At the same time John Lennon was telling the Beatles that he was leaving the Fab Four, the new Big West Conference was playing its first contest: a football game at UCSB’s Harder Stadium on Sept. 20, 1969.
But then, Campus Stadium wasn’t yet called Harder Stadium … and the Gauchos and the Big West hadn’t yet dropped football… and the Pacific Coast Athletic Association was still nine years away from changing its name to the Big West.
Lennon would explain it all lyrically a decade later in his son Beautiful Boy: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
The Big West turned 50 years old on Monday, but it doesn’t look anything like the league it envisioned during its first council meetings, held on the UCSB campus in October of 1968.
Only two schools from its seven charter members remain: UCSB and Long Beach State.
And UCSB was even kicked out for a few years after dropping football as quickly as a greased pigskin, in 1971.
That Gaucho move was an abrupt change of direction for the university, which had just recently moved up from the NCAA’s college division to the university division – the precursor of Division 1.
Campus Stadium, which opened in 1966 with 12,000 seats, had added 5,000 more for the start of the first PCAA season in 1969.
Gaucho coach Jack Curtice, who had previously coached at such major schools as Utah and Stanford, began lining up power-conference opponents such as Texas Tech in 1970, Washington and Tennessee in 1971, and Wisconsin in 1972.
Curtice had even gotten Arizona, Colorado, Utah and Air Force to agree to future games in Santa Barbara.
“And should the day come when then new stadium’s seating capacity is tripled,” wrote News-Press sports columnist Phil Patton, “then it might well be possible that UCSB could offer a sufficient guarantee to bring a Big Ten, Southeastern, or even Pacific 8 conference here to Santa Barbara.”
Pops was always an optimist. It kind of explains his shock of disappointment every time I had him sign my report card.
The PCAA started play during a year of milestones. It was the 100th season of collegiate football, UCSB’s 45th of intercollegiate competition, and Curtice’s 30th as one of the game’s most innovative coaches.
His 1969 Gauchos had 30 lettermen returning, including his son Jim at quarterback.
But Long Beach had a new coach, Jim Stangeland, and a budding powerhouse that would go 8-3 that season. UCSB lost to the 49ers 32-16 in the first league contest in its history before 5,000 fans at Campus Stadium.
The Gauchos had a good season nevertheless, going 6-4. But fan interest waned just as student unrest was growing in the student community of Isla Vista.
UCSB got trounced at Texas Tech, 63-21, midway through the 1970 season, and then started the 1971 season with losses of 65-7 at Washington and 48-6 at Tennessee. The numbers looked even worse on the Gaucho ledger sheets, with a $100,000 deficit prompting the university to drop the sport altogether.
Wisconsin would have to find another whipping boy for 1972.
The students voted to fund a football revival 15 years later. The Gauchos returned as a Division 3 program in 1986 and then upgraded to Division 2. But the NCAA soon ruled that Division 1 schools had to play all their sports at that level, and the students voted not to pay the difference.
That football sequel ended in 1991.
Basketball, however, was enjoying its heyday in the conference after going outside the Golden State to add such powers as UNLV, New Mexico State, and Utah State. The PCAA changed its name to Big West in 1988 so it could get into the late-night time slot for ESPN’s Big Monday (the Big East had the early game and the Big 10 had the middle contest).
UCSB rode the wave that was raising all Big West ships, earning a pair of at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament. The Gauchos even beat Houston in the first round of the 1990 Southeast Regional in Knoxville, Tenn., and came close to a second-round upset of Michigan State.
UNLV, after a late-season loss at UCSB’s Thunderdome, wouldn’t lose again, beating Duke in the 1990 NCAA final.
The Gauchos have worn two NCAA crowns themselves over the years – in men’s water polo in 1979 and in men’s soccer in 2006. And although football didn’t work out, with the league dropping the sport altogether in 2000, the Big West has won 17 national championships in other sports.
The Big West shrunk back into a California-only conference after Utah State and Idaho left in 2004. That changed with Hawaii’s arrival in 2012. When UC San Diego and Cal State Bakersfield join the conference for the 2020-21 school year, the Big West will have had 26 full and associate members throughout its history.
No word yet on how the Big West plans to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Its founding fathers would’ve figured a rematch of that first league contest at Harder Stadium to be a good idea.
Booking a Beatles Reunion as the halftime show would’ve been nice, too.