COACH'S LAMENT : Iowa State's Criner Wasn't Prepared for the Storms That Blew Cyclones' Way

Times Staff Writer

The normally peaceful Madison is angry. Wind gusts up the canyon through the Ghost Town stretch where the locals fish, driving rain before it and whipping the surface into a froth of whitecaps that appear to reverse the flow.

Lightning dances about the ridges to the crash of thunder.

"I think we'd better hold off for a while," Jim Criner says. "These rods are graphite. They'd make good lightning rods."

So the fishermen retreat to the banks and stand about in awe, soaked and engulfed by nature's spectacle.

"I've never seen it like this," Criner says.

Yet, not long ago, in 1986, Criner himself was a lightning rod. As football coach at Iowa State, he was the center and then the chief casualty of a storm that gave new meaning to the school's nickname, the Cyclones.

It wasn't losses that brought Criner down. Barry Switzer knows about that. At Oklahoma and elsewhere in the turbulent off-field college football scene of the '80s, only the names and places change.

In Criner's case, Iowa State was 5-4 on its way to a 6-5 season and a possible bowl bid, but the program was under siege from within and without. While the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. quietly built a blockbuster case against the program, Cyclone players seemed determined to prove that it wasn't so difficult to find trouble in Ames, Iowa, after all:

--Quarterback Alex Espinoza pleaded guilty to two assault charges.

--Defensive end Lester Williams did two days in the Benton County jail for drunken driving.

--Defensive back Terrance Anthony and defensive end Matt Boles were charged with forging stolen checks.

--Wide receiver Hughes Suffren and defensive end Marcus Rodgers were charged with burglarizing the home of assistant coach Ed Lambert and stealing credit cards.

--Defensive back Milon Pitts pleaded guilty to assault after punching another Iowa State student who said the Cyclones had poured it on Indiana State, 64-9.

--Redshirt freshman Clint Riggs killed himself with a shot in the head. His mother said he had been depressed because his grades were so bad that he was in danger of losing his scholarship. Criner, fighting to maintain control, kicked several players off the team for various reasons--wide receiver Tracy Henderson, a second team All-American, for signing with an agent before his eligibility expired, among other things; wide receiver Robbie Minor, in a discipline move; Suffren, Rodgers and Pitts, for their run-ins with the law. Some were allowed to return. Henderson was not.

About two weeks before the roof fell in on Criner and the Cyclones, he was quoted as saying: "If I knew we were going to have these kinds of problems, I don't think I'd have gone into coaching."

Testimony by Henderson and quarterback Alan Hood helped the NCAA set the hook against Iowa State. Along the way, the school sought to appease the NCAA by declaring linebacker Jeff Braswell ineligible for receiving special favors when he was being recruited at junior college, but that was only a hint of what was to come.

Early in November, the NCAA summoned Iowa State officials to its headquarters in Mission, Kan., to answer to 34 charges. Three days before the date, school President Gordon Eaton asked Criner to resign. Criner refused, so the next day Eaton fired him, with two games remaining in the season.

Then they and Athletic Director Max Urick all went to Mission to appear before the NCAA Infractions Committee.

Criner said he just wanted to clear his name, while Eaton talked about hiring a replacement who would restore integrity to the program. Later, his choice was Jim Walden, late of Washington State.

Minor, a player Criner had once suspended, said: "It's a tough break for Criner. I feel sorry for him."

Eaton denied sacrificing Criner so that the NCAA would go easier on the Cyclones.

After the NCAA announced its sanctions--two years' probation and the loss of four football scholarships--a statement issued by the school said that additional penalties including banishment from TV and bowl games were suspended because of "actions taken by the university."

Criner claimed that an overzealous assistant coach, Frank D'Alonzo, now at the University of Pittsburgh, was to blame for most of the violations.

"They should have hung D'Alonzo by his toes," Criner was quoted as saying. "I am the only one let go."

Criner knew that going to Mission wouldn't get his job back.

"I just wanted to make sure the truth was heard," he said.

It's an obsession he still pursues. Since the blowup, he has taken five lie-detector tests, and maintains that he was vindicated by all.

An excerpt from the transcript of one administered by Howard N. Freeman of H&A; Polygraph in Urbandale, Iowa:

Question: Did you participate with D'Alonzo in giving cash to student athletes?

Answer: No.

Freeman said he ran five charts using two different polygraph techniques and concluded: " . . . Mr. Criner was substantially telling the truth."

The NCAA investigation didn't accuse Criner personally of any major wrongdoing. But he was the head coach. He hired the assistants. He, ultimately, recruited the athletes. He was responsible.

Criner admitted to having been involved in two of the 34 violations: arranging for a player to get a ride to school and, picking up a restaurant tab for some players.

The first incident, he said, was "one of those deals when it was 20 below and the kid's mother asked us to give him a ride. We told her we couldn't, but she pleaded with us, and we agreed.

"The other was a bill that had been run up by some athletes. I paid for it."

Oh, how he paid.

