Santa Barbara Sports Figure of the Month: Van Latham

This award is made possible by American Riviera Bank

SBCC Track & Field coach Scott Fickerson, left, presents Van Latham with an outstanding acheivement award in the sport of track & field at the 2010 Easter Relays. (Presidio Sports Photo)

Long-time and much-loved Carpinteria High School (CHS) math teacher and coach, Van Latham, a veteran race director and unassuming ‘rock star’ on the California track and field scene, has been named Presidio Sports’ Sports Figure of the Month for April, 2011.

Latham, 50, earns the award for his outstanding commitment to local youth, as evidenced by yet another incredible run of CHS hosting not one … not two… nor three … but FOUR major invitational track meets within a tight span of one month.

Imagine directing ‘an amazing production’ with 64 separate events for each track meet for up to 40 schools & 1,500 spirited young athletes…16 individual contests all intermingled … four simultaneous competitions for varsity and frosh/soph boys and girls?

‘Do the math’ and you begin to get the picture of something very special here.

It’s all masterfully choreographed with technical precision via detailed planning skills nurtured at one of America’s top universities – Stanford – where Latham earned his Bachelors of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering in 1982.

Plus sprinkle in an amazing 27-year span of real-life coaching experiences and you can begin to feel the positive impact one person can have on young athletes.

On a school district …

On a community …

This local dude is also the epitome of that old cliché: ‘Life happens when you are busy making other plans.’

Latham had boyhood dreams of working in the family business – his grandfather owned the local lumber yard. Young Van spent much of his free time sweeping sawdust and helping out while growing up there as a kid.

But in high school, his dad died.

His grandfather later sold the biz.

He followed in both parents’ footsteps to Stanford and came home to ‘The World’s Safest Beaches’ every summer.

Then, in his last va-cay; fate intervened – this time in a good way.

Van, standing here with assistant coach Angel Silva, is a fixture year-round at Carpinteria Memorial Valley Stadium. 

While working out at his alma mater, he was asked to assist with the CHS summer football program.

For Latham – a humble guy and three-sport athlete (he captained Warrior football in ’77 & added rugby in college) – well, he ‘thought it would be fun to coach’ so he gave it a try.

And he had a wonderful, albeit brief, experience.

(Asked for details on his own scholastic athletic prowess, he gets ‘a little fuzzy’ and then proudly proclaims that his only and younger sibling – sister ‘Ann is the real athlete in the family’ – an All-CIF selection in basketball and volleyball; she was recently inducted into the CHS Sports Hall of Fame.)

Fast-forward a year and this college grad is back home and contemplating a year off before likely launching a real career.

That’s about when Lou Panizzon, his former coach, then-Carp AD — and now current mentor, friend and local sports legend — called him to help out again.

When the head junior varsity football coach is called to active military duty – Latham fills in.

‘I was working part-time for school maintenance and coaching JV football in the fall and John Larralde (currently Westmont’s track coach) then asked me to help coach track in the spring – assigned to the throwers. I kept making excuses to stay,’ sez Latham.

He later became a lab aide in the science department.

Then in August 1985 – an abrupt teacher shift created a math and physical education opening on the second day of school. He (high) jumped when offered to him and dashed to get his emergency teaching credentials.

He’s never looked back.

And it’s been ‘a labor of love’ ever since – as evidenced by often 18-hour days this time of year.

‘Now, you know why I’m not married,’ he offers with a big smile.

‘Van is totally dedicated to his job as a teacher and a coach. Along with John Larralde, they were instrumental in the design of our new stadium. And Van even won a CIF championship when we didn’t have a track,’ Mentor Panizzon states. ‘The kids practiced in the parking lot!’

‘The BIG 4’ Track and Field Meets at Carpinteria High School make for a busy time of year:

April 16 – The Russell Cup – ‘A Carp Tradition’ and the oldest track meet in the State since
1913. Features 40 small schools (enrollment 1200) and 1,500 athletes

April 27 – Santa Barbara County Championships

May 5 Tri-Valley Championships – League Finals hosted by CHS & entire league assists

May 15 – CIF Division 4 Prelims – CHS is one of four sites in CIF Southern Section

And there is no rest …

After the high school track season, summer is the “All Comer Meets” – for $5 one can enter as many events as you want at every-other Friday meets, also held at the high school.

Then football gears up …

Asked why he does it all and what he gets out of it – Latham claims ‘it’s all worth it with an occasional thank you from a player… or from another coach who knows how much preparation and hard work goes into ensuring a good experience for all.’

‘Van is a tireless worker who runs the most organized meets anywhere. They always run smoothly, with the help of the Carpinteria faculty and community. He is a great planner and organizer,’ sez Presidio Sports’ Barry Punzal.

To chill, there’s always a trail run … a bike ride … Sunday pick-up hoops where he gets a kick when others on the court call him Coach – tho they never played for him.

It’s all a sign of admiration and respect.

He has a little crash pad in the hills amongst the avocados – it allows an easy escape from small town America where, like in the television show, Cheers – ‘everyone knows your name.’

And your business.

And ‘the ultimate’ for him – when his athletes return to help at track meets … or when the community jumps in to help like they always do … and, of course, there is the sheer joy in watching his athletes grow up to be successful in life.

‘Everyone feels connected to the track and field community, including many who no longer have kids in school. It’s all because of Van and his positive approach – he always makes it fun,” adds Panizzon.

Latham modestly claims it’s all ‘a team effort’ in providing fun opportunities and competitions for athletes, young and old – while showing off Carpinteria’s community charm and in raising much-needed revenue for the school.

After fall football season and the December holiday break, Latham gets energized with the prospect of the spring track season – that is, in addition to his full teaching load.

It’s the seasonal sport cycle of life.

And it all comes with the territory …

Here in avocado country …

For this one incredible race director and Native Son, simply known as Coach, who is certainly on the mark. …


From the Carpinteria Warriors Website:

M. Van Latham, the Great Leader of the Glorious Cause

Van Latham

Events: Shot Put, Discus

Van has been the titular head of Carpinteria’s track and field program since it became respectable (Yes, “When was that?” is the correct response). We find this Casanova of the heave in his 27th season still as passionate as he was in his first. This dedicated savant of the sport returns once again to coach the shot put and discus throwers to success.

Van’s venerable 21 years of top leadership serves as a beacon to the rest of his carefully selected and screened staff, a guiding light to which the assistant coaches can attune themselves to like a blue flaming candle bursting in the night.

Van has directed 11 varsity boys’ and 8 varsity girls’ teams to TVL titles. In 1999 and 2001, the Carpinteria boys won CIF track & field titles. Over half of all Warriors to qualify for the state championships have come during Latham’s coaching tenure. Van has coached 25 CIF medal winners, including 5 CIF champions and a State champion. Latham has been an instructor on numerous occasions for both the AAF Track and Field coaches’ clinic and the Know-It-All Clinic of the Central Coast. Van is currently in his 21st year instructing in the CHS math department. This Carpinteria high school alum enjoys treacherous mountain hikes through trackless country, repeatedly fixing up his mustang, deep afternoon naps and vintage Toyo trucks. This very eligible bachelor also has a swank single’s pad in a scenic grove which one young pundit termed, “a cool tree house!”