New Order Bolsters Pierce Athletics Stable

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

The word “Brahma” is defined alternately by Webster’s as the supreme and eternal essence of spirit in the universe, the chief member of the Hindu trinity of gods, or an Asian domestic fowl with feathered legs and a short tail.

Contrary to popular belief--particularly at Pierce College where “Brahmas” has been adopted as the school nickname--Brahma does not refer to the breed of domestic cattle native to Asia and revered by Indian Hindus. That breed is properly identified as Brahman.

In reality, the only sacred cows at Pierce are an aging cadre of physical education teachers who no longer coach but are nonetheless ensconced in the department.

This caste has been more solidly entrenched than the Indian Brahmans, but they are beginning to retire, which helps account for the nascent resurgence of Pierce athletics.

Pierce has a strong athletic tradition. Denny Crum coached the basketball team in the 1960s before moving on to UCLA and Louisville, where he has won two national championships. NFL journeyman Babe Laufenberg, now with the Dallas Cowboys, and actor Mark Harmon both quarterbacked the football team, which was a perennial winner.


However, in 1985, the football program--which had to that point won three consecutive conference championships--was dropped after a long struggle with tight budgets and a convoluted hiring system. Pierce athletics had reached its nadir. Only recently has the program begun to show signs of life.

“I think students feel better when they go to an institution that has a good athletic program,” Pierce President Dan Means said.

Pierce is a community college in need of an infusion of spirit. Only 52 students in an enrollment of about 17,000 voted in student elections last spring, but athletics has not exactly galvanized the student community.

“I think most of the students really don’t give a damn,” said Todd Thornton, a Pierce sophomore and news editor of the student newspaper. “There’s little sense of Pierce being a campus community.

Of Pierce’s revival in athletics, Thornton added: “I think it’s good, but I don’t think anyone other than athletes will be encouraged to come to Pierce. It’s great for journalists. Now we have something to write about.”

The most visible evidence of the Pierce resurgence has been the resumption of football last year and women’s basketball this year. But perhaps the most convincing evidence has been the recent hiring of two talented young coaches.

Bob Lofrano, one of the best high school baseball coaches in the Valley area, was added as an assistant to Bob Lyons, and Bill Norton was lured from the highly successful Glendale College football program to serve as offensive coordinator under Pierce Coach Bob Enger.

The billets for new coaches opened when four physical education instructors departed as part of an early retirement program. Under this incentive program, about half of the positions vacated by retiring employees are filled. In Lofrano and Norton, Pierce added instructors who will also coach, which has eased the pressure caused by the “graying” of the department.

“We have a lot of people who are older, and we need young people who can carry on,” said Marian McWilliams, the Pierce athletic director. “The people that were hired were hired as coaches, then they quit coaching. You still have them on as teachers, and that’s the problem.”

Without teaching openings available, Pierce was forced to hire off-campus, part-time coaches, a practice that led to high turnover rates and reduced contact between athletes and coaches.

“It’s very difficult to maintain a strong program when you don’t have people physically on the campus,” McWilliams said.

Pierce’s hiring dilemma was compounded by the bureaucracy inherent in a nine-college district. Whereas schools like Glendale and Pasadena enjoy the relative flexibility of being in single-college districts, Pierce is restricted by the involved structure of the Los Angeles Community College District.

“We were hamstrung for a number of years,” said Richard Moyer, administrative adviser to the athletic department.

Talented young coaches will help, but one of the most important new hires from the perspective of Pierce athletics will not be coaching a team. Means became Pierce president on June 1, 1989, and he brings with him a background in athletics and a commitment to the program.

Means coached basketball from 1965-69 and baseball from 1962-64 at Valley College. He views athletics from an insider’s perspective.

“In all my conversations with Dan Means, he has been the most supportive president with regard to athletics of any of the directors I’ve ever worked with,” McWilliams said. “He’s a lot more knowledgeable about what the athletic program is doing. It’s very nice having someone as president who’s been through that before. He’s going to do whatever he can do.”

As college president, Means controls an annual discretionary fund of $50,000. He has allocated $19,000 of that fund to the football team for an equipment manager and stadium improvements.

“He just sensed there was a need,” Enger said. “He’s come in and done some things that we hadn’t even asked for.”

Last season, the Brahmas played more like Asian domestic fowl than charging bulls. Pierce finished 1-9, but most agree that, despite its struggles, the football team provides a boost to the Pierce community.

“Football is a symbol of wellness,” Moyer said. “When we didn’t have football, people thought Pierce was going through death throes.”

Enger predicts that Pierce, which defeated East Los Angeles in its opener, will again become competitive in the Western State Conference.

“I think we’re in better shape than my competitors at a lot of other (junior colleges) in the city,” Enger said.

Pierce boasts an adequate football stadium with decent ancillary facilities, but the football program was revived without a detectable increase in athletic department funding. With more cutbacks than Eric Dickerson, the Pierce budget has had trouble keeping pace with inflation in the 1980s.

Bill Norlund, vice president of administration, estimated that the athletic budget was $200,000 in 1982 and is now about $270,000.

During the past 20 years, intercollegiate sports gradually have been pared away for a variety of reasons. Pierce no longer fields varsity teams in men’s and women’s gymnastics, men’s soccer, archery, men’s and women’s track, wrestling and men’s basketball.

Pierce now has 11 teams, six men’s and five women’s, but men’s basketball remains conspicuous by its absence.

Administrators agree that men’s basketball will be resumed, but Means says there is “no timetable.”

“I don’t think basketball should be added until we get the other sports on their feet,” said Erwin Goldbloom, chairman of the men’s physical education department.

Means said that he has no specific budget levels to meet before bringing back men’s basketball, but he also said that he will not act without the approval of the Pierce Budget Advisory Committee.

Thornton said that the athletics program is “Mickey Mouse” without basketball, but several factors make basketball a costly venture. It has a much lower coach-to-student ratio than football, and Pierce relies heavily on state income allotted on a per-student basis. Basketball also has a long schedule, which adds to travel costs and ties up gym space for two semesters.

Observers believe that Means’ background will make the resumption of men’s basketball a top priority. “I think every school needs men’s basketball,” said McWilliams, who also talks of bringing back track and soccer.

The prospect of reinstating more programs does not reduce the uncertain nature of junior college athletics in the L.A. district. Like lichens clinging to the seashore, athletics programs are only a wave of budget cuts away from being swept into oblivion.

Goldbloom and other proponents suggest that making physical education courses a mandatory part of the curriculum--as they were until the early 1980s--would reduce the tenuous existence of athletics. Ideally, mandatory PE would increase the demand for classes and teachers, which would increase the pool of potential coaches.

“I’m not sure that’s the right way to go or not,” Means said. “If we throw in a lot of mandatory-this, mandatory-that, we turn a lot of people off. I sort of look at mandatory PE with mixed emotions.”

Mandatory PE would provide a buffer against budgetary fluctuations, but regardless, administrators bravely proclaim that Pierce athletics are back to stay.

“We’re operating on a shoestring,” McWilliams said. “I think right now we’re on an upswing.”