Bob Williams earned the nickname of Mr. February during the springtime of his UCSB coaching career.
He won 20 of 24 basketball games in that crucial month of basketball during the first three of his 19 seasons with the Gauchos and continued on to become the winningest coach in school history.
Williams spends his Februaries in a much colder place these days, on a lake halfway between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe. But three turns of the season since his unceremonious dismissal by UCSB have not brought him to a winter of discontent.
“I harbor no ill will,” he said when reached this week at his home at Lake of the Pines. “I have very clear feelings on it. With the season we had (6-22), I absolutely had zero problem with being fired.
“There’s no reason you shouldn’t be in the top four every year when you’re at a great place with a good enough facility, and when it’s that attractive to kids. If you fall to very last in that league, something tactically needs to be changed.”
Williams took a deep breath before adding, “I have a little bit of an issue how it was handled, but that’s it.”
He was visiting family in Santa Cruz when a friend alerted him that his dismissal was being reported on the CBS Sports web site. A former UCSB athletics administrator had reportedly leaked the news.
As blunders go, it eclipsed the many that had occurred during a basketball season marred by injuries and academic ineligibilities.
Gabe Vincent, a junior guard at the time, had missed that entire February after tearing a knee ligament.
“I love coach,” he said when he got the word. “I wish I had him for another year. He’s a big reason why I came here.
“He’s been a great coach here for 19 years and this season is not a reflection of who he is as a coach. It’s what I feel most bad about.”
Vincent was credible enough to become the fourth Gaucho in the last decade to make the NBA. Williams was at Golden 1 Center on Friday to watch him take the floor with the Miami Heat in its game against the Sacramento Kings.
“I had breakfast with him in Santa Cruz just a week earlier, when he was playing for Miami’s G League team,” Williams said. “We had a great time, talking about it all.
“Gabe was as mature as any freshman I ever brought in. The way he fit in with a junior- and senior-laden team was remarkable.”
It’s been a February of reflection altogether for Williams. His previous school, UC Davis, honored him and his 1998 NCAA Division 2 national championship team when it kicked off Alumni Weekend on Feb. 1.
“They had a big banner-raising ceremony — the old one kind of disappeared a few years ago,” Williams said. “The best part was getting together with people I hadn’t seen in a long time.”
UCSB would be terribly remiss if it fails to honor Williams some day. He guided the Gauchos to three NCAA Tournaments (2002, 2010 and 2011), two NITs (2003 and 2008) and three other postseason tournaments while compiling a win-loss record of 312-260.
His best coaching came during the worst of times. His first UCSB team of 1998-99 lost its first eight games.
“Something like four or five of those were lost in the last three seconds,” Williams said. “I remember, in the darkest moments, of sitting in the little studio I had at the time and thinking, ‘Whoa! Am I over my head here?’
“It’s an easy thing to blame talent and that’s really the worst thing you can ever do.”
Williams instead demanded that his staff— assistant coaches Marty Wilson, John Wheeler, and Greg Clink — “have the team in a full sweat and enthusiastic before I even stepped onto the floor.”
“The primary goal of that year was to change the level of enthusiasm in the program,” he said.
He also stoked the star quality in B.J. Bunton, a powerful, 6-foot-7 forward from Kentucky who had languished through his first three years at UCSB.
“I remember meeting with him and saying, ‘You can’t disappear because I’m going to run every play to you during the last five minutes of every game,’” Williams said. “He was such a great kid — everybody loved him — and he really responded to that.
“The physicality that we had with that backcourt of Larry Bell and Derrick Allen was also unmatched. I’d never before been able to coach that physical style of defense.”
The Gauchos wound up winning 15 of their last 20 games to finish first in the Big West’s Western Division.
Adaptability was one of Williams’ greatest strengths.
“For the most part, I was a problem solver,” he said. “We were constantly trying to eliminate problems and we stayed really flexible in how we played, where that was defensively or offensively.
“We never got hooked on a system. We evolved most every year. Not always, but most years we were at our best edition of that team by February.”
