A rolling J.T. Stone may gather no moss, but the former star quarterback from Dos Pueblos High has huddled up plenty of disciples during his many travels as a football coach.
The former Air Force brat has finally found a lasting home at Santa Barbara High — his fourth stop in 18 seasons of coaching prep football in the county.
“I love it here,” he said as he drilled his first-place Dons in the baseball outfield of Eddie Mathews Field. The sounds of construction at a new Peabody Stadium echoed in the distance, symbolizing a program that he sees as a work still in progress.
“I’m blessed to have the right coaches and the ability to do the things necessary to continue the tradition here at Santa Barbara High School,” Stone continued. “Being from DP and seeing myself here now … it is all pretty unreal.”
The reality this season — his sixth as the Dons’ head coach — is a win-loss record of 7-2 and a Channel League mark of 4-0. They clinched at least a tie for the conference championship with Friday’s 53-9 romp at Cabrillo and they can win it outright in next Friday’s season finale at his alma mater.
“I can’t wait for that,” said Stone, who graduated with Dos Pueblos’ Class of 1995. “I love the high school atmosphere. I feel like we had a great one when we played San Marcos. The one in Lompoc last week was great, too, so we’re looking for another one of those.
“DP is going to come to play, we know that. They’re fighting for the playoffs, so we’re just going to get ready for that.”
The game will be played at the stadium named after one of his beloved mentors, the late Scott O’Leary. Stone gets especially wistful when he talks about his former head coach, Jeff Hesselmeyer, who was only 58 when he died unexpectedly in 2011.
They are why he now coaches.
“A lot of it started for me with coach Hess,” Stone said, his voice trailing off as he choked back tears. “It’s tough … This man didn’t know me — I’d come here from back East — and he embraced what I had and opened up so many doors for me.
“The minute I met Coach O and Coach Hess, the way they took me in … And it wasn’t just the football. They were life coaches who helped me to understand what it is to have passion for these kids.”
He was a rolling Stone during his own childhood. His parents, David and Janet Stone, met while serving in the Air Force. J.T. was born when they were stationed in Germany.
“We moved to Lompoc, Virginia, Pittsburgh, Maryland,” Stone said. “We were all over the place until they finally came back to California and made a home in Santa Barbara for me and my brothers.
“I was in seventh grade at the time. I went to Goleta Valley Junior High and then DP, and I had some wonderful teachers there. This became a special place for me.”
He calls his father “The Mayor of Santa Barbara — everybody knows Stoney” — and said his passion for working with kids comes from his mom.
“Growing up, we had a lot of friends at the house,” said Stone, who teaches special education at Santa Barbara High. “We moved so much because of the Air Force, but she was really good at meeting people. She’s such a people person.
“My mom loved kids and that’s something that’s just in me, too.”
His playing career at Dos Pueblos was nearly a brief one when the school district attempted to close the school because of declining enrollment. The specter of a lawsuit forced it to reconsider, but the school’s football program suffered in the process with back-to-back, 1-9 seasons.
Stone helped recharge the Chargers in the fall of 1994, however, with a record-setting senior season in which he passed for 2,479 yards. No high school quarterback in the county had ever thrown for more yardage during a regular-season schedule.
“Coach Hess saw something in me and gave me the opportunity to open up our offense,” he recalled. “That got the ball rolling. From there, we turned it over to Anthony Ramos, and then my brother Jason and the Brunner brothers.
“Suddenly, DP football was on the map.”
Stone continued from there to SBCC where four of his records still stand: Most completions (39) and passing touchdowns (six) in a game, and most passing yards (3,107) and total offensive yards (3,556) in a season. He passed for 5,723 yards during his two seasons as a Vaquero.
A few years later, his brother Jason set several receiving records at SBCC. His youngest brother, Julyan “Ju Ju” Stone, played in the NBA for four seasons, most recently in 2018 with the Charlotte Hornets, and is now playing basketball in Italy.
J.T. wanted to keep his own hand in athletics after spending a year at West Texas A&M. He began helping DP’s staff in 2002 before getting jobs with more responsibility at Righetti High in 2006 and then St. Joseph’s in 2009.
Stone also founded Big Picture Athletics, a training program for “the youth of the 805” area code. It has him connected to most of the county’s recent crop of prep football stars.
Junior Deacon Hill, the Dons’ current starting quarterback, was a fourth-grader when he answered an advertisement and met Stone on the playing fields of Goleta’s Foothill School.
“I was a little intimidated at first because, from youth football all the way up to the high school level, he brings his intensity to every practice,” Hill said. “He brings a lot of energy and passion.
“He’s all about us — all of us players — in making sure that we’re all good in life and good in school, and especially good in football. It’s like a father-figure type of passion. He brings that to the table and you start gravitating toward him.
“And I can’t tell you how much he’s taught me about the quarterback position.”
He’s also taught him about focus. Stone’s catch phrase, Hill pointed out, is “Rock ‘n’ roll.”
“When he yells ‘rock,’ we just keep practicing,” he said. “But when someone is messing around, he’ll yell ‘roll,’ which means we have to roll for 200 yards as a punishment.
“He’ll pull us together and go, ‘Are we rocking or are we rolling today?’”
Hill is the third-straight Dons’ quarterback to have been tutored in Stone’s Big Picture Athletics, following in the footsteps of Brent Peus and Frankie Gamberdella.
“Brent was one of my first quarterbacks, but I had a couple of guys before that,” Stone said.
“At Righetti I had T.J. Jordan and Justin Level, who went on to Idaho State.
“I had Paul Avila at St. Joe, and Curry Parham for a little bit there, too. I’ve had my hand in developing a couple of kids in the area who are now coordinating at their old high schools. It’s pretty cool to see that.”
He was hired by Santa Barbara High during the early months of 2013 to become one of Doug Caines’ assistants. But barely six months later, he took over as head coach. Stone is now the longest-tenured head coach at Santa Barbara High since Craig Moropoulos held the reins from 1999 to 2005.
Caines, a former Dons’ lineman, is now the head coach at Dos Pueblos.
Stone shrugged off the biggest irony of Friday’s matchup: two head coaches going against their alma maters for a championship.
“You know, things happen for a reason,” he said.
He’s coached some memorable games against Dos Pueblos, including a last-second, 14-13 victory at Scott O’Leary Stadium in 2016. It earned him a Channel League tri-championship with the Chargers and Ventura — his first title with the Dons.
The game he remembers most, however, came the following year, when he lost to his alma mater for the first time, 31-19. DP continued from there to the CIF-Southern Section finals.
“We talk about that game to this day,” Stone said. “We’re taking that into next week, that anything can happen in the game of football.”
But it isn’t the most important thing that can happen.
“I’m actually not out here for the football,” Stone insisted. “I’m out here because of these kids, because I know I can help them become the men they truly want to be.
“I hold them accountable and treat them the same way my coach treated me, going above and beyond. I see how important this game can be in developing a boy into a man, and showing them how to do the right things in life.”
He paused a moment, reflecting on his own, long journey which brought him to Santa Barbara High. Maybe it shouldn’t be considered odd that someone would coach at his rival’s high school.
“I’m really blessed that I had a Coach Hess to show me these things, and show me kindness – and who just cared about me,” Stone said. “Even if I don’t coach, I know I can still call up every single one of these kids on any given day, and have them come to my house, and I can be with them.
“The reason we’re here is to help them grow. That’s my life now.”
Mark Patton’s column appears on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org