Still The Coach : George McQuarn, a Man Destined for the Sidelines, Cancels Early Retirement and Gets Down to Business

Times Staff Writer

Until the afternoon of Jan. 29, the thought of George McQuarn retiring from coaching was like Tommy Lasorda saying he didn't want to manage the Dodgers . . . or was too full for another egg roll.

McQuarn, 44, is in his sixth season as Cal State Fullerton basketball coach, and in every season it has been obvious that he was a coach because he was destined to be. He was drill sergeant, father figure and supreme motivator. He exuded an air of intensity, discipline and dedication.

He loved basketball, but coaching was no game for George McQuarn. It was much more than just his job, too.

McQuarn, or simply "The Coach" as his players refer to him, always gave his all and expected everyone around him to do the same. He was aloof--sometimes even nasty--but fiercely loyal to his players, most of whom juggle a love-hate relationship with The Coach. He was Mr. Work Ethic, Mr. Never-Give-an-Inch.

Until the afternoon of Jan. 29, this was a guy who made Davey Crockett look like a quitter.

But, on that afternoon, Supercoach took off his cape and revealed there was a real-live human being underneath, complete with frustrations, even self doubts.

McQuarn, saying that professional pressures were ruining his personal life, announced he was retiring at season's end. He had no plans and said he was sure of only one thing: "You'll never see me on the bench again."

It was a shock heard round the Division I coaching community. After all, if a guy such as McQuarn couldn't take the heat, who could? When the Titans beat Fresno State Feb. 3, Bulldog Coach Boyd Grant sighed and said: "I looked up at the scoreboard, then I looked down the sideline and said to myself, 'I think the wrong guy is quitting.' "

It just didn't make sense.

Just a couple of weeks before his resignation announcement, McQuarn was sitting in his office discussing a player and outlining the foundation of his coaching philosophy at the same time.

"There's no room for feeling sorry for yourself around here," he said. "What's a kid gonna do after he leaves here, feel sorry for himself every time there's a little bit of adversity? Let's say you're trying for a job and they give it to somebody else. What are you gonna do, feel sorry for yourself? No! (He pounds his desk for emphasis). You say, 'So what.' Hell, bounce back, get yourself ready for your next chance.

"Life isn't fair. You've got to keep going, pushing, believing, striving and try to develop some substance, some character . . . where you're about something . . . when you really are someone. "

So who was this someone saying he was quitting? The going was getting tough and George McQuarn--tenacity personified--was going to quit?

A lot of people didn't--at least, didn't want to--believe it. Dr. Jewel Plummer Cobb, Cal State Fullerton president, and Athletic Director Ed Carroll begged McQuarn to stay, and every coach he talked with thought he was making a mistake. So, when he changed his mind three weeks later and announced he was staying, a lot of people felt a sort of reassurance that maybe some things are meant to be.

LAS VEGAS--Three persons were killed and 22 others injured when a fire of undetermined origin did about $500,000 damage to the 15-story Mark I apartment building about midnight . . . .

Five residents of the building at 1020 East Desert Inn Road were hospitalized. In satisfactory condition at Sunrise Hospital were Annie Rash, 24 , and George McQuarn, an assistant UNLV basketball coach.

Witnesses said Coach McQuarn was lucky to be alive after swinging from a bed sheet tied to the ledge of his eighth-floor apartment and through a window into an apartment below.

"He kicked out the window below with his feet and went into the seventh-story apartment, Paramedic James Liggett said. "As soon as he got in there, fire came rushing out of his own apartment. People standing across the street started clapping."

--Las Vegas Review Journal, July 12, 1977

McQuarn, who seldom discussed his personal life publicly before the afternoon of Jan. 29, may not want to come across as a character out of the A-Team. He won't elaborate on the events of that night when he nearly died in his Las Vegas apartment.

But he's got scars--physical and emotional--to show for it. And, he used to think, a perspective on life that would keep him from doing anything as a rash as giving up the profession he still admittedly "loves."

