Football tradition dies hard at Santa Barbara High, even after three decades without a playoff victory.
The Dons still want to relive their Golden Tornado years.
“Yes, we’re going to wear our gold tops,” coach J.T. Stone affirmed. “We’re going to be the Golden Tornados.”
Santa Barbara, which has changed its nickname from Dons to Golden Tornado for every playoff season since 1929, hasn’t won a postseason game since its CIF-Southern Section Division II co-championship of 1989.
The Tornado tied Muir 7-7 after 48 minutes at La Playa Stadium, and the CIF left it as a draw.
“It felt a little weird at the time,” star player Kerry Lawyer conceded during the 20th anniversary celebration of that co-championship.
But it felt even more weird that the Golden Tornado had been snuffed in every playoff game since. Even the 8-2 team of 1992 and the 9-1 squad of 1995 — both dominating Channel League champions — pooped out to start the playoffs.
When 1989 co-captain Martin Molina rejoined his Tornado teammates at that 2009 reunion, he admitted that “I cross my fingers every game, hoping that maybe this will be the class that will come through and have that same type of blood flowing through their veins.”
Jackson Gonzales, whose Dons’ bloodline includes his father — former head coach Will Gonzales — and his younger brother Grant, predicts that Molina will straighten out those fingers into a victory sign. The Dons’ leading receiver the last three years is set on winning a Golden Tornado ring.
“It’s been 30 years, and that’s been our whole goal this year — to break that curse and do something special,” he said. “We’ve been preaching that all year. We feel that if don’t win that, we’ve failed.”
Santa Barbara has its best chance at a ring since 1989 when Poncho Renteria quarterbacked the team to a 12-1-1 season. This year’s squad has been seeded No. 2 for the Division 8 playoffs after going 8-2 in the regular season and 4-0 in the Channel League.
“We all grew up here playing youth football together, and the goal was to come to Santa Barbara High together and do something,” Gonzales said. “We’ve been together for as long as I can remember.”
He can even recall roaming the Peabody Stadium sidelines as a child in 2007 when his dad coached Santa Barbara to its first playoff berth in five seasons.
When the Dons broke out the gold uniforms to become the Golden Tornado that postseason, his father said, “The jerseys were the first thing they showed me when I got here … They are very well taken care of. Rudy Ybarra, our equipment manager, does a great job of that, so we’ll be ready to go.”
But Santa Barbara lost to Newbury Park, 34-14. The Tornado was also defeated in the first round of the next postseason, falling 49-28 to Thousand Oaks. Coach Gonzales’ son did come away with a memento: the No. 12 jersey of star receiver Roberto Nelson.
“I’ve still got it in my closet,” Jackson said. “I’m keeping that thing.”
He’s hoping it will bring him good luck this time around.
It worked like a charm in 1929. Santa Barbara, making its first playoff appearance under coach Clarence Schutte, was on its way to an undefeated regular season when a local sportswriter (don’t dare ask if it were me) noted how the team whisked its way downfield like a golden tornado.
The school’s first nickname had actually been Vaqueros. The sports editors of the day, however, often shortened it to “Dons” so it could fit into a headline.
The sports writers were even cuter, alternating the nickname in their stories from Barbarenos to Barbarians to Spanish Towners and even to Gold-Shirters.
Schutte figured that Golden Tornado didn’t sound so silly in comparison.
His 1929 team had actually planned to break out some new, white jerseys for its Southern California quarterfinal game against San Bernardino.
“The white sweaters were favored by all but two of the football boys,” the Santa Barbara Morning Press reported, “but the old golden jerseys will remain in action this week.”
Schutte had committed to the playoff nickname, so the whites “remained in their wrappings,” the Press announced.
The Tornado blew past San Bernardino, 34-0, and the nickname stuck.
The Southern Pacific train which took the team and its fans to Fullerton for the semifinals was christened as “The Golden Tornado Special.”
The game, like the title game 60 years later, ended in a stalemate, but the CIF commissioner wanted nothing to do with a tie. He ordered that each team play 10, alternating downs, and wherever the ball wound up would determine the winner.
Schutte was a young coach at the time, just five years removed from his own playing career at the University of Minnesota, and he had designed an innovative passing game for his Tornado.
“As we progressed through the season, we had a lot of plays that other teams had never seen,” end Lawrence Lane would recall many years later. “We did a considerable amount of passing.”
And it was indeed a forward pass that launched the Golden Tornado into the final: Johnny Beckrich’s 55-yard toss to Eddie King made the difference, and the referee awarded Santa Barbara an odd, 2-0, overtime victory.
Thousands of fans greeted the Golden Tornado at the Santa Barbara train station that night, and an impromptu celebration parade soon motored up State Street.
Santa Barbara wound up losing at Long Beach Poly in the CIF Southern California championship game, 14-6, but the gold dye had been cast: The Tornado would make eight more trips to the final during Schutte’s quarter-century as coach, winning championships in 1935, 1938, and 1940.
His 1948 team, led by future Baseball Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews, hadn’t lost a game all season until it played to a tie in the final at the Los Angeles Coliseum. But that ending came with a twist for the Golden Tornado: The CIF commissioner decided arbitrarily to declare St. Anthony’s as the champion by virtue of having more first downs.
The Tornado won only one other title, in 1960, before nailing down its golden tie of 1989.
And even though it’s been 30 years since that last playoff win, Santa Barbara’s tradition remains written in Stone:
“This school is loaded with tradition,” coach Stone said, “but this is 2019, and this is a good football team that needs to be talked about, too.
“We want our own tradition to fall in line with the rest of it.”
The Tornado will just need to add a new twist to this year’s ending.
Mark Patton’s column appears on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday.