Optimism at 49erville : New Head Football Coach Begins Living His Dream, but Tough Competition, Money Shortages Cast Doubts

Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH--"Wouldn't that be something, to have a national championship here," Larry Reisbig said last week at spring practice, which confirmed that optimism runs in high volume through the new Cal State Long Beach football coach.

Not only has the university never been thought of as a national football power, but now, because of money shortages, there is doubt as to how long it will even have a team.

The 49ers were saved last December by a hectic drive to raise $300,000, but their demise could still be imminent after this season if another $500,000 is not raised by July 1, 1988. Few bets are being placed that it will.

But in a time of negativity and uncertainty, the positive-minded Reisbig is certain football will not just survive but will succeed. And so he pushes enthusiastically on, trying to develop a champion.

"It's a very exciting time," Reisbig said. "After what I saw in December, I cannot believe the money cannot be raised."

After 24 years of coaching at high schools and junior colleges, Reisbig, 47, has the job he always wanted. A 49er assistant for two seasons under Mike Sheppard, Reisbig had hoped that the career-minded Sheppard would eventually leave, but did not expect it to happen so soon. Dismayed by the financial crisis, Sheppard quit Dec. 24 to become coach at the University of New Mexico.

John Kasser, then the athletic director, immediately named Reisbig as new coach.

"I walked back there (behind the football offices) and went, 'Yeahhhoooo!,' " Reisbig said.

He Played on Offensive Line

Football has been Reisbig's life. He can't imagine himself in any other profession.

And if you were to guess his line of work, a coach would come quickly to mind, just ahead of a military officer.

He is tall and solid at 225 pounds, the same as he weighed long ago as an offensive lineman. His hair is short, with gray barely kissing the sides, like dew on grass. He wears sunglasses and a class ring.

"I loved playing football," he said. "We used to play in the front yard and use the driveway for first downs. We played in the dark every night."

He was a star at Van Nuys High School in the late 1950s, and his sweetheart was a cheerleader who would become his wife.

"When we got married, I told Patty, 'You know, being a coach is not going to make much money,' " Reisbig said. "She said, 'If that's what you want to do, let's go for it.' And that's what we did."

"There's nothing like the high you get when you go out there on Saturday," Reisbig said. "You go out and when it starts to flow, it's so much fun. When it comes to an end, I don't know where it's gone. I say, 'My God, it's over with.' Then later you realize you got paid to do all this, but it's only a football game."

Reisbig was an All-West Coast lineman at Washington State University, where he lived with his wife in a basement and dreamed of being head coach at a Southern California university such as Cal State Long Beach or San Diego State.

After graduation, Reisbig took his first coaching job at a high school in Sandy, Ore. "I thought I was the luckiest guy in the world," Reisbig recalled.

Two years later, he returned to Southern California for stints at Hart and Canyon high schools. He was head coach at College of the Canyons for nine years and at Pasadena City College for three years.

His overall record as a head coach is 96-59.

Following the bowling and golf reports, Reisbig is called to the podium in a room at the Golden Sails Hotel to address a lunch meeting of the Exchange Club, a Long Beach service organization.

Reisbig has on a sports coat and a tie, uncomfortable attire for a man who makes his living in shorts and a golf shirt.

He tells the group:

"I love Southern California, my boat's parked right out here.

"I was a nut on playing football. It forced me to get my education. I owe a lot to the game.

"Seeing the effect it (football) has had on kids, it's a shame that anyone would contemplate dropping the sport.

"I'm awfully lucky. I haven't had to move out of my home (in Newhall) for 18 years.

"I'm one of the most excited people in the world. It's hard for me to be negative. We're very positive. I've had to work a long time to get to this position."

The club members, sitting at round tables, seem impressed.

Reisbig mentions that on Sept. 26, the 49ers will play Big 10 power Michigan at Ann Arbor. Michigan will be a huge favorite.

"People are joking to me, snickering, about Michigan," Reisbig says. "I think it's the greatest opportunity a man or school could have, playing in front of 103,000 people. And we have a chance to beat them. If we win, isn't that going to be something?"

Reisbig, a head coach for so long, found his past two years as a 49er assistant frustrating. "He (Sheppard) and I are two different individuals entirely when it comes to football," Reisbig said.

Sheppard, whose three-year record was 16-18, was devoted to passing.

"I feel you have to have a more balanced attack," Reisbig said. "You've got to work to protect your defense, and you can't do that by throwing 50 times a game."

A sign of things to come perhaps came early in last Saturday's annual Brown-Gold spring game when junior Michael Roberts ran 55 yards for a touchdown. In that intrasquad scrimmage, the 49ers ran more than they passed. Besides Roberts, Reisbig has talented runners in juniors Ricco Wilson and Brian Browning, junior college transfer Lafayette Shelton and freshman Karlos Kirby.

Junior quarterback Jeff Graham, who threw for 2,921 yards and 20 touchdowns last season, welcomes a little more balance. "Last year we were playing teams with nine defensive backs," Graham said.

There is a more disciplined atmosphere now, Graham said.

He Can Be Tough

"I don't care if they like me," Reisbig said of his players, although they seem happy with him. "I care when it's all said and done that they respect me and they're happy with the product that has been turned out."

Reisbig, though not hot-tempered or belligerent, can be tough.

"I have a hard time tolerating kids not going to class," Reisbig said. "They're hurting themselves and the team. They have a responsibility, too. Our college is paying them $5,000 a year to go to school. They owe the college undivided attention in the classroom and to get their grades and graduate."

Reisbig made sure he got his education (he has a master's degree), and now he's got his dream--almost.

"It's not final yet," he said last week. "Your dream is to win the national championship, that's my next goal."

That should bring some more snickers, but Reisbig won't hear them.

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