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Analysis : After Titans’ Improbable Year, Sneed Is the Only Logical Choice

Times Staff Writer

The lasting images of this Cal State Fullerton basketball season will be those long-range, last-second shots. Derek Jones’ frantic three-pointer forced Nevada Las Vegas to overtime, and more incredibly, Wayne Williams hit another one to beat the Rebels in that same game. Against Cal State Long Beach, Mark Hill picked up an errant pass and calmly knocked down a three-pointer to send the game to overtime.

All were spectacular. But when people recall this season, they should save a spot for the longest shot of all--John Sneed’s.

For eight years at Fullerton, Sneed played the role of George McQuarn’s loyal assistant. He sat down when told, and he kept quiet when told.

When McQuarn resigned Nov. 3 and Athletic Director Ed Carroll asked Sneed to take over as acting coach, Sneed’s chances of winning the job were about as good as his chances of swishing a desperation heave from 60 feet.

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Williams’ 30-footer to beat UNLV was a layup in comparison.

Sneed is a man who was given his dream, with the condition that it probably was not his to keep.

“Understand this,” said one person intimately involved with the program. “They had no intention of giving John that job.”

Now, barring an extraordinary move, Sneed will be named the Fullerton coach within a week. Fullerton has interviewed two other candidates, both of whom have dropped out.

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When Sneed was named acting coach, he had too much to do to fret. He had his chance, and he was not, he said, going to let it slip away easily.

“I think we’ve all heard that song, ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy,’ ” Sneed told an audience of reporters a week or so later. “I’ve played the (heck) out of that record.”

But by December and early January, Sneed, prone to stomach trouble, was weak because of illness and stress.

Watching Sneed make his way through the early part of his first season as coach was similar to watching an adolescent searching for an identity, first trying one personality and then another.

He began the season as anyone would have--overwhelmed by the suddenness of the change. Not only did he have to become a head coach in the eyes of the players, but in the eyes of Fullerton officials, as well as boosters and the reporters who covered his team. At the outset, he was uneasy as a public speaker and occasionally testy with reporters.

But as the season went on, he became more at ease, often using humor to defray the stress of his uncertain situation. When his wife, Rose, attended a luncheon for boosters, he introduced her to the group. “Among my friends,” he said, “she’s known as the interim first lady of Titan basketball.”

People who earlier in the season had thought of Sneed as aloof, terse and sarcastic came to consider him cautious, succinct and witty.

But those impressions came mostly as a result of one thing: winning games.

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Sneed’s first task had been to try to hold the team together. These players had come to Fullerton because they wanted to play for McQuarn, and suddenly they were playing for Sneed, whom some of them knew only as a coach who didn’t say much in practice.

In the fallout of the resignation, two players--shooting guard Michael Brown and reserve forward Benson Williams--left the team. Others--including Cedric Ceballos and Williams--toyed with the idea.

“They didn’t accept him right away,” said Donny Daniels, who was the second assistant under McQuarn and stayed on under Sneed. “There was still a bitter feeling about McQuarn leaving. But John tried to establish himself as quick as he could. . . . Guys were unhappy, but he was nipping everything in the bud the whole month of November.”

When things settled, Sneed was left with a team of 10--"My 10 warriors,” he called them. It was a team that had been picked to finish ninth in the Big West Conference, before three players and the head coach quit. Speculation was that the Titans would win perhaps five games, and no more than 10.

But people didn’t know--not even the Fullerton coaches knew--how good new players Ceballos, Williams and Hill would be, and how soon.

Fullerton surprised everyone by beating Utah on the road to open the season. Williams, the freshman point guard, hit clutch free throws to seal the victory.

The Titans got off to a 5-1 start, but then things turned. They lost their next seven games.

“There was so much hoopla when we were 5-1, but I knew we weren’t playing that well,” Sneed said. “Then we lost seven in a row, but I could see we were making progress.”

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It was during that seven-game losing streak that Sneed made the decisions that led to the Titans’ success.

His goal, he said again and again, was to change the Titans from a temperamental team into a spirited team. He had accomplished that, on one hand by disciplining with a strong hand despite his own tenuous situation, and on the other by doing away with a longstanding substitution pattern.

Under McQuarn, a mistake on the court often meant the player who committed it would sit down quickly to think it over for a minute. Sneed gave his players an opportunity to make up for it on the court.

The key basketball decisions--the move to the matchup zone defense, the zone press and the up-tempo game--all came about slowly. Sneed was careful not to change too much too quickly. But he also realized that this was his shot.

“He definitely went for it,” Daniels said.

As the season progressed he saw that the Titans would have difficulty matching up man-for-man with many of the other conference teams. He began teaching the zone in practice, and used it in a game for the first time against UC Santa Barbara Jan. 10, a game the Titans lost.

