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The last time I sat in the press box at UCSB's Harder Stadium, in December 1992, it was to cover the final intercollegiate football game in the school's not-so-illustrious football history. The Gauchos -- a Division III independent left to barnstorm from Sonoma to Azusa to Chico and back -- won a hard-fought game. Or maybe they lost. I can't remember. (It's been that long.) Later that school year, the student body voted the team out of existence, choosing to cut off the meager funds that had kept the program afloat rather than pay the annual equivalent of three Monster burritos from Isla Vista's Mecca, Freebird's. It sounds petty, short-sighted, absurd. But they weredamn good burritos.
Such was life at UCSB, where truth be told, we couldn't be bothered to care much about the school's sports teams. Oh, sure, back in the day, when the UNLV teams swaggered into town with Larry Johnson and Stacy Augmon, Greg Anthony and Moses Scurry, and the ESPN cameras arrived to watch us toss tortillas from the Thunderdome rafters and raise hell after the occasional upset, the student body showed. We were early-'90s NCAA basketball media whores, and that was good enough.
Athletics were really no more than the 26th (or maybe 27th) most compelling reason to attend this Nirvana. I've often been accused of shameless pro-California shilling, but how could you not want to go to school here? This town is God's country. Or Allah's country, or Yahweh's country, or Zeus' country: No matter the deity, he/she/it clearly had his/her/its retirement in mind when conceiving of Santa Barbara, hard by the Pacific, Channel Islands and dolphin pods filling its horizon. So a school located here, well ... its athletic teams never had a chance, competing with surfing and the weather and the 60-40 female-to-male ratio (all at a place that consistently ranks among the top-20 public schools in the land). UCSB sports were network, and everything else was cable. What would you have watched?
On weekend days, the lure of a morning surf, a big Blue Dolphin breakfast, and then back to the couch for a full plate of the best college or pro games in the land trumped any need to cheer on the home folks. Maybe a national-championship contender might've changed things.
Which is why I'm back in this seat again. Wednesday night, the men's soccer team -- the No. 1-in-the-nation men's soccer team -- hosted Big West Conference rival Cal State Fullerton in a chippy affair that saw the Gauchos jump to a 2-0 lead, give up three stunning goals in a 14-minute stretch of the first half (two on penalty kicks), only to rally for a 4-3 win on a golden goal in double OT. Still, on an ethereal fall night, a scant 893 people came out to watch a game played by their top-ranked team. Head coach Tim Vom Steeg has a legitimate national-power program on his hands.
I just hope people find out about it before it's too late. So I say to you, current Gauchos: Be better than we were. Ours was a sad legacy, unfortunately passed down for generations. Be better than we were. Stop whatever super-cool thing you're doing, and go watch this team. It may be your last chance to be a part of a national championship run. You'll be glad you did.
Trust me. Because I've seen this movie before, and around these parts, it ends with a whimper and a full stomach and an empty stadium.
NFL'S TOP FIVE (or SIX) TEAMS, BECAUSE I SAID SO
1. New England (3-0): Three games in, and I'm running out of accolades for these guys. While not overly excited by the NFL-record-tying 18 consecutive wins -- since when were regular-season and playoff victories considered the same? -- I'm amazed that a team can seem so dynastic in this talent-thinned era.
2. Seattle (3-0): The defense that's giving up 4.3 points a game faces its toughest test thus far against the Rams at home this week. A 'Hawks victory lets them keep pace with Philly for home-field throughout. I say they get the win -- and a chokehold on the NFC West.
3. Philadelphia (4-0): It's not the Iggles' fault that the last two wins have come against defenseless Detroit and punchless Chicago. The same weak schedule should allow them to be a perfect 8-0 -- and, perhaps, reach No. 2 in this poll -- heading into their Nov. 7 game at Pittsburgh. (They get retroactive bonus points, however, for the opening W over the 3-1 Giants.)
4. Indianapolis (3-1): Proved again that they travel with no fear last week, convincingly beating Jacksonville on the road. Memo to the Oakland Raiders: Cover Brandon Stokeley.
5. Jacksonville (3-1): Tough loss to the Colts means only that Peyton Manning's really, really good (and that somebody forgot to cover Brandon Stokeley). But that Jax D is phenomenal -- only the Patriots tackle as well -- and Byron Leftwich is getting more comfortable by the week.
6. Atlanta (4-0), New York Jets (3-0) [tie]: Both deserve a mention, for surprising records and overachieving play. Both have interesting home games this week -- Falcons host Detroit, the Jets host Buffalo. If one (or both) win, I'll consider breaking this tie. But for now ...