In Williams’ fourth season, UCSB nearly upset Arizona in the first round of the 2002 NCAA Tournament. Mark Hull —Williams’ first Gaucho recruit —scored 32 points while making eight three-pointers in that game.
“Mark was an absolute joy to coach,” he said. “He was such a big-game player. That NCAA game and our NIT game the following year at San Diego State were two of his best games.
“Nick Jones was another big-game player, and Orlando (Johnson) obviously loved that environment, too. Those type of guys loved the challenge of the big games.”
Three of his former players won Big West Player of the Year honors: Branduinn Fullove in 2003, Alex Harris in 2008, and Johnson in 2010. Johnson was his first player to make the NBA, although James Nunnally, Alan Williams, and Vincent were all soon to follow.
“The thing is, that’s no more gratifying to me than the guys who decide to go on to law school, or to graduate school,” Williams said. “I’m equally as happy with the guys who’ve bounced around the G League, or who’ve chased their dreams overseas.
“And I’m so proud of a player like Mark Hull who decided not to play professional basketball at all so he could start his life with his new wife and become a fireman. I’m happy they made good choices for themselves.”
Hull and his wife, former UCSB volleyball star Brie Lampe, are raising five children in the Sacramento area.
One of Williams’ finest moments as a coach came after a dreadful February in 2011 when four losses in five games dropped the Gauchos’ Big West record below .500.
“We’d won the Big West Tournament the year before and went to the NCAAs, and now everybody on campus, and in Isla Vista, was telling them how good they were,” he recalled. “They were hearing it every time they went out to eat.
“They didn’t handle success very well and it became a real problem.”
Williams decided to have each player and coach write his grievances onto a piece of paper.
“He then had us light the papers on fire and throw them into a trash can,” Nunnally recalled a few years ago. “And that was the end of that.”
The Gauchos won their regular-season finale and then blew through the Big West Tournament.
“We boat-raced UOP, boat-raced the No. 1 seed Northridge, and then beat our nemesis, Long Beach State, in the finals by eight points,” Williams said. “That was a very resilient group.”
His best coaching job, however, might have come during his final February of 2017.
“I remember the day I was sitting in my office after we’d lost Gabe — we’d already lost our three bigs — and I was thinking, ‘Holy moly, we’re going to need help keeping everyone’s heads up and keeping a perspective on things,’” Williams said. “And so I hired a sports psychologist off my own nickel … and he worked wonders with them.”
The undermanned Gauchos wound up winning three of their last five games.
“That might’ve been the greatest stretch in my tenure in Santa Barbara, considering what we had,” Williams said.
And then he was fired.
Williams did some color commentary on several Big West telecasts the last two years but declined to return to the microphone this season.
“No. 1, I thoroughly enjoyed it, had a great time with it,” he said. “But the reality is that if I’m going to have an opportunity with it, it would be in Southern California, and I don’t live in Southern California.
“That’s a quite a commute for a Big West payday.”
And so Williams awaits the next turn of the season by a lake in Northern California.’
“I’ve never had trouble relaxing,” he said with a laugh. “I’m not constantly needing a new challenge — I’m pretty good with that. Living up here on the lake in winter is tough, which is why I spend so much time in other places.
“But I do love the lake life in the summer, going out on the boat, hitting golf balls. I own a golf cart and I buzz around on it.”
And he’ll catch an occasional basketball game, like the final minutes of ESPNU’s telecast of Saturday’s UCSB-UC Irvine game.
“That was a great win for them,” Williams said of the Gauchos’ 64-61 triumph over the first-place Anteaters.
The Gauchos head up to his neck of the woods tonight for Thursday’s game at UC Davis.
“I hear he’s brought in great kids with really good character,” Williams said of his successor, Joe Pasternack. “I really admire his recruiting. I have great respect anytime a coach recruits good players who are good people, too, and who belong academically.
“You’re representing the school the right way when you do that.”
Mr. February did that, too. He should get his day in the sun for that.
Mark Patton’s column appears on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. Email: email@example.com