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WHERE ARE THEY NOW? SAM AND STEVE CVIJANOVICH : TOAST OF THE TOWN : Former Santa Clara Athletes Score Points as Saloon Owners

August 18, 1990|STEVE HENSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Buried in a hamper full of damp towels, Sam Cvijanovich held his breath. Not so much because the hamper stunk but because his father would find him if he made so much as a peep.

Lou Cvijanovich burst into the locker room, looked around, and, not seeing Sam, cursed under his breath and headed back to the basketball gym. It was only the third quarter and Santa Clara High had a game to win, Sam or no Sam.

Playing for his father wasn't easy, Sam mused as he climbed out of the hamper and sprinted home. But he had no choice: Lou was varsity football, basketball and baseball coach at Santa Clara and Sam was a three-sport athlete.

Sam knew he shouldn't have talked back during the game, but he had been taught to speak his mind. And he wasn't surprised that Lou had chased him across the court and into the locker room in full view of the Santa Clara faithful. Like father, like son.

Watching the episode from the stands was Steve Cvijanovich, a ninth-grader three years younger than Sam. On that winter evening in 1967, Steve vowed to have more sense than his brother; to this day he swears he has never defied his dad.

Twenty-three years later, Lou knows exactly where to find his eldest son. His name is on the door: Sam's Saloon.

Steve is there too. He has been Sam's partner since they bought a biker hangout 10 years ago and transformed it into a classic sports bar complete with five satellite dishes and 12 TV sets. Every NFL football game is shown here.

The saloon's location--two blocks from Santa Clara High in Oxnard--is perfect for the close-knit Cvijanovich family. The Saints have won back-to-back state Division IV basketball championships under Lou, 63, who will begin his 33rd season as coach this year.

Sam and Steve, the eldest of Lou and Martha's eight children, dabbled in coaching after graduating from Cal Lutheran but pursued another family profession.

"Our grandpa ran a bar in Jerome, Arizona. It's in our blood, it was destined to happen," said Steve, 37, who lives with Sam, 40, a few miles from the saloon. Neither is married and their parents still loom large in their lives.

Sam and Steve were busy readying the saloon for its 4 p.m. opening a few days ago when the first customer walked in. The glance they shot each other was unmistakable: Dad's home.

Lou, sweating from a day of coaching summer basketball, ambles behind the bar and helps himself to a light beer. Three more patrons soon pull up bar stools. Lou motions for Steve to set them up with drinks. "Thanks, coach," they say in unison as Lou plunks down a bill to cover the round.

Sam's Saloon is a second home for the Cvijanoviches and a comfortable spot for sports fans to spend an evening. Hundreds of caps are pinned to the ceiling and the walls are covered with photos, football helmets and jerseys, many of them given to Sam and Steve by friends and former teammates.

A walk around the saloon, in fact, is a journey through the Cvijanovich brothers' playing careers.

Hank Bauer's San Diego Chargers jersey hangs from the ceiling. Steve Cvijanovich was Bauer's roommate at Cal Lutheran in 1972 and Hank's brother Jim worked as a bartender at Sam's for years. "I broke Hank's nose in a rugby game, that's why it's so pretty now. He had plastic surgery," Sam said with a gleeful cackle.

On another wall is a 10-year-old framed and autographed photo of New York Giants linebackers Brian Kelley, Lawrence Taylor, Harry Carson and Brad Van Pelt. Kelley lined up alongside Sam in 1971 during Cal Lutheran's NAIA championship season.

The Nevada Las Vegas jersey worn in last year's NCAA basketball final by Stacey, the youngest Cvijanovich brother, is displayed nearby. Lou points to a plaque hidden in a far corner. "There's the most valuable thing in this bar," he booms. The award is Stacey's for finishing fifth in the national Pass, Punt and Kick competition a decade ago.

Absent is memorabilia from Sam's four-year Canadian Football League career. In 1974, he was CFL Rookie of the Year as a middle linebacker with the Toronto Argonauts. But he donated his uniform and helmet to an auction benefiting a cancer foundation in Toronto.

Prominent, however, are team photos of the Los Angeles Raiders, whose summer training camp is in Oxnard. For several years, the Raiders held air hockey tournaments at Sam's Saloon and players and coaches still pop in.

Visits from former Santa Clara and Cal Lutheran teammates give Sam and Steve their greatest pleasure. Both went to the Thousand Oaks college after graduating high school. On the '71 championship team, Sam, a senior nicknamed "Jawbone," was captain and spiritual leader. Steve, a freshman, started at center.

"None of the old Cal Lutheran guys can drive through Ventura County without stopping at the bar," said Gene Uebelhardt, the fullback on the '71 team and now the Royal High football coach.

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