THREE SPORTING THOUGHTS (MLB Postseason edition)
1. They did it, didn't they? The Boys in Blue did it, and while they looked like the Washington Generals in St. Louis yesterday -- L.A.'s Game 1 starter ... Odalis Perez? What, was Burt Hooton deactivated? -- I can't complain. It appears just making the playoffs will have to do this year, something the Dodgers themselves seemed to realize, given the players' volcanic celebration of Steve Finley's NL West-clinching grand slam home run last Saturday. (Though don't believe the hype that the Dodgers wanted to eliminate the Giants altogether. If Bonds' Boys had made it, they'd be the ones getting knocked around in St. Louis.) Fellow Blogger Chris Ballard deserves high praise for the decent way he took his San Francisco Giants' devastating loss -- by not answering his cell phone after seeing my number pop up -- though I regret not transcribing the adult-beverage-addled Ballard's equally supportive message following last Friday night's S.F. win over L.A., which had given him oh-so-brief hope. Ballard and I will now commence Lakers-Warriors bloggish fisticuffs. (Oh, and sorry about those Niners, dude.)
2. While the rest of the division series devolve into sleeping aids, how nice to see the bloated Yankees and pesky Twins play two close ones to open their series. And while a Twins' series win would be nice -- I dare you to live in New York for more than two years and not hate the Yankees -- it'd be even better if the Red Sox knocked them out, so we would NEVER HAVE TO HEAR ABOUT IT ALL, EVER AGAIN. Then again, I fear I might drown in the hype ...
2. Astros-Cardinals. Have to admit, I can't wait ...
THREE SPORTING THOUGHTS (non-sports edition)
1. As Mt. St Helens appears ready to maybe blow her top, here's hoping crack Seattle newswoman (and faithful Blog reader) Mary Nam stays safe covering the eruption. Mary, your city needs you, your Mariners need you, your dog needs you.
2. The vice-presidential debate had its moments, but I can't imagine it changed the mind of a single voter who watched.
3. I should give a nod to another former reality-show contestant who's succeeded on par with Real World: London cast member Jacinda Barrett, who co-stars in the current firefighter drama, Ladder 49. It's none other than Kit Hoover, the Georgian spitfire formerly of the first Road Rules cast who now co-hosts ESPN's Cold Pizza (where I appear every Wednesday to talk all things NFL) and is a judge on ESPN's own reality show, Dream Job. A nicer, more generous person does not exist, especially in this business, and I should never have left her out. Though easy to overlook -- she's the smallest non-dwarf I've ever met -- Kit's a talented, seasoned professional. But come back next week for the first Their16th Minute, where the post-reality-show lives of the no-longer-famous are laid bare. And keep those responses coming ...
BAG O' MAIL
First of all, a sincere thanks to all of you who write. It's nice to know someone's reading this thing.
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ICHIRO RULES: Many, many angry guffaws from the Pacific Northwest in response to Rick Sutcliffe's statement during the final Yankees-Red Sox series of the regular season, when he said that BoSox leadoff man Johnny Damon had a better year than Seattle leadoff man -- and new all-time single-season hit king -- Ichiro.
Writes Eric Killian of Vancouver, Wash.: "Sutcliffe actually said Damon is having a better year than Ichiro? He should be unqualified to ever appear as a knowledgable baseball analyst again.
IT WAS A REVERSE JINX, PEOPLE: A few folks out there apparently didn't quite understand my premature Dodger burial. Contrary to last week's protestation, I was, in fact, cooking up the classic -- and successful -- reverse jinx. So in answer to Angeleno Maritza Oden's query: "HOW DO YOU LIKE THE DODGERS NOW?"
I like them a lot, Maritza. Just not as much as the Cardinals pitchers and hitters do at the moment.
Writes Toni J., from Westchester, Calif., "What's with trying to doom our Dodgers? Guess they showed you! HA!"
Thanks for your support ... Mom.
Chris from Fort Walton Beach took umbrage with me for writing that naming the new baseball team in Washington, D.C., the Grays -- in honor of the city's Negro League team and, really, the generations of ballplayers relegated to the second-class league -- would also shame the city's football team, still the "indefensibly offensive Redskins."
Chris asks, "How can you call the team from Washington the "indefensibly offensive Redskins" when 90 percent of American Indians have no problem with the name? In a poll conducted among 768 Native Americans by the University of Pennsylvania, just 9 percent said that the Redskins' nickname is offensive.
If they aren't offended, what makes you think you should be?"
Chris: Regardless of whether respondents to a poll took offense -- and white America has so pillaged and destroyed the many Native American cultures that I'm hardly surprised if cultural pride doesn't rate high on their lists of important issues -- the term "redskin" is an epithet. Period. It's a derogatory term, plain and simple. And it is wrong.
That's the great thing about having this column. I get to write what I think is true. And you get to disagree if you want. But on this point, I can't see how you possibly can.