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In the Wake of the Walkout : After Losing His Players, San Jose Coach Fights for His Job

Times Staff Writer

Bill Berry is a Bligh who got to keep his ship.

When 10 San Jose State basketball players mutinied in January, vowing never to play for the Spartans again while Berry was the coach, it was the team, not the coach, that was set adrift.

Berry continued the season with San Jose State II, a makeshift replacement team that includes Johnny Johnson, a Spartan football player who led the Big West Conference in rushing last season.

That replacement team, which has gone 0-11 since the walkout but has been surprisingly competitive, will have its last shot at victory tonight when it plays Fresno State in the first round of the Big West tournament in the Long Beach Arena.

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A loss will end the season. The ship will have reached port, and a decision on Berry’s future at the school will be forthcoming, although probably not for at least a week.

At the time of the walkout, Athletic Director Randy Hoffman said that circumstances would have to be extreme to warrant the firing of a coach in midseason at the demand of players. He didn’t see sufficient cause in this case, he said, nor did he care to see that precedent set.

But Berry’s postseason evaluation looms. His contract was renewed last year with the stipulation that he improve his relationships with players.

"(Hoffman) said he’s seen an improvement (in Berry’s behavior), and so have I,” Berry said. “I certainly owned up to my end of the bargain.”

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Ten players, obviously, disagreed.

And many of the coaches seeking Division I jobs are counting the position at San Jose State an open one. Berry knows that.

“They say the vultures are out,” he said. “This job is one people want.”

But it also is one he is ready to fight for.

The players never elaborated publicly on their charges of verbal abuse and “mental cruelty,” and their consultations with San Francisco attorney Melvin Belli ended for lack of player interest, despite Belli’s assertion that it was still possible to “eke out a tort or two.”

Will Berry be back?

“Why wouldn’t I?” Berry said. “I’m trying to figure out, why wouldn’t I? Because 10 kids decided they didn’t want to play? My record speaks for itself. So does theirs.”

The players who left still hope that Berry will be fired. They are not counting on him to resign, a possibility that Berry declines to address.

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“The guy has too much pride to resign,” said Anthony Perry, a senior who walked out. “You can see he feels like the public is on his side and the school is on his side. . . . You can tell he’s not the type to give up.”

Dwain Daniels, one of the four players who stayed with the team, said he has enjoyed the chance to play, and that he will stay at San Jose State regardless of Berry’s future.

“To me, he is basically still the same coach,” Daniels said. “I didn’t have a complaint.”

Hoffman said he has made no decision, and that when he does, the university president, Gail Fullerton, and an athletic advisory board will share in it.

He admits that any decision will be unpopular.

“Half the crowd might boo me, but the other half might cheer,” he told the San Jose Mercury News in a lighthearted moment this week.

The irony of the situation is that Berry has turned in one of his better coaching jobs with San Jose State II, guiding them as close to victory as a one-point overtime loss to Cal State Fullerton, and two other times falling by fewer than 10 points.

“I think he handled himself tremendously well under very difficult circumstances and tremendous amounts of media and public attention,” Hoffman said. “I don’t think it could have gotten much worse than it was (in January).”

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Berry has tried to put aside thoughts of the future until the end of the season.

“I don’t know whether the worst is over,” he said. “I don’t know what lays ahead for me or this whole situation. . . . But right now, I have a job to do. I guess, as they say about me when I’m watching TV or reading newspapers, I’m focused.

“We’ve got a game. I really haven’t the time to think about it. . . . I’ve already had sleepless nights, worried myself sick trying to figure out why and who’s behind it (the walkout). I guess if I had a month to sit around and think about the thing it would be different. But I have obligations.”

San Jose State II is not as good a team as San Jose State I was, but it is close, embarrassingly so for the first team, which was 5-11 and had lost seven in a row before the walkout.

“I’d rather not get into comparisons,” Berry said. “It sounds like I’m knocking one team or the other, and I’d rather not do that.”

The leading scorer for Spartans II has been Craig McPherson, a forward who had played at Santa Clara but was finishing his academic career at San Jose State. He decided to play again when the call for players went out after the walkout. He is averaging 14 points a game, followed by Johnson, the football player, at 11.

“In all fairness, those two could have played for us when we were at full strength,” Berry said. “We’re not talking about average athletes.”

The differences between the teams, as one would guess, include Berry’s attitude toward San Jose State II.

“I’m real proud of the kids because the challenge they had to meet has been almost unfair,” he said. “I want to win every bit as bad as I’ve always wanted to win. I don’t have to pull as hard to get their maximum effort. It’s more enjoyable when you don’t have to do that. . . . I know they give me all they have. Win, lose or whatever, I’ve felt very good with the effort. That’s not always the case (with other teams).”

After tonight--assuming that the Spartans lose their final game--Berry’s 10-year career as a head coach, all at San Jose State, will be up for review.

“I think this has been a learning experience,” Berry said. “I’m not bitter toward those guys. I’ve been taught to respect everybody’s opinion whether I agree with it or not. . . . I respect the fact that they quit. I just don’t agree with their reasons.”

Regardless of the validity of the charges--and Berry has never denied that he is a tough coach who uses profanity, but denies that he ever physically abused players--his reputation is all but ruined.

“The damage has basically been done,” Berry said. “I don’t think I can undo it. I feel bad. . . . Life isn’t fair. I know that. . . . Life goes on. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. I hope I get a chance to ride off in a white hat.”


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