Coaching athletes at a junior college is a little like running a fast-food franchise.
Once you get the customers in and stuff them (with hamburgers or knowledge of a sport), you've got to start thinking about getting them out again.
Having only two years to mold basketball players capable of playing later at a four-year college is sometimes a frustrating task for coaches Charles Sands of West Los Angeles College and John McMullen of Santa Monica College. But both usually rise above those frustrations.
Sands and McMullen have been doing business on the same corners for many years. Sands is in his 20th year at WLAC, the only basketball coach the school has had, and McMullen is in his 12th season at Santa Monica.
McMullen's stand is in the high-rent district and caters to the best of junior-college bound players. McMullen's teams have won two straight Western State Conference championships and have advanced to the quarterfinals of the state playoffs both years.
Sands has always done business out of his hat at WLAC, which has never had its own gymnasium and plays home games at Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Culver City. Some of his players were not high school stars, some had not played prep basketball, and with that sort of personnel, Sands' Oilers have never won a conference championship.
McMullen and Sands turn out players good enough to make the grade at four-year colleges, though McMullen may produce more than Sands.
Three players from last year's 32-4 SMC are on the rosters of four-year schools: Keith Amerson at Kansas State, Troy Batiste at San Jose State and Von Shuler at Chapman College.
Sands' proteges are more apt to have experiences similar to those of LaVar Ball or Rodney Jackson.
Ball, a 6-foot 4-inch, 225-pound former football star at Canoga Park High School, was recruited from WLAC by Washington State, an NCAA Division I school. But he didn't play much for the Cougars, left Pullman and is now at Cal State Los Angeles, a Division II school.
At the recent Fresno-Pacific tournament, Ball started at center and finished with 17 rebounds and 15 points as Cal State defeated Grand Canyon College, 90-78.
Jackson, a muscular, 6-4 high-post man for WLAC years ago, went on to play at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also found his level in a Division II program.
McMullen and Sands have more freshmen than sophomores on their teams this year, and both therefore are doing a lot of teaching, something they regard as fundamental to junior college coaching.
The only returning Corsairs are Mark Moton, a part-time starter last season, and front-court reserves Chris Cook and Marc Schrobilgin. Sophomore Oilers are Anthony Gates, a 6-3 All-Western State Conference selection who plays the high post; forward Sean Guthrie and guard David Hollaway, a Crenshaw High School graduate who spent his freshman year at San Jose State.
The sophomores who spent their freshmen years at the local junior colleges are well schooled in the methods of Sands and McMullen, and both coaches admit they would like to keep their second-year men another year. But junior colleges don't have third-year students.
"When I get them playing (the way) I like them to play, they go on and play for somebody else," said McMullen, but he added:
"Usually, my attitude is that I coach for the fun of it. It's fun to see guys develop and improve. I help them in the transition between high school and the university, and I enjoy the teaching aspect. The games are very competitive with a very high level of talent; most of the teams we play against have two or three Division I-caliber players."
Sands said that it "usually takes a year in our program to develop the basic, fundamental skills. I work extremely hard on the basics."
"Some of our players come with good basketball ability and most of my sophomores are ready to play basketball. I always say it would be nice to have them for one more year because some never played or weren't really ready to compete in high school.
"I think I have a solid teaching and patient entry program. I'm real demanding about (players) being at practice and being on time. (Having the players learn to follow) directions is more important to me than developing an offense.
"What I normally tell the players when we first meet is that they need to give me permission to coach them because that's the only way for them to get better. I receive their parents' permission to parent them, then they receive the benefits. I may not be as loving as the parents, but I'm just as demanding."
Though junior college coaches must do plenty of teaching with their freshmen, McMullen's teaching load has eased a bit in recent years because of the kinds of newcomers he's been getting. Four freshmen on this year's team are from Crenshaw High School, defending Division I state champion and a perennial power under Coach Willie West. Five of last year's SMC sophomores were also from Crenshaw.
McMullen said that his Crenshaw connection has been his assistant coach, Hayes Pullard, whose son DeShawn graduated from Crenshaw and was a star guard for the Corsairs last year.
McMullen said that his players from Crenshaw have had "a tremendous winner's attitude. They know they can't win without a good work ethic. They are confident and determined. They don't like to lose, but they win with class, which has really been helpful.
"This year's bunch, as young as they care, have come in with the attitude, 'Let's help Santa Monica College win.' They worked hard in preseason conditioning and drills. It's a step up in intensity in games, and they are willing to do that because they know it lets them have some fun in games."
Sands and McMullen say they are content with their jobs, even though they sometimes run into problems.
"The only frustration I have is that we don't have an on-campus gym," Sands said, "but we handle that without too much of a problem." He said that his players have had to learn to practice at local high school gyms or on outdoor courts but that they have come to like Sands' letterhead that says:
"West Los Angeles College basketball is any place, any time, any condition."
Sands may have to get a new letterhead in 1991. The passage of Proposition 13 and the resulting loss of tax funds have kept plans for a WLAC gymnasium on hold, but Sands said that Linda Thor, the school's president, has told him that "we will have a gym in the fall of 1991."
"If we have a nice facility, I think we can really have a super program," he said. "It would make a big difference with the athlete who is a basketball player. Sometimes we have basketball players who are not athletes."
But Sands has no regrets that he has not had a powerhouse program. "If winning was the only thing I was looking for in a basketball program, then I would not be in coaching," he said.
McMullen said that in his first six years at SMC he "felt a lot of frustration because I was not understanding the limitations (of a junior college program)."
"Now I realize what we can accomplish. The past two years have put me in a pretty good mood with back-to-back conference championships. I see our players go on and continue to play (at a high level), and I haven't had to be too frustrated the last couple of years.