s presidency only ended when he went to work full-time in the NBA. At 95, Bertka is still a consultant with the Lakers. “My only regret is that I did not find a permanent facility for a Hall of Fame museum,” he said recently.

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On the shoulders of its founders, the Round Table has achieved a kind of permanence, owing to an enduring spirit of volunteerism and the sponsorship of local businesses over the past 55 years. “The men and women who served as presidents have kept it alive,” Bertka said.

Past presidents included Larry Crandell, whose reputation as an emcee flowered at the luncheons in the 1970s; Joan Russell Price, in 1995 the first woman to lead the organization; Joe Howell, being honored this week as a Person of the Year by the Santa Barbara Foundation; and Chris Casebeer, who brought recognition to Special Olympians.

Alison Bernal, a litigation attorney, is the 23rd and current president. A competitive swimmer, she became involved with the Round Table after being a guest speaker at the annual Girls and Women in Sports Luncheon in 2016.

Preceding her was Ken Newendorp, who had the distinction of attending the luncheons as a San Marcos High athlete and as a coach at SBCC before joining the board as a businessman. He presided in 2021 when school sports resumed after the COVID pandemic. Needing an outdoor venue for the luncheons, he secured the Creekside patio for a time.

The volunteer board of the SBART is headed by Chair Gary Cunningham, the former UCLA basketball coach and UCSB athletic director. His connections have brought noteworthy speakers to an annual fundraising event, “Prelude to March Madness,” including John Wooden, Jerry West, George Raveling, and Jamaal Wilkes, among others.

At the SBART press luncheon on April 10, Alexandra Siegel received the Laguna Blanca School Scholar Athlete Award. | Credit: Victor Bryant

But the Monday luncheons are the bread-and-butter activity — in a sense, quite literally — for area athletes. They receive recognition and an array of rewards: for the top performances of the week, for their excellence as scholars, and for their character. The latter is signified by the Phil Womble Ethics in Sports Award. Its namesake was a devoted sports fan with cerebral palsy who wanted to reward athletes for showing good sportsmanship.

Reid Lathan, a talented Santa Barbara High athlete, received the first Womble Award in the fall of 2004. He went on to play football at Yale, receive an MBA at Virginia, and become chief operations officer of Avalon Environmental Services in the L.A. area.

“What’s so great about Santa Barbara is the true sense of community,” Lathan said last week. “You’re being raised by a village. The Athletic Round Table was part of that experience for me.”

To date, the Round Table has held more than 1,300 Monday luncheons. The last two of this school year are April 24 and May 1 at Harry’s Plaza Café. The Evening with the Athletes, honoring the year’s top high school and college athletes in each sport, will take place May 27 at the Marjorie Luke Theater. 



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