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Sad Faces, Unfinished Gym Floor Reflect Mood at Pierce

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Times Staff Writer

When Larry Lessett arrived to work at Pierce College Monday morning, he had a job and the school had a men’s basketball program.

By Tuesday morning, there was more good news. Athletic Director Bob O’Connor had sent in a work order to have the gym floor refinished with a three-point line to comply with new NCAA-sanctioned rules for the 1986-87 season. All was in order.

Later that night, that had dramatically changed. After meeting with Pierce President David Wolf, O’Connor informed Lessett that the football and basketball programs had been eliminated. The floor was without a finish. Lessett was out of a job.

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“The administration is entitled to make their decisions; that is their job,” Lessett said. “But I was mislead. David Wolf told me that the only way we wouldn’t have a basketball program is if all athletic programs in the district were eliminated. I told my kids that we would have a program, and I wasn’t lying. I was telling them what I was being told.”

Then the story changed. Abruptly.

Citing uncertainty created by layoffs in the district and a smaller than anticipated intercollegiate athletics budget, Wolf announced the elimination of the two programs at Pierce.

Even O’Connor was caught by surprise.

“We had talked about dropping basketball a couple of months ago, but as of Monday, we were keeping it,” O’Connor said.

As a part-time coach, Lessett would have been fired effective June 30 when layoffs in the nine-college district take effect. He had a plan, however, to remain with the Pierce program.

Under the plan, O’Connor would have become the basketball coach in name only. Lessett and assistant Mitch Freilich would have been volunteer coaches.

That arrangement was fine for Lessett and Freilich. For O’Connor and Pierce, questions of liability, and legality under the collective bargaining agreement with the faculty union, made it less attractive.

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As a result, Lessett and his players are on their own.

“If the administration doesn’t want me to coach, fine, but this is hurting the kids,” Lessett said. “The community college is supposed to be serving the community, and they aren’t.”

Lessett, who worked as a janitor to supplement a $3,000 coaching salary, said he would honor a commitment to his players by helping them to find other programs in which to play.

“The kids stood by me, and now I’m going to find them a place to go to school,” Lessett said. “When everybody else’s teams were transferring to other schools, mine stayed put. I asked them to hang tight and not bail, and they did.

“If I didn’t think we were going to have a program, I wouldn’t have spent money out of my own pocket to go recruit a kid out of Las Vegas.”

Lessett, a former assistant at Loyola Marymount, said he has options to consider before accepting a job for next season. He said he would have preferred to stay at Pierce, where the Brahmas were 6-23 in his first season as coach.

“We didn’t win, but it was a good season for me,” he said. “I believe we were going to win next year with the players we were bringing in. We had it going, and then it was uprooted.”

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Troy Lehman would have been a freshman on Lessett’s team next year. Playing basketball at Pierce was the reason he decided to attend the Woodland Hills school, even though College of the Canyons was closer to his San Fernando home.

“I just picked up the paper this morning, and I couldn’t believe it,” Lehman said Wednesday. “We were having practices, and coach Lessett was saying we were going to have a team. He was so high on our team that I really didn’t think about this.”

Lehman said he hasn’t had time to make any plans for the Fall semester.

“The first thing I’ll do is call coach and see what he can do. I’m sure he’ll fight for me. I’m just now starting to think about these things.”

For the Pierce football team, the situation was somewhat different. Jim Fenwick resigned as coach in February, and when no replacement was named, players began to transfer to other schools. More than 14 enrolled at Valley College in Van Nuys. Another handful went to Moorpark.

Cornerback Bryant Wyatt went two ways.

“With all the confusion, people started running around,” Wyatt said. “I was taking classes at Pierce and Valley in case Pierce didn’t have a team. But it was impossible to do both.”

Wyatt returned to Pierce as a full-time student. With the program’s elimination, he is free to transfer with full eligibility. Normally, transfer students must complete 15 units in residence before their athletic eligibility is restored.

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“I think I’ll have a chance to play at Valley,” he said. “I practiced with them a bit in the spring, and I know a little about their team.

“But it’s sort of funny. Pierce wins the conference title three years in a row, and now they don’t have a team.”

O’Connor isn’t laughing. He would have coached the three-time defending Southern California Conference champions in the newly aligned Western State Conference.

“When we changed conferences, it became obvious we needed considerably more money to compete,” he said. “Our football team had five coaches. Other teams in the new conference had nine. We had been starving, and we couldn’t do that any longer.

“Our school president had told me that whatever sports we have, we should go first class. And I certainly agree. So I figured out that we would need a $180,000 budget for next year.”

The budget was approved for $90,000, the same amount as in 1985-86.

“When I saw that, I knew we’d have to drop football or have nothing else,” O’Connor said. “It was tough, because I was very excited about coaching the team. But football isn’t something you can start in June. We waited too long to make a commitment to football.”

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As small consolation, O’Connor said that the nine remaining sports at Pierce would be well-funded. He said features such as meal money, commonplace in many districts but a seldom-seen luxury in the L.A. district, will be added.

“There will be big increases for the other sports,” he said. “The budget will cover our basic needs and allow us to buy new equipment, which we desperately need.”

O’Connor is less optimistic for the health education program at Pierce. O’Connor and the two other health education teachers at Pierce this year will be coaching teams in the fall, making them unavailable to teach those classes.

Health education makes up about 30% of the district’s physical education courses.

“Health education, particularly nutrition, is hard to keep up with,” he said. “Knowledge in the field doubles every three years. It’s a very dynamic class, and I don’t know what we’ll do with the health classes.”

Nor does he know what will become of the football and basketball programs. O’Connor hopes both will be reinstated within two years.

“I feel quite sure that if the money situation improves, we’ll come back with football in November,” he said. “But it may be a two-year process.”

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