For the last few years, Gene Murphy has used the same two words to describe the “special” situation at Cal State Fullerton.
When a player missed a game because he sprained his ankle stepping on a golf ball left by the physical education class that shared the Titan practice field, the Fullerton coach shrugged and said, “That’s us.”
When his team’s hotel reservation was canceled because of a computer error, he rolled his eyes and said, “That’s us.”
It didn’t take Murphy long to turn the distractions and agitations that come with being a low-budget, small-time operation in the big time of Division 1 college football into a positive force, though.
He soon had his players believing they were only underdogs off the field, that they were more at home on the road and that even though the “poor” Titans traveled on a cramped charter flights with no air conditioning to save money, they could take out their frustrations on the more-fortunate players across the line of scrimmage when they got there.
It was a master strategy that worked well. The Titans began to believe in themselves and soon began making believers of everyone else, too. They won their first 10 last year, cracked the Top 20 polls and finished 11-1, the best record in school history.
After last season, Murphy had a chance to take his reputation and run. The head coaching positions at Utah and Oregon State were his for the asking, but he decided to stay at Fullerton after finishing as a runner-up for the Missouri coaching job.
Now, he’s faced with dealing with life as a Titan again and all those little irritations that come with it.
This year’s major distraction came in the form of academic eligibility. He opened fall camp with 39 players who were academically questionable. Now, three days before his team makes their 1985 debut in Montana, all but seven of those players have scaled their scholastic hurdles.
But it wasn’t easy.
“We’ve had kids leaving practice to turn in papers, to go get transcripts, to take finals of summer school classes . . . " Murphy said. “It’s been a mess.”
Murphy says he’d rather not name the Not-So-Magnificent-in-the-Classroom Seven. He says he’d prefer to accentuate the positive at this point. But reliable sources indicated that starting fullback Ricky Calhoun, starting offensive tackle Ed Gillies, starting tailback Burness Scott and backup nose guard Carlos Adley are among those still in question.
“I’m pretty sure everybody will be eligible to make the trip,” Murphy said. “In most cases, it’s just a matter of trying to secure transcripts from junior colleges, which are notoriously slow in that area.”
Murphy is having to work extra hard these days to find the positives to accentuate. He has an inexperienced linebacking corps, an inexperienced quarterback and an inexperienced secondary.
“There have been so many distractions,” Murphy said, looking a bit tired. “I can’t wait for Saturday morning. I have confidence in this football team, but a whole lot of questions will be answered Saturday . . . or start to be answered, anyway.”
Murphy obviously can’t wait for the blocking and tackling to begin. He’s just plain fed up with the academic problems and he’s irritated because he believes his players could have prevented the whole situation by simply buckling down.
“It’s one part of coaching that can frustrate the hell out of you,” Murphy said. “You better not be in coaching for ego and money. You better be in it because you love the kids. You recruited them. They’re like your own kids.
“Times have changed. Society has changed. I don’t treat Mike and Tim Murphy (his sons) the way my dad treated me. You say we coddle and cater to these players and you’re not completely incorrect.
“And it’s times like these when you’d like to grab some of ‘em and wring their necks.”
Bo White, who was supposed to be the No. 1 fullback, is back in practice after missing the majority of fall camp because he was taking a class in Northern California. Coach Gene Murphy said White will not make the trip to Montana, however. “He has been to three days of practice. The rest of these guys have been to 19,” he said. “He’ll have to work his way back, he ain’t no Eric Dickerson.” That leaves Rick Calhoun (5-feet 8-inches, 188 pounds) at fullback--if he’s eligible. If not, junior Mark Hood (5-11, 220) and freshman Tim Byrnes (6-0, 200) will handle the duties. . . . The academic problems are not new to Murphy. “In ’82, we had to call back and get a clarification on a couple players after the plane landed for our first game,” he said. . . . Could a Titan football team be overconfident? “For the past five or six years,” Murphy said, “we’ve worked on building self-image and self-esteem. Now maybe we’re trying to level them off a little. They need to be hungry.” . . . Tight end Bob Kent reinjured his right knee last week and may be facing arthroscopic surgery. Kent, a junior, has a redshirt year left, so Murphy is taking a wait-and-see attitude. . . . Starting tight end Jim Thornton is a converted quarterback and Murphy says he has the strongest arm on the team. Murphy is convinced quarterback Kevin Jan can do the job, but he might have slipped when he said, “Don’t be surprised if you see Thornton throwing the ball this year.” Maybe he was just talking about flea flickers.