Retired cop Ralph Molina is walking a new beat along the Santa Barbara High sideline, and it’s making the Dons tough to beat in football.
The former Santa Barbara Police lieutenant has caused such an abrupt turnaround with the Dons’ defense that they’ve become the Golden Tornado of old, ending a 30-year playoff drought with Friday’s 44-0 shutout of Gahr.
“Getting coach Molina as our D coordinator a couple of years ago was the piece that had been missing from our puzzle,” head coach J.T. Stone said.
The second-seeded Golden Tornado (9-2), Santa Barbara’s playoff nickname since 1929, will whirl into Palm Desert (8-3) on Friday with a six-game winning streak for their CIF-Southern Section Division 8 quarterfinal.
“This is so great for the school,” Molina said. “Our kids realized they could be the first league champ in a long time and get this first playoff win — they knew it — if they just worked hard.
“It’s been paying off. You can see the focus with this group.”
Perhaps the biggest upset occurred when Molina, a two-year starting quarterback for Bishop Diego High’s Class of 1979 and a long-time coach at the school, left just before the Cardinals’ state championship season of 2017. He stepped away after having a disagreement with a couple of the Cardinals’ other defensive coaches.
“That was hard for me, there’s no doubt,” he said. “But I was also a huge fan of those kids. I was happy for those guys that they won it all.
“I just had to make a decision that was best for me at that time. And when I had the opportunity to come to Santa Barbara, honestly, that was where I needed to be. I saw the need.”
So did Stone. He called Molina immediately after hearing that he was available.
“It was definitely a blessing to get him,” he said. “The one thing I’ve learned about coaching is that you’re only as good as your staff. I let my coaches coach, and he does a great job for me as a defensive coordinator.”
Molina assisted with the Dons’ defense in 2017 and then took over as coordinator last season. This year’s team is allowing only 14.5 points per game and just 9.2 during its six-game winning streak.
“We had seven or eight kids coming back with experience, and I was really excited about the linebacker crew with guys like Johnny Valencia and Charlie Figueroa,” he said. “Charlie’s a big hitter. And we’re getting consistent play outside with Justin Perez and Ty Montgomery … and with Steven Lara, who started for me all of last year as our sam linebacker.
“We have some depth now, and we’re healthy. We could go pretty darn far because we’ve also got the guys who can score points.”
The challenge was to find two more linemen to play alongside star nose guard Noach Wood and defensive end Joshua Rosales.
“David Ramirez has been so consistent at that other D end spot, and we’ve been able to rotate Jorge Contreras and a JV kid we brought up, Jessie Macias, at that other tackle spot. They’ve done a good job.
“In the secondary we’ve got the athletes like Dakota Hill and Saloman Manzanrez, and now we’ve got Moki (Nacario) back there. We’re getting great play at safety.”
Molina, who works three nights a week as an investigator for the Chumash Casino, retired from the police department three years ago.
“I’m having fun with this,” he said. “I put a lot of hours into it, but I enjoy it. It’s my outlet.”
His son Daniel helps with the secondary — just like his eldest son Gabe, now a Lompoc police officer, did when he was at Bishop.
“My daughter Sophia is handling the camera for us,” Molina said. “She’s a sophomore, playing varsity volleyball up at Orcutt Academy.”
The discipline he’s brought to Santa Barbara High has been a game-changer for the defense.
“I’ve always said that you can go in the right direction only when all 11 guys are on the same page,” he said. “Right now, everybody is on the same page.
“It took a while to get that, but these guys are athletes. They just needed a little bit more guidance, a little bit more structure.”
The firm hand has made a difference for Valencia.
“He’s been tough on me, but I like it,” he said. “It helps me grow.
“He’s been helping me a lot and helping me work hard in practice. He’s always on me … He cares about me.”
Molina has simplified the Dons’ defense, just like he did at Bishop. They play a zone coverage and rarely blitz, preferring to control the line of scrimmage “from sideline to sideline.”
“We run a lot of different schemes, but everything’s based off our 4-2 look — and we rarely even get into the 4-2,” he said. “Against Lompoc, my thinking was that we had to use our athletic linebackers, and we were able to disguise that.
“Our linebacker became a D end, and Lompoc had a hard time trying to figure out what we were doing.”
Molina started out as an offensive coach at Bishop but switched to defense when Norris Fletcher took over as head coach.
“I went to City College and coached over there with Chuck Melendez and Carmen DiPoalo,” he said. “I did the special teams and secondary. I learned a lot from Carmen. I always wanted to know all three sides of the ball.
“Later on, when I came back to Bishop with Tom (Crawford), he was obviously an offensive guy and I just stayed with the defense.”
Molina has 11 brothers and sisters, and every one of them graduated from Bishop. He has had several relatives compete for Santa Barbara High.
“My nephew, Ray Molina, was a Channel League champion in track in the 100, 200 and 400, so there are some Santa Barbara Dons in my family,” he said. “But you know what? I tell these kids that when I went to high school, we played a lot of Saturday nights … and on Friday nights, I’d be at Santa Barbara High, at Peabody.
“When I was a junior, they were Channel League champs with guys like Craig Moropoulos, Larry Fountain, Jim Beautrow … They had a great team. I was friends with all those guys and I’d watch them play.”
He considers himself a Dons’ history buff, and knows the story of the Golden Tornado.
“Last year, we lost two great alumni: Punky Bowman and Rino Filippin,” Molina said. “The players now don’t even know who these guys were, so I’ve been sharing their stories.
“I even talked about the movie that starred Robin Williams and Kurt Russell. I told them that (Ron) Shelton, the former Don who wrote the movie script, liked the name Rino so much that he used it in the movie.”
The movie was called “Best of Times.”
And for Molina and the Golden Tornado, they are back again.
Mark Patton’s column appears on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org