So, when No. 2 scorer Richard Morton crashed into the basket support at San Jose State Jan. 11, injuring his knee and severely spraining his ankle, just two weeks after top scorer Kevin Henderson had broken his foot, McQuarn seemed nonplussed.

"I'm always into our kids about accepting responsibility for the things they have direct control over," he said later. "If you don't have control over something, you try not to let it bother you.

"I never think of myself losing control, I don't panic under those situations. After something like that tragic fire, things like going 4-23 (Fullerton's record his first season), or Henderson going down, or Morton going down are a lot easier to accept."

That statement, McQuarn admitted on the afternoon of Jan. 29, was a smoke screen. The loss of two top recruits before the season and the injuries in the middle of it were eating away at him.

McQuarn reached his nadir after a 52-39 loss to UC Santa Barbara when only three of the Henderson-less and Morton-less Titans scored. The next day, he found himself snapping at his son for no good reason and a couple of days later made the snap decision to quit basketball.

Earlier in his career at Fullerton, there were those who thought the guy might snap any minute. This is a coach who likes to motion his players over to the sidelines so he can pass on bits of information . . . that a fan in the balcony can hear. A coach who boots writers out of his practices, who once told his players "don't stop to talk to these guys (the media)." And that was after a win.

McQuarn always used intimidation as a coaching tool and he didn't change tactics when dealing with the press. But nobody argued with his results. He took over a decimated Fullerton program in 1980 and staggered to 4-23. But the Titans went 73-48 in the next four seasons and were 7-3 this season before Henderson broke his foot.

Something strange had been going on around Titan Gym this season, though. McQuarn had actually been spotted joking with reporters.

"I can't control how the media perceives me," McQuarn said. "And I can't say that there is any change in my behavior or my attitude that is a direct result of me being concerned about what the media thinks. I really didn't know I was perceived as being more relaxed or easy to approach this year."

But there were clear-cut differences.

He no longer sequestered players from the press on the road by rushing them off to buses to shower at the hotel instead of the visiting locker room. And, the man whose practices are daily doses of boot camp, did the unthinkable: He made things a bit easier on the players.

The Titan veterans were flabbergasted when McQuarn let assistant Ed Goorjian conduct the normally grueling preseason conditioning drills last summer.

"When I first came here, we barely got any water during conditioning," one senior said. "This year, we got lemonade."

But McQuarn still had trouble dealing with the many disappointments and frustrations of the 1985-86 season.

Before the first missed free throw, blown defensive assignment or last-second loss, McQuarn already had lost his top two recruits--6-7 Maurice Smith and 6-9 Ron Barnes--both of whom committed to Fullerton before changing their minds and going elsewhere. Then power forward Carl Pitts, who came to Fullerton when he couldn't meet UCLA's academic requirements, quit the team saying he was finished "chasing the basketball dream."

Then Henderson and Morton got hurt and a promising season went poof.

Fullerton actually played pretty well without Henderson and Morton, beating UC Irvine at home and winning on the road at San Jose State and Fresno State. McQuarn, who always was known for his recruiting, was getting rave reviews from his peers for his coaching.

"They've continued to play well and I think the big credit has to go to George," Jerry Tarkanian, the Nevada Las Vegas coach, said at the time. "Henderson is one of the five best guards in the country and he puts that team on a whole different level.

"But George has held them together with both Henderson and Morton gone. He's done a great job, the best on the West Coast this year. He's got those kids playing intelligently, playing great defense, playing so hard and together."

But even the praise of the man who gave him his first Division I coaching job wasn't enough.

So, on the afternoon of Jan. 29, McQuarn said: "I just want to feel good about myself again. But it's not one thing, it's just the whole business."

After he had the chance to think about it, however, the business still had incredible appeal. Less than a month after his announcement to retire, McQuarn reversed his decision.

