Before Gonzaga became the Cinderella of college basketball, UCSB lived its own fairy tale.
For one brief, shining moment — from 1987 to 1993 — the Gauchos turned Santa Barbara into Camelot.
Joe Pasternack, their newest King Arthur, is trying to extricate another Excalibur from UCSB.
“Gonzaga might be one of the best stories in college basketball history,” he said of a Zags program which has qualified for every NCAA Tournament since 1999. “One of my coaches, John Rillie, played there, and I know what they’ve built.
“It’s all about the players — you have to recruit the highest-level player — and Gonzaga has done it with their model of going after international players, transfers, and the elite high school recruit. We’re trying to recruit at that level now.”
He’s put his money where his mouth is, adding Larry Lewis, a former NBA assistant with international ties, to his staff for this season.
A high-level recruit from Sweden was in town just last week to see the school and watch the Gauchos play their annual Blue-Gold game.
Pasternack, who has won 45 games in his first two seasons at UCSB, will unveil his most talented, experienced and deepest team tonight when the Gauchos play host to Jackson State.
He sees the opportunity to zig-zag into the higher echelon of college basketball, but he needs the rest of Santa Barbara to join in. He’s hoping to attract more fans to the Thunderdome with such new features as chair-back seating, a state-of-the-art sound system, and the enormous video board that was hooked up last season.
“We just have to keep plugging away,” said Pasternack, who plans to convert all of the Thunderdome’s seating into chair-backs. “Gonzaga has a dominant home court because the people of Spokane don’t have an NBA team, or a Major League Baseball or NFL team.
“What Spokane has done is adopt Gonzaga basketball as their team. It’s been incredibly amazing, and it’s what we’re trying to build.”
UCSB took a stab at it when it lured Jerry Pimm away from the University of Utah to become its coach in 1983. One of Pimm’s first moves was to retain his predecessor’s youngest assistant coach.
Ben Howland, who would later coach UCLA to the Final Four, helped recruit enough talent for the Gauchos to make two appearances in the NCAA Tournament and three more in the NIT during a six-year span.
“The NCAA didn’t restrict you so much in how many days you could be out there,” Howland recalled a few years ago. “I used to drive to L.A. every weekend for this league at Dominguez High called the Slam ’N’ Jam.
“During the summer, I’d be gone for six straight weeks.”
He convinced Santa Monica guard Carrick DeHart to come to UCSB instead of Kansas, which was where his best friend, Keith Harris, was headed.
“We had a government class together, and he’d tease me, saying Kansas is in the top 10, and Santa Barbara is 310 out of 311 in the nation,” DeHart would later recall. “My coach said it would be the death of me. He told me that we’d finish last and that I wouldn’t be heard of again.”
But DeHart wound up scoring what was then a school-record 1,687 points while leading UCSB to two NCAA berths and another in the NIT.
Christmas in Santa Barbara came two days early in 1987 when DeHart and future NBA star Brian Shaw led the Gauchos to a 96-78 rout over a North Carolina State team that started five future NBA players.
The Gauchos did most of the marketing themselves. Shaw, who recorded a triple-double against the Wolfpack (22 points, 20 rebounds and 10 assists), blasted Dick Vitale in a national magazine when the TV commentator declared that UNLV was the only good team in their league.
Vitale confronted him about it later at a game in the Long Beach Arena.
“I told him, Well, let’s see what you think after the game,’” the Gaucho Hall of Fame said.
Shaw, whose double-double of 26 points and 13 rebounds led the Gauchos to an 81-73 win, pointed at Vitale with 11 seconds to go and said, “This one is for you!”
By this time, the Gauchos had captured the imagination of Santa Barbara. The entire town seemed to make the trek to Las Vegas to witness the Gauchos’ first win ever over the Runnin’ Rebvels, 62-60.
“All the boosters were at the Dunes that night, and when the players came into the hotel, still wearing their sweats, the whole place erupted and started clapping and yelling,” Pimm said.
It was UNLV’s only loss until the Gauchos stunned the Rebels again at the Thunderdome, 71-66, to keep them from ascending to a No. 1 ranking. Their coach, Jerry Tarkanian, visited their locker room after the game to sing their praises.
“He came in and saluted us as a bonafide competitor,” DeHart said. “Most people thought that first win had been a fluke that we couldn’t play at that level of basketball. But Talk told us that he had great admiration for us as a team.”
UCSB earned an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, barely losing to Maryland, and then won its first 11 games of the 1988-89 season. The Gauchos were 15-1 by late January after road wins at Colorado, Oregon and Arizona State, earning rankings in three national polls. The UPI Coaches Poll ranked them the highest at No. 18.
The 6,000-seat Thunderdome was soon selling out on a regular basis.
“The community was really popping off about it, getting really excited,” said star center Eric McArthur.
The hoopla got so crazy one night that McArthur’s father, Mel, had to pull him away from it.
“The whole city was partying that night,” Mel said. “We were at the Holiday Inn — it was the first time we had actually driven up to spend the night in Santa Barbara — and we personally went over and picked up Eric and made him spend the night with us.
“We got a rollaway bed and everything. We could see what was happening.”
The Gauchos’ biggest and perhaps loudest victory came in 1990 when they upset UNLV, the eventual national champion.
“This is as good an atmosphere as you’ll find for college basketball,” Tarkanian told reporters afterward. “I don’t believe there’s any place in the country better than this.”
The Rebels won their next 45 games, which included a 103-73 rout over Duke in the NCAA championship game.
The Gauchos would also win an NCAA Tournament game that year, knocking off Houston 70-66. They fell just short of making the Sweet 16, losing in the next round 62-58 to Big Ten champion Michigan State.
By 1992, UCSB students were camping out in the rain to secure their UNLV game tickets. Tarkanian took note and said, “Their crowd is what college basketball is all about … You don’t see it out West anywhere else.”
The whole basketball world was taking notice in 1993 when ESPN opened its Sports Center segment with a video clip from the Thunderdome. It showed UCSB’s Idris Jones sitting on one of the basket’s rims while leading a crowd of 6,427 in a “Gau-cho” chant after an 86-83 victory over then-No. 13 UNLV.
The iron was hot for even greater things — except nothing was done to stoke the fire.
The university made little investment in increasing the basketball budget or improving the Thunderdome.
The brass ring was there for the taking and UCSB didn’t reach for it.
The Gauchos would soon suffer through five straight losing seasons, from 1993-94 to 1997-98, before getting back on track under new coach Bob Williams.
Pasternack now has them on the fast track. The question is, how far will they go?