What started out as a temporary job turned into a 40-plus year career at Santa Ynez High School for Steve Gunning.
But when the boys’ tennis season ended, Gunning retired as the varsity head coach, ending a career that saw him teaching and coaching ever since he graduated from UCSB in the mid-1970s.
Gunning was a biology teacher first before getting into coaching.
Over the years he coached tennis, football, track, wrestling and basketball.
In some, he was an assistant coach. In others, like wrestling, he was the head coach.
In tennis, he was both, starting as an assistant coach for both the boys and girls teams before taking over as the boys head coach when Larry Popkin retired three years ago.
“Larry was a legend. He was the head coach for years,” said Gunning. “He still comes out to most of the boys and girls matches. He still likes to watch the kids play.”
Gunning, a 1971 graduate of San Marcos High, began his journey to the Santa Ynez Valley at Santa Barbara City College before moving on to Cal Lutheran and, finally, UCSB.
“When I was hired at Santa Ynez High, I didn’t get a full time teaching position,” said Gunning. “The school needed a long-term substitute for biology and when the teacher came back, I was supposed to be out of a job.”
But that didn’t happen.
“They found a few sections for me and then found me a few more,” said Gunning. “And that turned into a full time job.”
Gunning spent almost 40 years in the classroom, teaching biology, and sometimes physical education, before retiring from his teaching position two years ago.
He stayed on as the assistant coach to the girls tennis team and head man for the boys.
“Last year, we (the boys team) were one game from making the CIF (Southern Section) finals — one game, not one set, one game,” said Gunning.
The 2018 team went undefeated during the LPL season, rolled through the CIF playoffs until the semifinals where Santa Ynez and Laguna Beach tied 9-9. That meant the winner would be decided by the number of games won.
Laguna Beach had the edge, 76-75, ending Santa Ynez's 20-4 season.
“But this year was a difficult situation. We went into a new league (the Channel League) against much bigger schools with exceptional players," said Gunning. "I think we could have done well if we made the playoffs but it wasn’t to be. We beat (old Los Padres League foes and new Channel League members) Cabrillo twice and split with Lompoc. But we just couldn’t beat the big Santa Barbara schools. We’d still be a pretty good team in the LPL but it was a struggle in the Channel League.”
Gunning had a talented squad for the 2019 season.
Led by Ryan Rennick and Darren Hinkins, the team went 10-8 on the year.
“Ryan and Darren both had a lot of success in singles and doubles. They had very respectable showings against those bigger Channel League schools,” said Gunning. “But we finished fourth in the league. I told the boys that we were the champions of the second tier of the Channel League. That was putting a silver lining on a gray cloud.”
Over the years, Gunning had a positive impact on hundreds of Santa Ynez High students.
One of them was Mark Swanitz, SYHS class of 1985, who is now the Principal at Santa Ynez High.
“Steve was my biology teacher my sophomore year. I played football my freshman year and he was one of the assistant coaches,” said Swanitz. “He’s one of the legacy guys that we’ve had here over the last 40-50 years — one of the guys that built our athletics programs.”
“I’d like him to stay for as many years as he wanted. It’s his choice to ease into retirement and I wish him the best,” said Athletic Director Cris Avery. “Steve was from a generation that taught all day and then coached into the night. We have fewer and fewer of those teacher/coaches. It used to be 80 percent of our coaches were full time on-campus teachers. Now we’re down to something close to 20 percent.
“There’s a special connectivity, continuity between teacher/coaches and the athletes. I think that enhances the student-athlete’s experience and without it, their sports experience is lessened.
“It was hard enough watching him retire from teaching two years ago. He’s been a stalwart with outstanding character, funny and personable, but it’s the end of an era. It will also be hard seeing him leave the sidelines,” said Swanitz. "I’m going to miss him bit I know Steve will be out in Coaches Corner (on the northeast corner of the football stadium) with all of the other elder statesmen, watching the young kids — at least to him — take over the coaching reins.”