Donn Bernstein spent only eight years as the front man for UCSB athletics, but so much changed between 1964 and 1972 that it seemed like forever.
And for Donn, it actually became forever.
The Gauchos’ 6-foot and 4½-inch former mouthpiece was larger than life in size and voice and especially heart, and he refused to pull up the roots he planted in Santa Barbara. His impact at UCSB will bloom long after his death this week at age 83.
He was knighted as a Gaucho Hall of Famer in 2002. But to me and my brothers, he was just “Uncle Bernie.”
He’d been writing for the San Francisco Examiner when UCSB football coach Jack Curtice talked him into becoming the school’s first full-time sports information director.
It did take some arm-twisting from Curtice to convince Chancellor Steven Goodspeed to cough up the $6,000 salary for this new position.
Uncle Bernie once reconstructed Goodspeed’s acquiescence this way: “If Cactus Jack Curtice was going to lead Gaucho football to the promised land, then, by God, Donn Bernstein would conduct the publicity campaign.”
As SID, he became the main Gaucho contact for my father, News-Press sports editor and columnist Phil Patton. But for Uncle Bernie, contact was more like giving a bear hug than peddling information. Public relations wasn’t a profession to him. It was simply human nature.
“Marketing, we thought, was something only moms did in those days,” Bernstein said during one of the many UCSB athletic alumni events he helped organize.
He was the first to volunteer for anything big or small. Once it was to chauffeur coach Vince Lombardi and his wife Marie around town during the week the Green Bay Packers trained at UCSB for Super Bowl 1. And many other times it was to help promote such things as the County High School All-Star Football Game for the Santa Barbara Boys Club.
Bernstein did need Dad’s help with Lombardi, calling to ask where he could find a Catholic church.
“I was driving along with sweaty palms, and Lombardi wanted to know where he could take Marie to Mass in the morning,” Bernstein recalled many years later. “I said, ‘You’re talking to the wrong guy, coach. I’m just a nice little Jewish boy from San Francisco.’”
Dad pointed him toward the Old Mission.
Gauchos from every walk of life were embraced as Uncle Bernie’s family. Mike Martz, who served from 2000 to 2005 as the head coach of the then- St. Louis Rams, said Bernstein was the first friend he made at UCSB when he was recruited to play tight end.
“He had the biggest heart of any person I’ve ever known,” Martz said. “I was a loner, feeling homesick, but when I walked by his office, he’d holler at me. He cared about you. He was worried about you.”
He even cared about the moppy-haired kids of the team’s beat writer. My brother Greg and I were 14 and 12 years old, respectively, when Uncle Bernie gave us our first paying jobs, working in the press box at UCSB’s brand-new football stadium.
Exactly 30 years later, while serving as the media coordinator for ABC Sports, he penned a guest column for the News-Press which recalled those halcyon days.
“I set forth to build a Gaucho media bandwagon second to none,” he wrote. “In place, of course, was the colorful Curtice, a craggy-faced Kentuckian whose backwoods approach to coaching belied his genius for developing sophisticated offenses, and Phil Patton, the soft-spoken, pipe-smoking sports editor of the Santa Barbara News-Press.”
I don’t remember Dad being so soft-spoken on the days I shirked my yardwork duty for a romp at the beach. But then, Uncle Bernie was from a whole different level of vociferousness.
“Phil also served as the KTMS radio voice for UCSB football and basketball, but he may best be remembered as the unofficial Godfather of the Gauchos,” Uncle Bernie’s essay continued. “With Curtice’s charisma, flair and deftness in selling his dream – and Patton’s voracious appetite for inside news which he relished to report – the stage was set for UCSB’s march into prominence.”
But sometime between 1964 and 1972, UCSB changed with the rest of the world. Pep rallies that were held around bonfires to support Curtice’s football team turned into bank burnings to support the anti-war movement.
“The students really lost interest in football,” Uncle Bernie recalled to me a few decades later.
The Gauchos, who had moved up to the NCAA Division 1 level in 1969, opened the 1971 season with losses of 65-7 at Washington and 48-6 at Tennessee. They lost football altogether at the end of the season when a budget deficit prompted the chancellor to drop the program.
The Gauchos lost their SID, as well. Washington, more impressed with UCSB’s publicist than its football team, hired Uncle Bernie to the same position a few months later.
The last time I saw him before his departure was at a funeral: Dad was only 45 when he succumbed that fall to cancer. It was the only time I ever saw Uncle Bernie at a loss for words.
At the end of the service, he filed past the casket, put his paw on my shoulder, and just shook his head for about 10 silent seconds. He finally said, “Please, please, please look after your mother.”
But Uncle Bernie never really did leave Santa Barbara, not even after taking a job in New York with ABC Sports in 1974. No one was more active in Gaucho alumni events than this alumnus of San Francisco State.
He kept the rustic cabin that he’d bought on Isla Vista’s Del Playa Drive. And, as a former Marine, he’d celebrate his country’s independence by throwing a Fourth of July party there every year — even though the place wasn’t big enough for half of the Gauchos he invited.
He’d look you up even when you were 1,500 miles from Santa Barbara.
I was on the road to cover UCSB’s basketball team in late 1985, still asleep in my hotel room in Norman, Okla., when the phone rang at 6 o’clock in the morning. The voice that boomed through the receiver stirred me as though it were a tornado warning:
“Patton! What are you doing today?” Uncle Bernie bellowed.
“Um, sleeping for a while, then watching some college football on TV,” I replied. “I’m here for tomorrow’s Gaucho basketball game against Oklahoma.”
I was trying to process it all, wondering how Uncle Bernie even knew I was there, when he said, “Wrong! Forget watching TV! You’re coming to the Oklahoma-Nebraska football game.”
I spent that entire day at his elbow, following him to wherever he scurried — onto the field, into the press box, and even into the ABC production van. He introduced me to everyone from Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer, to Nebraska coach Tom Osborne, to every sportswriter in the press box.
Uncle Bernie was holding court with the print media when he broke it off to introduce me to ABC announcer Keith Jackson.
Herschel Nissenson of Associated Press laughed as we left and said, “It was nice listening to you.”
When Uncle Bernie told Jackson that he planned to stay in town for the Gauchos’ basketball game the next day, the famed announcer turned to me and said, “Keep him up in the booth … If you let him down on the floor, he’ll go crazy.”
The last time I talked to Uncle Bernie, he was inviting me for the hundredth time to visit him in Manhattan. We could see a Yankees game, tour of Statue the Liberty, or maybe even take in a Broadway play.
And of course, he would want to talk about his favorite subject:
“How do the Gauchos look this year?”
Mark Patton’s column appears on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday.