Brian “Chuckie” Roth remembers the day he saw the light.
He noticed a young girl who couldn’t stop smiling during water polo practice.
“She was having so much fun that I thought, ‘It’d be cool to be a coach,’” Roth recalled.
That little girl, Miranda Nichols, continued on to play at Santa Barbara High and USC. And Chuckie Roth went on to become one of the most decorated coaches in the history of the South Coast aquatics.
The National Federation of State High School Coaches Association honored him last week as its California Girls Swimming & Diving Coach of the Year for the 2018-19 school year.
Roth wears many coaching caps, guiding both the San Marcos High girls swimming and water polo teams. His Royals won the CIF-Southern Section’s Division 1 water polo title in 2018 after finishing second in 2017.
He holds the same jobs at SBCC. His Vaquero women won a state water polo title in 2017 and his swim team has is working on a 114-meet winning streak in the Western State Conference.
But Roth, Santa Barbara County’s Distinguished Educator of 2012-13, never wanted to be measured by championship banners.
“His main goal for us — he told us this on Day One — is to just be the best person you can be,” San Marcos senior Hannah Meyer said. “And over the course of the years, ever since I was 11, he’s told me that, ‘As long as you are the best person you can be, then I’m happy.’
“I love that guy so much. He’s like my second dad.”
Roth’s mother determined Chuckie’s calling in life when she noticed the same joy in her son that he would later see in little Miranda.
“When I’d go to practice as a little kid, she’d say, ‘You’re going to be a coach one day,’” Roth recalled.
He had his own powerful mentors in his parents, Chuck and Laura Roth, and in a family friend who helped pay his way through UCSB.
“My dad was a football player growing up and served in Vietnam, and Mom is a hairdresser,” Roth said. “She had a rough childhood and always wanted to make life better for us.
“They’re incredibly hard-working people who did whatever it took for their family.”
He went from Temple City High School to Cerritos College, but literally leapt at the chance to become a Gaucho. He got his chance when he spotted UCSB coach Gregg Wilson walk by during a club meet.
“He jumps out of his seat and goes, ‘Santa Barbara! I want to go to Santa Barbara!’” Wilson recalled. “He began selling himself to me right then and there. I’m thinking, ‘Who is this guy?’ He was a real live wire.”
Wilson was actually there to recruit Roth’s club teammate, Jeff Julian.
“I said, ‘Hey, I want to introduce myself … I’m Brian Roth, and I know you’re recruiting my best friend,’” Roth said. “He said, ‘Well, yes I am.’
“And I told him, ‘Well hey, he’s my best friend, like my brother. If you want him, I can make it happen. I know that if I go, he’ll come with me.’
“He was just floored. He came and watched a practice, and it was pretty gnarly. We went 25 100s … 10,000 yards straight. At least he knew that I wasn’t going to give up.”
Julian accepted a scholarship to USC. Roth walked on at UCSB, getting his tuition paid by a family friend, James Gamble.
“He paid for me, for my brother, for my sister — we didn’t have the financial means to go to college,” he said. “The only thing he asked was that I pay it forward.”
Roth began doing that the first day he stepped onto the pool deck at UCSB. He served two years as a swim captain. He also won the water polo team’s McComick Memorial Leadership Award in 1996.
“He was always the guy rallying the team with a cheer at the beginning of each meet,” Wilson said. “He’s a very important person in my professional career and it wasn’t because he was the fastest swimmer I ever had. It was because of the intangibles he brought.”
UCSB’s water polo coach, Joe O’Brien, saw the same things when he asked Roth to stick around to join his staff.
“I said no to Joe at first,” Roth admitted.
And then he saw a little girl’s smile, reminding him of where he found his own joy. He helped coach the Gauchos, and then took a job at his alma mater. He coached Temple City High to consecutive CIF-SS Division 3 championships in 2003 and 2004.
He returned to Santa Barbara the following year to teach and coach at San Marcos High. He met his wife, Leslie, and they are now raising three sons.
Roth also took over a girls water polo program that hadn’t won a Channel League match in two years. He remains as fond of that first team as he does of his 2018 CIF championship squad.
“We weren’t very good,” Roth admitted. “We didn’t make the playoffs my first six years here. It took a long time. But we always talked about leaving a legacy, and every year we got better.
“I still stay in touch with some of those girls on those first teams. I’ve been to two of their weddings. It’s a really special group.”
Wilson noticed the special bonds that Roth would form with his athletes every time he attended San Marcos swim meets.
“He’d have something to say to every single one of those girls after almost every single swim,” he said. “That’s why they love to swim for him.
“He takes the time. Every person is important.”
And it’s not just as athletes.
“He teaches us life lessons every day, from making sure we go to the prom with the right guy, to how to manage your money, to how to change the oil in your car,” Meyer said. “He taught me that.
“He’s been one of the greatest influencers I’ve ever had. I would not be a fraction of the person I am today if it weren’t for that guy.”
Fellow senior Cassidy Miller remembers Roth advising her to “Wait for the right guy to dance with.”
“Believe in yourself,” she added; “that’s one of the biggest things he tells.”
Miller will play water polo next year at UCLA. Meyer will play for USC.
Roth honored them and eight others on Thursday before the team’s Senior Day game against Dos Pueblos. He held it together while running the pregame ceremony, but it was a different story afterward.
“This might be the hardest one ever, to be honest,” he said, choking back the emotion. “I care about these kids tremendously. They’re like family to me. I’ve known them for a very long time, coached a lot of their older sisters.
“There will always be great classes and other great opportunities, So it’s a part of life. The hardest part is to say goodbye, right?”
And then he recalled a life lesson from one of his greatest mentors.
“Mom always said, ‘Don’t be sad it’s over … Be happy that it happened in the first place.’”