The storm has blown over--the one on the Madison--but it has put the fish down for a while.

"I've never seen it this slow," Criner said.

He has been captivated by these popular fly-fishing waters for 18 of his 49 years.

"From the time I went to college, there were three things I wanted to do," he said. "Be a major college head coach by the time I was 35--and I made it at Boise State; I wanted to win a national championship, which I did in 1980 at Boise State, and I wanted to own my own fly shop.

"I didn't want to end up some day down the road being a 55-year-old coach without other interests and not knowing which direction I wanted to take. This is the direction we always knew we would wind up."

Criner consistently uses the first-person plural to include his wife Ann.

"When we decided we were going to be coaches, it was we, he said. "I told Ann how hard it was going to be. She said, 'I'll do everything to help,' and she has.

"Ann cooked a meal for every kid we recruited. We thought it was important for those kids to come into our home and see what we were really like."

If some of those kids fooled the Criners . . .

"It's just like a bad day fishing," he said. "For every bad kid, there are 20 good ones."

Criner's record at Iowa State was 16-24-2. Although Iowa State belongs to the Big Eight Conference, it's not really in the same league with Oklahoma or Nebraska.

"In a program like Iowa State or Kansas State, it's increasingly tough," Criner said. "It's not so tough in a program that has established traditions, or a program that has a lot of athletes within the state.

"But a place like Iowa State doesn't have any tradition, doesn't have the facilities, and there's only one or two kids in the entire state every year that can play major college football."

So, coaches must recruit where the players are, in the population centers, and sometimes the recruits bring problems with them.

"We had three kids at Iowa State that were inner-city kids that had no discipline," Criner said. "They were given every opportunity to conform, and they wouldn't conform, and where I got into trouble was, I kicked 'em all off the team."

At least one, Henderson, became a witness for the NCAA.

West Yellowstone may be the best town in the country in which to own a fly shop. There are four in a town of only 750 permanent residents, but the tourist business is good. There are more miles of prime fly-fishing waters around here than anywhere else in North America.

Criner bought his shop early in 1987, when the Cyclone scars were still fresh. He had to rebuild the trade after it had been run down by an interim owner, who had defaulted the store back to Bud Lilly, the founder. He runs the tackle side of Bud Lilly's Trout Shop at 39 Madison Ave.; Ann runs the boutique side, featuring chic outdoor wear, and there is an outdoor art gallery in the basement.

"We paid Bud off in two years," Criner said. "It's worked out better than we thought it would."

There is no evidence of Criner's coaching career anywhere in the store. He continues to use Lilly's name because it's something of a tradition--not to hide his controversial past.

West Yellowstone is a small town, and everybody knows Criner and his story.

"They all call me coach," Criner said, smiling.

He outfits fishing and hunting expeditions and takes catalogue orders from fly anglers around the world. One minute he is on the phone with somebody ordering $300 worth of flies to take to India, the next preparing to send three fly rods to a customer headed for Japan.

During the fishing season, the store is open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week, and Criner is usually there. Off-season, he and Ann hit the road for trade shows.

"I didn't have any idea what kind of hours it would take," he said. "But I've always worked those hours."

The shop turned $453,000 gross last year, despite the Yellowstone fires that came within 200 yards of Criner's house.

Criner still thinks as a coach, though, and his thoughts are never far from football. Trying to tie a hook onto a line, he has to fetch his glasses.

"Too many late nights in the film room," he jokes.

In rebuilding the business, Criner said, "I tried to surround myself with friendly, knowledgeable people and experienced professional guides--just like you build a football team.

"When I was coaching, I wanted my assistant coaches to be totally involved--think nothing but football. That's the way I want my guides to think--nothing but fishing."

He said that, instead of buying the fly shop, he might have taken an assistant's job at Winnipeg in the Canadian Football League.

"It was a tough decision, but we feel it was the right decision," he said.

Will he ever go back? Would he have the stomach to tackle all the problems that go with coaching college football these days?

Yes, Criner said, in the right situation.

"I would be very careful about who my boss was. I don't have any strong feelings against college football. I still think it's a great profession. I'd just make sure I worked for a guy that had a backbone and is not going to turn his back on you before you have an opportunity to defend yourself."

Old Iowa State fans stop by the store to say hello and there even are some friendly Iowa fans who wear their Hawkeye jackets to needle Criner.

"A lot of coaches are starting to come by and fish with me," Criner said. "Steve Shafer and Fritz Shurmur from the Rams were here this summer, John Becker from the Seattle staff . . . the whole Utah staff's been up here . . . Lynn Stiles from the 49ers.

"Almost every one of 'em, after they've been here two or three days fishing, will end up saying, 'Jim, how can I do this?' "

Nowadays, Fridays are the worst for Criner and that's a change. Friday is when coaches kick back. The game plan is in, and they're just waiting for the kickoff.

"Friday was always the day I enjoyed the most," Criner said. "Now the hardest day is Friday, when I'll get a call from one of my (former) coaches. Boy, do I get homesick."

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