Gene Murphy moseyed over to Griswold's Hotel in Fullerton for his usual Monday lunch. He looked at his food. He pushed it away. He turned to the person next to him.
"Might be poisoned," he said.
Later on, Murphy was out strolling on campus at Cal State Fullerton, a buddy walking alongside. He advised the guy to move a few feet away.
"Better watch out for flying shrapnel," he said.
Gene Murphy has become college football's man of the hour--and he hopes the hour is almost up. He has gotten nasty phone calls. He has gotten lousy publicity. He finds himself making apology after apology.
And the football team he coaches won last Saturday's game, 45-10!
Did Murphy suddenly become unpopular because he left his star players on the field to run up the score on a poor, helpless dog of an opponent?
No, Murphy suddenly became unpopular because he took his star player out of last Saturday's game, too damned soon.
"I'm turning into Secretariat," he said.
"Yeah," Murphy said. "They're kicking a dead horse."
If ever a guy doesn't deserve such treatment, it is Murphy. Good thing he has kept his sense of humor. Without it, the last couple of days might have been even worse than they seemed.
Murphy, 50, has been good for Fullerton football. He has been there for the Titans during times when hardly anybody sat in the stands, and during times when the university didn't even have any stands. He was there in 1984 when their final record was 11 wins, one defeat.
Gene Murphy is a genuinely good guy who looks out for the best interests of all his players--not just first-stringers and big men on campus, but third-stringers and anxious kids who would kill for a chance to get three minutes of playing time.
The coach was dying to send some of those guys into the game against Nevada Las Vegas after Fullerton had taken a 27-0 halftime lead. But the starters blew that big lead and had to stay in the game. Then he wanted to use them in the Pacific game, after Fullerton had shot out in front, 35-7. Next thing Murphy knew, though, the score was 35-26. The subs were stuck on the sideline, as usual.
So, last Saturday, when winless, hapless, hopeless New Mexico State came to Santa Ana Stadium, Murphy finally saw some daylight.
His team was ahead, 45-10. Only about a minute remained. He left senior Mike Pringle in the lineup long enough to smash the school-record rushing total of 301 yards, which the 5-foot-10, 185-pound running back did with a 67-yard bolt that put him within five measly yards of the NCAA's all-time record of 357, set by Washington State's Rueben Mayes.
Pringle, by coincidence a transfer from Washington State, seemed satisfied. He had had a big day. However, in the mad scramble of the last minute, it came to the coaching staff's attention that Pringle needed only five more yards to become, well, somewhat immortal. All they had to do was send Pringle back in.
Murphy, trusting his instincts, kept Pringle right where he was. He played the subs.
He was a little bit like a Little League coach who didn't care what the outcome was, as long as everybody got a chance to play. Only in this case, even the outcome was in Fullerton's favor.
Well, you'd have thought the poor soul had thrown Pringle off the team, or blown the game with a bum call, or put the school on probation by mailing $1,000 to a recruit.
"Gee, I'm sorry for what I did," Murphy said Monday. "But it wasn't anything malicious."
He apologized to Pringle. He called up Pringle's mother and apologized to her. Fullerton's players, particularly the offensive linemen, felt bad that they hadn't broken the record. The running back who replaced Pringle in the lineup felt bad about robbing his teammate of the chance of a lifetime. Even the New Mexico State coach said he would have put Pringle back in the game.
Murphy knew when he was beaten, even when he wasn't beaten.
"I'm sorry for all the upheaval and furor this has caused," Murphy said. "If I had it to do over again, I'd let him get his six yards. I thought what I was doing was for the team. I'd never want to do anything to hurt the team."
And now, the O. Henry twist to the story:
Mike Pringle did get the record. Fullerton's people studied the game films and found five extra yards. Seriously . On one Pringle carry, the statistician mistook the 43-yard line for the 38, shorting Pringle five yards. So Monday afternoon, Pringle found out he was the leading one-game rusher of all time, tied with Mayes. It took him three days to get his 357 yards, but a record's a record.
And his coach, Secretariat?
Let's help him up.