In just one year, the number of attendees to the Mustang-Gaucho showdown skyrocketed from 1,123 to 8,102.
The difference? A little rumor that the defending national champs were headed north.
Undefeated in the twelve-part series against the Mustangs and newly backed by their first NCAA title in history, the 2007 No.10 UCSB men’s soccer team strode confidently into the familiar stadium of San Luis Obispo. There, an unprecedented audience of 7,143 green- and gold-clad fans waited not-so patiently to watch their beloved squad take down the reigning champions.
This game was the first time Cal Poly had beaten UCSB since 2000.
The Gauchos’ fanbase responded eagerly upon their team’s return home that year, rallying a record-breaking 8,102 people into a packed Harder Stadium for the rematch between the two squads.
At the time, only few recognized the historic shift in the oppositional dynamic of Cal Poly-Santa Barbara soccer. One of them was the 2006 NCAA Division I National Coach of the Year—a.k.a., UCSB’s very own head coach, Tim Vom Steeg.
Vom Steeg’s familiarity with Cal Poly dates back to 1985 when he began playing collegiate soccer for UCSB. Now into his 20th year at the helm of the soccer program, the seasoned coach is able to look back at 30+ years of match-ups and observe the evolution of the rivalrous nature between the programs.
“We’ve always had kind of a natural rivalry against them because of the location and distance. Even back when I played, it was always a game that we used to always want to play,” Vom Steeg reflects.
Cal Poly’s program, however, never quite matched the level of Santa Barbara’s. Before officially meeting UCSB in Big West Conference play in 1996, it made its way through Division II and did not enter Division I until 1994.
Preoccupied with their in-conference battle with Cal State Northridge for top-seed, the Gauchos paid little attention to the Mustangs’ entering. Vom Steeg recalls, “When they joined Big West…we didn’t think much about Cal Poly.” He acknowledges that Santa Barbara’s “general success” over them fed into the maturing feud.
Upon the series of events in 2007 as aforementioned, however, the rivalry escalated to a level beyond prediction.
Over the years, it has materialized into packed stadiums and rowdy crowds, distasteful screaming of ironic slogans like “Cuck Fal Poly”, and an ungodly amount of tortillas thrown-to-waste.
Vom Steeg carefully makes an important distinction between how the UCSB-Cal Poly rivalry takes form at Alex. G. Spanos Stadium versus that at Harder Stadium.
“The fans up at Cal Poly…are there mainly to…have a big party. They turn it…a little bit more into just an event that you get a bunch of people together and scream and yell,” he states matter-of-factly.
For a number of reasons, traveling to Cal Poly is hardly an enjoyable experience for the team. The close quartered football-turned-soccer field subjects them to audible criticisms from thousands of hovering fans.
Up in SLO, Vom Steeg continues, “The referees are usually more emotional. The last two years we’ve had water bottles thrown at us. If you happen to lose the game, [the fans] jump over the side…It’s really hard to play naturally [and]…easy to make it hard to play soccer.”
Silencing the infamous crowd remains one of his most memorable moments at Spanos Stadium. In 2009, senior Chris Pontius scored seconds into double overtime to win the game for the Gauchos.
“The whole place was just absolutely quiet. Chris ran around the whole stadium, we were chasing him as he was celebrating, and the whole place was dead quiet,” he gladly recounted.
In the coach’s eyes, Harder Stadium harbors a much more authentic environment for the team. The professional-like layout opens up the field while separating the players from the overwhelming crowds.
He mostly appreciates the fans’—comprised of both students and locals—knowledge of the actual game, noting, “It feels like a soccer game. The cheering is about good plays on the field,” as compared to screaming about the opponent’s mistakes.
This aspect, among others, was one of the driving factors in Vom Steeg’s decision in 1999 to take control of a struggling program that had, in the season prior to his arrival, merely two wins and 17 losses to its name.
Ironically, Vom Steeg’s first time coaching UCSB was against Cal Poly.
20 years later, the accomplished coach has deep-rooted ties to Santa Barbara and holds some of the biggest accolades in collegiate soccer.
He is a two-time NCSAA National Coach of the Year and a five-time Big West Coach of the Year. Under the reigns of Vom Steeg, UCSB made it into the Sweet 16 of NCAA four times and even hosted and won an NCAA Championship along the way.
Talking about the essential creation of and dedication to the soccer program, Vom Steeg notes,
“The big key for me has been the amount of work, the energy we’ve put in, the relationships we developed. The idea of starting over again has kept me from looking [at other options]. I’d rather keep enjoying what we’ve built here, and I still think there’s room for us to get better.”
More specifically, this hard work has contributed to the establishment of Santa Barbara’s winning record over Cal Poly; one that, as of recently however, has begun to deteriorate.
Now awaiting the 41st matchup, Vom Steeg hopes to break the sense of complacency that has overwhelmed the Gauchos’ gameplay in the past years. Upon the hiring of former US National coach Steve Sampson, Cal Poly has strategically and effectively dulled the matchups against their blue and gold rival. The result? Four straight draws at Harder Stadium since 2014, the latest two finalizing with scores of 0-0.
To rationalize SLO’s gameplay, Vom Steeg points out, “When you get caught in a situation where maybe you’re not sure your talent matches up, you do things on the field to make it really hard to play.”
He continues, “It’s up to us this year to, more than ever, try to figure out how we can make it into a more exciting soccer game than what it’s been.”
Coach Tim Vom Steeg hopes to disrupt this pattern of stagnancy with a sweet victory over the Mustangs. After all, the win could be the 258th of his career, 24th against their program, and the key to unleashing the prideful insanity that the community has so eagerly awaited to display.