At about 11 o’clock Thursday morning, John Sneed learned that George McQuarn--his boss, his mentor of sorts, his friend of 15 years--was resigning as Cal State Fullerton’s basketball coach. Shortly thereafter, Sneed received another jolt, this one coming from Athletic Director Ed Carroll.
How would Sneed, asked Carroll, feel about becoming Fullerton’s acting head coach for the 1988-89 season?
To which Sneed, who wasn’t feeling much of anything Thursday, said he would do what he could.
So here he is, 26 days away from the season opener at Utah, and he has no starters returning from a mediocre 1987 Titan team, no second assistant coach, no idea how his equally stunned players will react to McQuarn’s departure and no clue how they’ll respond to a new head coach. Other than that, Sneed doesn’t have a worry in the world.
“It was a complete surprise to me,” he said. “I thought it was a complete surprise to the department, to the team. Let’s just say it caught us all off-guard.
“I mean, I hate to see the man go,” he said. “He hired me right out of college. He gave me my start in basketball. I owe him a lot because of that. When he left Verbum Dei (High School), he left me with a bundle of talent. It’s a little bit different situation this time.”
At about 2 o’clock Friday morning, Sneed tossed and turned in bed, a thousand thoughts swirling in his mind, each one begging for attention. What a day it had been: McQuarn’s sudden resignation, the vague, mysterious explanation of “personal reasons,” the offer from Carroll, the first meeting with the team as head coach, the first practice as head coach . . . everything, all firsts.
Then that night there had been phone calls from friends, family, reporters. What happened? . . . Congratulations . . . Are you doing OK? Then his baby daughter, Ashley, began crying. And crying. She stayed awake nearly as long as Sneed, who managed maybe 3 hours of sleep before he reported to work.
“I didn’t get a lot of sleep,” he said. “I had a lot of homework last night. I had to de-program myself. It was something that hits you all of the sudden. You’ve got--what?--26 days to put in your own style of play. And then there’s the whole business end of it, the team travel . . .”
At about 9:30 Friday morning, Sneed sat in the Fullerton basketball offices and, of all things, answered phones. It was almost comical. As if he didn’t have enough to do, Sneed was now an operator, secretary and coach.
Members of the athletic department stopped by the office. Some wished him luck. Others offered their help. Had Sneed been thinking, he would have asked them to stay and answer the many calls.
Sneed, 40, always has wanted to be a head coach, though he could have done without the circumstances of Thursday. He applied for the once-vacant Chapman position, but didn’t get it. And he kept his resume readily available, with McQuarn’s blessings, should something else come up.
Otherwise, Sneed was comfortable with his standing as McQuarn’s No. 1 assistant. They had known each other since Verbum Dei in the mid-70s. McQuarn compiled an 81-8 record there and then left the program to Sneed. When McQuarn became the head coach at Fullerton in 1980, Sneed was the first person he called to offer an assistant’s job. They had 2 losing seasons together: that first year in 1980 and last year, when the Titans finished 12-17.
It is because of this relationship that Sneed declines to explain McQuarn’s reasons for resigning.
“George is a life-long friend of mine,” he said. “I owe him his personal reasons, his privacy in this whole thing.”
The two friends talked Thursday about the situation. And before they parted, McQuarn offered some advice--some of it obvious, some of it subtle.
For instance, McQuarn suggested that Sneed turn the resignation, a potentially destructive bit of news, into a rallying point, a way of unifying the team. He said that Sneed should keep problems to a minimum “and coach the guys that are fun to coach.” And he offered his help and his support. “He let me know his line is open on X’s and O’s anytime,” Sneed said. “I’ll probably be talking to George during the course of the season.”
This isn’t expected to be a banner year for the Titans. No returning starters. A freshman starts at point-guard. A junior college transfer starts at off-guard. A junior college forward starts at forward. Derek Jones, who spent the entire 1987 season recovering from a gunshot wound, starts at the other forward spot. Who knows who will start at center, hardly a team strength. The team’s best player off the bench hasn’t practiced yet because of mononucleosis. A highly touted recruit recently quit the team. And now the head coach quits.
“I told the players that we could hopefully surprise one another and surprise others out there,” Sneed said. “There were not a lot of expectations for us, not even when George was here.
“They have to put a lot of faith in me as a new coach,” he said. “I told them that we have to join hands and walk up this hill together.”
At about 3:15 Friday afternoon--the starting time for Sneed’s first full practice as a head coach--they started walking up that hill. It’s a long climb.