The beach may be a peaceful place to spend a summer holiday, but it can erode into Shakespeare’s proverbial winter of discontent during basketball season.
Seaside UCSB and Long Beach State, which has officially switched its nickname from 49ers to “The Beach,” have been throwing sand in each other’s faces for the last three decades.
The bullying resumes Saturday when The Beach comes to Campus Point for a 7 p.m. game at the Thunderdome.
The personal nature of the rivalry took Gaucho star Ar’Mond Davis by surprise during the handshake line of last year’s game at The Pyramid. One of Long Beach’s assistant coaches got real sand-crabby, loudly accusing UCSB’s bench of having heckled one of his players.
“I don’t even know what happened,” Davis said after the brief fracas. “I don’t know what he was saying, it was happening so fast.”
But it had been a long time coming. Davis, a graduate transfer from Alabama, figured that Crimson Tide was just a nickname — not a description of the bad blood that’s been cast upon the water of this West Coast rivalry.
The Gauchos (12-4) do have an official rival in next-county neighbor Cal Poly. They opened Big West Conference play in San Luis Obispo on Wednesday with a 63-45 victory in what has been branded as the “Blue-Green Rivalry.”
But Long Beach has been their “Black-and-Blue” rival ever since Gaucho bad-boy Mike Doyle elbowed the nose of Long Beach’s Jeff Eastin into a bloody red pulp in 1989.
The cheap shot enraged coach Joe Harrington, who ran excitedly from one referee to another in search of a call. Not one of them had been looking Eastin’s way, however, and there was no video replay to check in the 1989 world of Big West basketball.
Harrington got harried again the next season at a raucous Thunderdome. He got so hot at one point that he pulled off his sport jacket and heaved it into the stands. He had to summon security personnel when the fan who caught the coat claimed it as a souvenir.
His disdain for all things Gaucho reached its apex later that season during the 1990 Big West Tournament at the Long Beach Arena. His 49ers advanced to the final to face eventual national champion UNLV. They even took a close game into halftime.
But that’s also when he got some distressing news:
The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, irked that the game had been scheduled for the afternoon of Selection Sunday, came up with a solution worthy of King Solomon: It cut the Big West baby half, releasing a bracket that listed “UCSB/Long Beach State” in one of the slots as a No. 9 seed.
Committee chairman Jim Delaney explained that the 49ers would get the bid if they beat UNLV, and UCSB would get it if they lost.
“Basically, we felt the Big West should share the burden if anyone should bear the burden,” Delaney said.
That burden became unbearable for the 49ers in their second half with UNLV. They gave up a 16-0 run and lost 92-74, ending their nine-game winning streak and NCAA Tournament hopes.
“I’m just totally devastated by it,” Harrington said of the selection committee’s decision. “We came here and took care of business and they (UCSB) didn’t.”
The Gauchos, who had lost to Pacific in the second round of the Big West Tournament, did prove their worth by beating Houston, a No. 8 seed, in the NCAA first round at Knoxville.
Harrington bolted Long Beach after that season to become the head coach at Colorado. The rivalry with UCSB continued to simmer, however, before reaching full boil during the infamous “Beach-brawl” game of 1992.
UCSB graduate Jim Rome, now a nationally syndicated Sports Talk guru, dredged up the gritty details of that night during a podcast this week with ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg — Harrington’s successor as Long Beach’s coach.
“The fact that you and I are such good friends is so unlikely given where we started,” Rome began.
Their start came on the airwaves of XTRA Sports 690. Rome’s on-air rant about the 1992 melee at Long Beach’s tinderbox of a gym — he dubbed it that day as the “Roach Motel” — touched a nerve with Greenberg’s wife.
“She got so fired up that she called into the show under an assumed name,” Greenberg recalled during this week’s interview. “You proceeded to kill Long Beach State and hung up on her.
“Then she calls me and loses her mind: ‘Jim Rome! He hung up on me! I can’t believe Jim Rome hung up on me!’”
Another elbow had ignited the brawl the previous night, although this one had been thrown by Long Beach. Jeff Rogers accidently struck UCSB’s Kason Jackson in the head while pivoting. They shouted at each other during the next break in action until Jackson, dissatisfied with the lack of an apology, slapped Rogers in the face with an open hand.
It was open season after that in the mind of Long Beach freshman Sonny Alvarado. He rushed Jackson from behind with a not-so-sunny disposition and cold-cocked him with a punch to the head.
UCSB’s Doug Muse promptly tackled Alvarado. One of Long Beach’s coaches pulled Muse off with a bear-hug. Two of his players – Rod Hannibal and Carlos Dew – saw their opening and took a couple of free swings at the Gaucho center.
Greenberg tried to play peacemaker but nearly ran into another haymaker.
“Being the idiot that I was at that age, I’m right in the middle of it,” he recalled during the podcast, “and I almost get my head taken off by Lucius Davis.”
The game was being televised by Sports Channel, giving referee Norm Borucki the opportunity to review a replay of the brawl. He wound up ejecting Alvarado, Hannibal, Dew, and UCSB’s Duane Carter.
Emotions flared again a few minutes later when a Long Beach fan began harassing the mother of UCSB’s Idris Jones. The Gaucho guard rushed into the stands to defend his mom, igniting a pushing match that eventually spilled onto the court.
It took a bizarre turn when redshirt player Tony McGee raced from the Long Beach bench to join the fray — and help rescue Jones’ mom.
“Tony McGee is extremely close to Idris’ family,” Greenberg explained afterward. “He’s like one of their family.”
Long Beach’s star player, Lucious Harris, also began scuffling with a few of his own fans. Idris Jones had a lot of friends.
The 49ers wound up winning in wild fashion, 72-70, after a three-pointer by Chris Tower sent the game into overtime.
Greenberg expressed mixed emotions during the post-game interview. He publicly apologized to UCSB coach Jerry Pimm as well as “to the people of Santa Barbara.”
“We responded well after the incident,” he began, “but the incident honestly just gives me a very shallow feeling … It’s a very shallow win for me.”
Pimm took the high road throughout the whole affair.
“It wasn’t very smart, but kids are kids,” he said of Alvarado’s sucker punch. “A lot of Long Beach’s players were trying to break it up. There were just a few of them who didn’t use good judgment.”
But the series remained edgy even as Bob Williams, Pimm’s successor at UCSB, and Long Beach coach Dan Monson became the best of friends. Last-second shots put the winner over that edge on several occasions.
The series reached block-buster status during Orlando Johnson’s three seasons at UCSB, from 2009-2012. The Gauchos beat Long Beach in back-to-back Big West finals before the 49ers finally turned the tables in the 2012 championship game.
But Johnson kept his head high during his final post-game interview.
“It’s been one of the best rivalries in college basketball,” he said. “I’m leaving here happy with two Big West championships.”
If you’re going to play basketball at the beach, you might as well ride high into that sunset.
Mark Patton’s column appears on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org