So, Thursday night at the Forum, it'll be business as usual when McQuarn crouches in front of the Titan bench and screams instructions as Fullerton faces UC Irvine in the first round of the PCAA Tournament. He recently signed his seventh one-year contract with Fullerton (California state universities do not allow multiyear pacts).

"I'm going to stay," he said. "Hey, I'm human. I'm an emotional kind of guy. The problems still exist but the difference is my attitude has changed. Now, I'm going to come back more dedicated, ready to work harder, with more intensity than ever before."

Now that's difficult to imagine.

Apologies to Bruce Springsteen, but around the Fullerton campus, The Coach always has been The Boss.

"Herman (Webster) and The Coach had a meetin'. See the way Herm's been playing lately? The Coach ain't lost a meetin' yet."

--Kevin Henderson, senior point guard

If there ever was any doubt about who's in control, it evaporates at game time. When a timeout is called, McQuarn signals his players over to the bench and then points to the chairs where they should sit. It's as if he expects one of them to say, "Gee, Coach, we gotta sit here? I was gonna go up in the stands and get a Coke."

McQuarn has been criticized often for his knee-jerk approach to substitution, but it drives home the point that no player is bigger than his game. There are some on-the-floor lapses that The Coach refuses to overlook . . . no matter who commits them or how critical the game's juncture.

To name a few:

--Dumb foul. Miss a shot then go hack the guy who gets the rebound and you sit.

--Dumb turnover. Step on the baseline while attempting an inbound pass and go directly to the bench.

--Failure to block out. An opponent goes around you for a key offensive rebound and you get to rest.

"I take a lot of criticism for the way I substitute," McQuarn said. "Even my girlfriend says, 'A kid makes a mistake and you always take him out.' But that's not really the case. People in the stands don't know everything that's going on.

"But I do have a bottom line. Kids have to accept responsibility for what happens on the court. I want a kid to feel remorse when he makes a mistake . . . I want him to feel bad."

Still, there's a reassuring consistency about McQuarn. A player usually knows where he stands and what's expected.

"George is a strict disciplinarian, but he's always been able to maintain a rapport with the players," Tarkanian said. "And fundamentally, he's an outstanding coach, too. That's why I think he's one of the top young coaches in the country."

McQuarn, who was an assistant to Tarkanian for four years at UNLV after turning Verbum Dei into a prep basketball juggernaut (he was 123-8 in four years), maintains that the cosmetics of college basketball have changed but certain constants remain. And those are the building blocks of his program.

"I've always coached the same way," McQuarn said. "I believe in discipline and hard work. We play hard and practice hard, I don't see how you can practice one way and play another. And, sure, I'm team-oriented.

"But I understand the background of kids, that they're products of their environment and I'm flexible. I grew up in Compton. But you've got to have some kind of discipline, some kind of control. You've got to have rules. There are rules in our society, there are rules at this institution and there are rules in George McQuarn's basketball program.

"But I'm not unreasonable . . . I'm not even close to being unreasonable. In fact, sometimes I'm a softy."

Perhaps no one can remember the last time McQuarn was soft, but former Titan star Leon Wood, now with the Washington Bullets, used to say that McQuarn was "like a father figure to me," and most of his players say they feel free to talk to him about . . . well, most things.

But nobody ever questions his authority. Not for long, anyway.

Henderson had a bit of trouble with McQuarn when he transferred from Saddleback College for his sophomore season.

"I didn't have a clue what The Coach was trying to do," he said. "But I eventually learned that he yells to prepare you for adversity. If you can still perform when he's on you, no hostile crowd will be able to bother you."

It's not just the players who have to remember their place, either. Assistant John Sneed was yelling at an official last season when McQuarn wheeled around and told him to "Shut up."

With two seconds left in overtime against Cal State Long Beach this season, Goorjian, the former Loyola Marymount head coach, was up yelling at an official. McQuarn grabbed his sport coat and yanked him back into his seat.