He was tinkering with the team, and tinkering with his public profile. In the next game, against UNLV in the Thomas & Mack Center, Sneed tried out a slicked-back hair style that was alternately called the Pat Riley look and the Eddie Munster look.

He culled the good from the bad.

“I came up with a new look,” Sneed said, referring to the matchup zone, “and I scrapped the hairdo.”

The Titans lost to UNLV on Greg Anthony’s three-point bank shot at the buzzer. That was the last really bad luck they have had. They won 10 of their final 14 games, including four in overtime. They finished the regular season 15-12, in a three-way tie for fourth in the Big West. Their season continues Thursday in the conference tournament, with a quarterfinal game against Utah State.

The team made Sneed look like a brilliant bench coach in the final minutes of a game. He clearly is a very good one; he put the Titans in the position to win. He also has clutch players. Every starter, Williams, Hill, Ceballos, Jones and John Sykes, has hit a shot either to win a game or force it to overtime.

“When McQuarn was in overtime, the shot doesn’t go down,” Daniels said. “You’ve got Leon Wood on the line, he misses. . . . We’ve been very fortunate. Wayne Williams goes down with the ankle injury against Long Beach, and Ceballos makes the drive. Golly, we’ve been fortunate as a team. . . . Things have happened that weren’t supposed to happen, no way. John’s a helluva coach. We’ve been in position, and the shots have gone down. We’ll take it.”

But in what may be Fullerton’s greatest good fortune, the Titans stayed almost injury free until Williams twisted his ankle in the final game of the regular season. No starter has missed a game because of an injury. Jones, who was expected to falter because of the effects of injuries suffered in a drive-by shooting in 1987, has played every game.

With Fullerton sticking to a commitment to an open search for a coach, the endorsements for Sneed began to pour in. UC Irvine Coach Bill Mulligan, who writes a column in a local newspaper, might have been the first to publicly urge Fullerton to hire Sneed. Three columnists for large-circulation papers followed. Conference coaches wrote letters of recommendation, and UNLV Coach Jerry Tarkanian devoted his column in a Las Vegas newspaper to Sneed’s cause. Mulligan, for good effect, endorsed him again.

In the Titans’ final home game, a blowout victory over Fresno State, a thousand or more fans chanted, “We want Sneed. We want Sneed.”

Back in December and early January, Sneed had complained that he didn’t know what Fullerton expected of him.

“I’m not sure what I’m being evaluated on,” he said. “If it’s wins, I might be in trouble.”

After consecutive victories over Santa Barbara, UNLV and UC Irvine, he knew he had done what he could.

“I’ll let my record speak for itself,” he said.

There was still doubt whether that would be enough.

Sneed’s eight-year association with McQuarn at Fullerton was both the reason he got his chance and a handicap against him. The athletic department clearly wanted the program to move in another direction, away from the eight years during which only three players brought to the school graduated. Sneed had at times been chief recruiter and academic adviser under McQuarn. Fullerton accepted applications, and Carroll called Texas San Antonio Coach Ken Burmeister, who as an assistant at Arizona had been interested in the job when McQuarn resigned briefly in 1986.

Fullerton interviewed Burmeister, UCLA assistant Paul Landreaux and Sneed. Burmeister withdrew last week, saying that he was happy in San Antonio. Landreaux withdrew Tuesday.

Citing the process and logistical concerns, Fullerton still has given no official indication of when it will name a coach.

Sneed has proven his ability as a Division I coach this season, but he might easily never have gotten a chance.

In 1984, Sneed applied for the job at Chapman College, a Division II program, but he didn’t get it.

Had McQuarn resigned at the end of the season, Sneed in all likelihood would have gotten nothing more than a courtesy interview.

But it didn’t happen that way.

“You become very concerned about it,” Sneed said. “No one wants to live and die as an assistant coach. I’ve been faced with looking for Division II jobs, or (junior college) jobs.

“It’s just like (a player making) the NBA, timing is important. There are a lot of good players out there, and not all of them get to play in the big league. A lot of good coaches just get caught in the shuffle.”

Back in November, Sneed was an assistant coach, one who was in the process of getting caught in the shuffle. Now, acting or not, officially named or still a candidate, he is a head coach.

“In hindsight, sometimes I think it could have been a real disaster,” Sneed said. “And sometimes I look at it and say, ‘Hey, I could have won three or four more ballgames.”

Last Saturday at Long Beach, the fans spilled onto the court after another Titan victory, this one almost laughable for how perfectly events conspired to give Fullerton an overtime victory.

Fan after fan approached Carroll.

One man, jubilant but purposeful, pumped his arm.

The pressure was firm.

“I think we have our coach, don’t we?”


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