Posted: Jul 21, 2021
We met during the Orwellian year of 1984, just before tipoff for the Gold Medal basketball game at the Los Angeles Olympics.
"You're gonna love this guy," said Jay Lucas, UCSB's sports information director at the time, as he led me into the Forum's media room.
"I guess that rules out Bobby Knight," I replied dryly, referring to the media-bashing coach of Team USA. "So are you taking me to — dare I dream — Michael Jordan?"
Not quite. I was to meet Bill Mahoney, a young sportswriter that Lucas was about to lure onto his media relations staff.
But Jay was right. Love him, I have. And so has Gaucho Nation during the 37 years he's served the university. His tenure as Associate Athletics Director for Communications finally came to an end with his retirement last month.
Mahoney, a graduate of Redlands High and Long Beach State, chronicled the exploits of nearly two dozen UCSB sports during a run that began when the university was still playing intercollegiate football. His photographic memory gifted the Gauchos with their own walking, talking encyclopedia.
He can recite the box score from UCSB's 1990 NCAA basketball tournament win over Houston as well as the starting lineup of its NCAA Regional baseball team that played at Arizona State three months later. He knows the birthdate of alum Gabe Vincent, now of the NBA's Miami Heat (it's the same as Bill's daughter, Emilie), and can tell you that Mark Hull (basketball, Class of 2003) and wife Brie Lampe Hull (volleyball, Class of 2002) have had five children including two sets of twins since their Gaucho marriage.
Mahoney can even remember the license plate number (CN6034) of the old, rusted trailer that housed the Gaucho sports information office before the completion of the new Intercollegiate Athletics Building in 2005.
"There was a little space between the floor and the bottom of the trailer, and you could hear the little animals crawling around there at night," he recalled. "There was even a fox that liked to wander around the place."
But no creature ever kept Mahoney from his appointed rounds of delivering Gaucho news. His extraordinary devotion became especially valuable in spreading the good word of a men's basketball program that had burst onto the national scene in the late 1980s.
The Thunderdome may have been constructed by coach Jerry Pimm and star players such as Brian Shaw, Carrick DeHart, Eric McArthur and Lucius Davis, but it was Mahoney who actually named UCSB's arena. He came up with the moniker on Feb. 19, 1987 during the closing seconds of a pivotal Big West Conference game against San Jose State.
A large student crowd had come to check out a Gaucho team that was on the verge of snapping a string of 10 losing seasons. The students virtually won that game after the Spartans' Gerald Thomas went to the free throw line with no time remaining, needing to make two foul shots to overcome a UCSB lead of 53-52.
"Coach Pimm called a timeout, and that gave the students enough time to stream out of their section and head behind the basket," Mahoney recalled. "They started screaming and shaking the basket's stanchion, which had a couple of towel kids standing on it.
"Mitch Massey from Channel 6 (KSBY-TV) called to get a score, but it was so loud that I could barely hear him. It was the year after the movie 'Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome' came out, and I told Mitch, 'I can't hear you — it's like the Thunderdome in here.' "
Thomas, visibly rattled, missed both free throws — and Massey didn't miss the opportunity of referring to UCSB's former Campus Events Center as "The Thunderdome" during that night's sportscast.
"That was really when the seeds were planted," Mahoney said.
Thunderdome had become the arena's official name by the time the Gauchos were securing their first NCAA Division 1 Tournament bid in 1988.
Mahoney began a streak of working 957 consecutive games that season. He went to great lengths to keep that string alive, even convincing his sister-in-law to change her wedding date so he wouldn't miss a 2002 home game against UC Irvine.
He usually took the team bus a day before each road game, confessing to a "bizarre fear of driving myself on game day, my car breaks down, and I miss the game."
It took nothing less than a pandemic to break that streak during UCSB's run to the Big West Conference championship last season.
Mahoney's ironman service spanned the careers of three coaches: one that he looked up to as a father figure (Jerry Pimm), another that he regarded as a brother (Bob Williams), and the third that he considers more like a son (Joe Pasternack).
"I was pretty lucky," Bill told me after last year's NCAA Tournament season, "to have worked for three real special people."
His devotion to the Gauchos once stirred him into foiling a heckler that was running along press row to taunt the Gauchos after a first-round loss to UC Irvine during the 1994 Big West Tournament.
"When he got near me," Mahoney confessed, "I shoved my chair back to stop him."
He even took a bullet for the Gauchos before a 1993 game at UNLV.
We were walking along the Las Vegas Strip when a car pulled alongside. A man pointed a gun out the passenger window and fired what appeared to be a small missile. I leaned back to avoid the projectile and it missed me by inches before striking Mahoney's left thigh.
"Hey, wait a minute," he said matter-of-factly. "I just got shot."
As I reached for the hot CO2 cartridge that lay at our feet, Mahoney fingered the hole that had been punched into his pants. An ugly welt was already forming on his thigh.
"You want to go to the hospital?" I asked.
"No way," he replied. He didn't want to risk missing the game.
But Mahoney has missed some of UCSB's most dramatic endings. He adopted the superstition of looking away whenever an opposing team tried to beat the Gauchos with a last-second shot.
"I just turn and look at our bench and wait for their reaction," he revealed.
Mahoney's most difficult task as a Gaucho publicist was not to report a lost game, but the loss of four young lives in 2001 after a mentally disturbed individual drove his car through a crowd in the student community of Isla Vista.
"I sat through a meeting in Cheadle Hall and had to write the announcement that was made prior to our game against Pacific the next day," he said. "It was a very emotional and difficult thing for me to write, especially after hearing the graphic details about what happened."
But Mahoney stuck with UCSB through both bad times and good, shrugging off the type of opportunities that were afforded to his predecessors. Donn Bernstein became a spokesperson for ABC Sports a few years after leaving the Gauchos to become sports information director at the University of Washington. Bob Vasquez also left UCSB to work in the Pac-12 for Stanford.
Lucas, the man who brought Mahoney to UCSB, departed Santa Barbara for Major League Baseball, earning World Series rings as the media relations director for both the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1988 and the Los Angeles Angels in 2002.
But Bill Mahoney decided long ago that UCSB was the crown jewel of his sporting world.
"It may seem like kind of a pat answer," he explained, "but I fell in love with Santa Barbara."
<Editor's note: Story by Mark Patton, special to UCSBGauchos.com. Mark Patton also retired last month after 43 years as a sportswriter and columnist at the Santa Barbara News-Press, the last 38 of which were spent as the Gaucho beat writer.>