Titan Football Problem Gets Uglier

Gene Murphy didn't get the San Jose State football coaching job, which is probably best for all concerned.

Murphy still owes Cal State Fullerton a few hours of custodial service.

The latest mess left behind by the Titan football team involved another bar-room brawl, the arrest of three more of Murphy's players and an off-duty policeman's bullet in the back of Fullerton defensive end Clarence Siler.

But at least no one was killed.

Unlike April of 1988.

Two years ago, two Titans beat a Marine to death outside a Fullerton bar, an act later dismissed as "excusable homicide" by the Orange County district attorney's office.

One month ago, two more Titans were suspended from spring workouts after another fight inside a campus pub.

Isolated incidents?

No more. Not now.

The Fullerton football program has spent decades trying to forge its own identity and now it has one. This is the team that will never beat up Oklahoma or Miami on the field, but could hold its own next to the beer taps and pool table.

Off-campus and off-hours, the Titans have hit the big time. This is how the Division I powers do it. At Oklahoma, players shoot Uzis off dormitory roofs. At Nebraska, a player named Danny Noonan single-handedly trashes a Lincoln bar. At Colorado, policemen patrol the campus with football media guides in hand.

Welcome, Titans. You've arrived.

You must be proud.

Of course, at most of these Gridiron Techs, such indiscretions are greeted with a shrug, a departmental slap on the wrist and a flood of angry letters to the newspaper reporting the news. Boys, after all, will be boys. What's a few smashed barstools and faces when there's a national championship to be won?

But at Fullerton, people are winding up in the emergency ward. Or in the morgue. The college community sees a football team it perceives to be out of control and demands adjustments.

"I'm getting tired of reading about football players and fights," said Patrick Ekelund, a Fullerton graduate now attending Western State University School of Law across the street. "It could reflect poorly on the school. I'm sure some people are saying Cal State Fullerton is a bunch of ruffians, that they're more a gang than a football team.

"They're good athletes, (but) if they're serious about their sport, they shouldn't go out breaking the law. They should be scared of their coach enough to know that the coach isn't going to let them play if they're involved with something like this."

Here is where Murphy comes in. The accountability question is a dicey one--Is a coach, an athletic director or a football program to be held responsible for the behavior of 90-plus players?--and the answer has proved subjective. At Oklahoma, Barry Switzer got nailed for running a laissez-faire program. But at Colorado, Bill McCartney was lauded for turning around Buffalo football amid trying circumstances.

A coach can control two things: the people he recruits and how he disciplines them. After the 1988 incident, Murphy added an insert to his playbook, a rule that declared local bars off-limits to players. Failure to comply, Murphy said, would result in suspension or expulsion from the team.

Words, however, are not enough. John Gibbs and Carlos Siragusa, the players involved in the fistfight that cost El Toro Marine Staff Sgt. Richard Bottjer his life, were suspended briefly but ultimately reinstated. Both appeared in five games during the Titans' 1988 season.

What kind of message does that send? And how will Murphy respond to Thursday's early morning melee outside the Carnivale nightclub in Fullerton?

Murphy says, "The punishment is up to me. It could vary."

One of the arrested Titans is senior running back Mike Pringle, out of eligibility and, consequently, outside of Murphy's jurisdiction. Another is defensive end Andrew Fears, already on suspension for last month's pub altercation. Siler, a junior, was projected as a 1990 starter.

Several other players, who were at the scene, remain under police investigation.

One way or another, Murphy and Fullerton must deal with a problem that is very real and very ugly. There are those at the university who already consider Titan football a needless extravagance. Recently, Athletic Director Ed Carroll commissioned a financial study of the football program in response to an inquiry by the Academic Senate, which posed the question: Should Fullerton football be de-classified to Division II or III . . . or scrapped altogether?

According to the study's findings, the football program exhausts 29% of the school's athletic budget but generates 31% of all athletic revenues. Thus, the study concluded, the football program deserves to proceed as is.

Into the equation now enters the school's standing in the community. If the football team becomes too much of a drain on the university's reputation, something has to change.

Murphy needs to keep his starting lineup out of a police lineup.

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