A not-so-subtle reminder that The Coach will do his own coaching . . . and complaining, thanks.

"If they (assistants) leave their seat during a live ball to complain, that's a technical," McQuarn said. "You've probably seen me actually put, let's say 'escort,' them back to their seats. I'm not going to allow an assistant coach to get a bench technical, they know that.

"I guess that doesn't mean it doesn't hurt their feelings and maybe they take it personally. I just hope they're mature enough to bounce back. But it's not a put-down, that's not my style."

"Every time I came home from practice, dead tired, I knew I was going to be quizzed on every drill, everything we did in practice. George always wanted to know everything Coach (John) Wooden had to say and what all those drills were supposed to accomplish."

--Walt Hazzard, McQuarn's roommate at UCLA

"I think there's an element of exaggeration there," McQuarn said, smiling, "but there's also an element of truth. I was always curious about what they were doing on the floor. I've always loved basketball. I wanted to be a coach, I knew that then, I just assumed it would be in baseball."

McQuarn, who was All-Southern Section in basketball and baseball at Centennial High School, was playing baseball at UCLA because the scholarship the Bruins' offered was his ticket to a free education.

"I was a better baseball player than a basketball player," he said. "When I got into coaching, my first job was coaching the varsity baseball team at Verbum Dei. I did it one year and after the first day, I decided I'd never coach baseball again. It's boring.

"As a player, I was a catcher and involved in every play, but as a coach it's just boring, boring ."

His basketball coaching career got off to a roaring start at Verbum Dei. In the four seasons he coached there, the Eagles won four Southern Section championships (one 2-A, one 3-A and two 4-A). His winning percentage was .939. Of course, he had players such as Raymond Lewis, David Greenwood and Roy Hamilton.

"I never thought of it as being easy even though we only lost eight games," McQuarn said. "I just thought I was very fortunate to get some outstanding young high school basketball players. After four seasons, I did become a little bit disinterested."

The Verbum Dei job was a part-time seasonal coaching position and McQuarn, who was employed in the Compton Parks and Recreation Department, was promoted to superintendent with the stipulation that he separate himself from Verbum Dei. He served in that capacity for almost three years before he decided he needed a new challenge.

"It was August of 1976, my wife and I were legally separated and I was just coming back from two weeks of camping with my kids (Tracy, then 9, and Mike, then 7)," McQuarn said. "I came home and read that UNLV assistant Lynn Archibald (now head coach at Utah) had taken a job at USC.

"This is Sunday and I don't want to go back to work on Monday. So, I called Tark at home and said, 'I'll take the job,' and that was it. Jerry had wanted me to come with him in '73 and we had stayed in touch."

It was a turning point in McQuarn's life, professionally and emotionally. The next year, the Rebels went to the Final Four. Eight UNLV players were drafted into the NBA.

"It was a whole new experience for me," he said. "It was a great, great experience. But it was personally difficult because my kids were still in Southern California. That was very hard, very trying."

McQuarn began to realize that he would have to make choices between his love of the game and his personal life. After he got the Fullerton job, it became even more apparent. Coaching is not a 40-hour-a-week job, not the way McQuarn approaches it.

"A coach puts so much energy into his job that there's little time for anything else," he said. "If a coach stays married, it's usually because of the woman . . . it takes one hell of a woman. My personal relationship with my ex-wife was certainly up and down for years and when you're in an unpleasant relationship, when two people aren't really happy, it affects your kids and it affects both people.

"You try to set it aside and come on the floor and do your job, and then you come on the floor and do your job and go 4-23. So, you've got both personal and professional problems. That was a long, long year for me."

Fullerton takes a 15-15 record into the PCAA Tournament, but the 1985-86 season turned out to be the most trying year of all for McQuarn.

He says he has overcome his doubts now, however. The Coach is back.

And Fullerton fans can rest easy that no one in Titan blue and orange will be resting easy for some time to come.

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