Mike Moropoulos could warm up the coldest of Friday nights.
He did that once for News-Press reporter Paul Yarbrough, who was shivering in the stands one autumn evening while covering one of Moropoulos’ Santa Barbara High football games.
The long-time coach handed a full-length, team jacket to one of his Dons and said, “Take this to that guy who’s turning blue up there.”
Moropoulos wouldn’t give you just the shirt off his back, he’d give you his coat, too.
The thousands of us who were touched by the former coach, teacher, and athletic director are the ones feeling blue today: Our dear, benevolent friend passed away Tuesday morning at age 90.
He is survived by his wife Pat, a distinguished educator in her own right, and sons Chris and Craig.
Moropoulos retired as Santa Barbara’s head coach in 1980 with a record of 38-24-1. He guided his last team to a 13-1 record, with the lone loss coming to Long Beach Poly in the CIF-Southern Section championship game. He was inducted into the Santa Barbara Athletic Round Table Hall of Fame just two years later.
But what separated him from his peers wasn’t his record, or even his much longer service as an athletic director and assistant coach. It was how he was so sincerely revered by even his rivals.
The late Sut Puailoa, who served concurrently as both a coach and A.D. at San Marcos, had played football with Moropoulos at UCSB. They remained steadfast teammates even while facing each other on Big Game Day.
Sut’s son Scott, a quarterback for the Royals, would find Moropoulos “cooking with my dad” at the family barbecues during the heat of their rivalry.
“That was just what we did,” he said, “because we were all in the same family, and because it was all about the kids.”
Scott O’Leary, who was also both coach and A.D. at Dos Pueblos, said Moropoulos had an altruistic approach to his profession.
“I’ve had a chance to see him work under pressure,” he said, “and I’ve seen him make some very wise decisions about what was best for students.”
Moropoulos became only the second athletic director in Santa Barbara High’s long history when he succeeded Clarence Schutte in 1965. He professed his philosophy to every coach who ever came under his wing.
Andrew Butcher, the girls basketball coach for the last 38 years, had Moropoulos spell it out to him “not long after I started coaching here.”
“He pointed to some of my star players,” he continued, “and he said, ‘They’re great, but they aren’t really what high school sports is for … High school sports are for the kid at the bottom of the bench who plays four-to-five games, the kid who is shy or withdrawn, who doesn’t have confidence.’
“We’ve had some great players go through here. But I also remember ones who came in as sophomores real shy and unsure of themselves and how much they changed by their senior year.”
Moropoulos, the son of a Greek immigrant, had been a star himself while playing both football and baseball for the Class of 1949 at Los Angeles Bell High. USC offered him an athletic scholarship but he considered UCSB to be a better fit.
He played center and linebacker for the Gauchos until the Korean War put his athletic career on hold. He spent the next few years in the U.S. Army as a military policeman.
Moropoulos didn’t miss a beat when he returned to UCSB to play one more season during the fall of 1954. He earned his teammates’ vote not only as team captain, but also as their most valuable player.
He did his student teaching at Santa Barbara High under legendary Don Chuck Sylvester. He fell so in love with the school that he balked at a head coaching offer from El Segundo High.
“I waited for Santa Barbara High to call, and no way do I think that was a mistake,” Moropoulos would say many years later. “I love being able to live here and coach here.”
The Dons hired him onto their staff, and he eventually became the defensive coordinator for head football coach Sam Cathcart. Together, they led Santa Barbara to the 1960 CIF-SS championship.
The late Johnny Gilbert, the star running back on that team, said Moropoulos was so respected by the players that when he’d tell them to quiet down, “You could hear a pin drop.”
“They taught us to play the game hard, shake hands and move on,” Gilbert added.
Moropoulos was offered several more head coaching jobs but remained as Cathcart’s assistant for nearly two decades.
“Sam gave me full control of my part of the team,” he explained. “I decided early that I would rather be an assistant at Santa Barbara High than a head coach somewhere else.
“Besides, I had my sons so fired up with the traditions of this place, I don’t think I could have moved without letting them become Santa Barbara High Dons. If I had wanted to move to a head coaching job, they would have let me move by myself.”
Wife Pat was just as dedicated a Don. The only game she ever missed during her husband’s tenure was when she was pregnant with Craig.
“I would bet she has seen more Santa Barbara High games than anyone in town,” Moropoulos said.
She even knitted a pair of socks for Sam Cunningham, who would continue on to play for USC and the NFL’s New England Patriots. The Moropoulos’ considered him, like his younger brother Randall and many other Dons, to be part of their family.
“I don’t want to get sentimental, but Sam’s greatest talent is being a great person,” Moropoulos said after Cunningham was selected for the 1978 Pro Bowl. “There are other guys who are 6-3, 220 pounds and run like a deer, but how often do they show such character and humility?”
Coaching his own sons gave Moropoulos his greatest joy. He took over as the Dons’ head coach in 1975 and won the Channel League championship with Craig at quarterback in 1977. They got one last game together during the Santa Barbara County High School All-Star Game.
“He’s been on the sidelines with me ever since he was a little squirt,” Mike said. “We have pictures of him working along the sidelines as a ball boy.
“Craig’s been watching football films with me for a long time now. He’s always been extremely interested in the kids who’ve played at Santa Barbara High. He can remember every one of them.”
Craig followed his dad’s footsteps into coaching and just completed his 13th season at Santa Barbara City College. He also served as the head coach at his alma mater from 1999 to 2005, luring his dad out of retirement to serve as his assistant.
They both also served as golf coaches at Santa Barbara High, with dad guiding the Dons to a CIF-Southern Section championship in 1972 and Craig coaching them to the CIF Central Coast Divisional Tournament title in 2007.
“I am saddened beyond words,” Craig wrote on his Facebook page while announcing his father’s passing on Tuesday morning, “but I feel so blessed to have been led by my dad, my mentor, my coach and my best friend.”
His dad had actually come out of retirement once before, to help UCSB resurrect its football program in 1983. He and Puailoa put together a club team and then turned it over to Mike Warren when it earned intercollegiate status.
Moropoulos, an avid fisherman, was also kept busy writing a weekly, award-winning outdoors column for the News-Press. He penned it faithfully for 13 years, beginning the year he retired as Santa Barbara’s A.D., in 1989.
He interviewed himself for his very first, amusing column.
When the “questioning” turned to fish and game laws, he asked himself, “Have you ever poached?”
“Love ‘em,” he replied. “The only way to cook eggs.”
It was classic Mike Moropoulos, who never took himself too seriously — even as he made one of the most serious impacts that Santa Barbara High educator has ever achieved.
Mark Patton’s column appears on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday.