Woebegone Tales From the Big West

Problems, problems. If you coach football in the Big West Conference, you've got to have problems.

Jim Hess of New Mexico State can tell you:

"When I got to Las Cruces, I introduced myself as Jim Hess, the new football coach at New Mexico State--the worst football program in America. It's the truth. I read a headline in one of the local papers about us. 'The Tragedy Continues.'

"We are not a very good football team. . . . We can't run very fast, there is no depth and we have the worst running defense I ever watched play. We were horrendous.

"We have eight potential starters back on defense--which is not what you'd like off a team that was that bad last year. People ask me what's the big difference in going from a 1-AA program to a 1-A. I tell them I don't have as many good players as I did in 1-AA."

Gene Murphy of Cal State Fullerton knows the feeling.

"The strength of our team is our kicker," Murphy says. "I'm not being facetious. Phil Nevin is an outstanding baseball player who just got cut from Team USA and led the Big West Conference in home runs last year. He's also our kicker and we're just hoping to keep him around for two more years before he's drafted.

"We lost 23 seniors last year. We play three games at home and nine on the road. . . . We travel so much, our players get two additional units for geography.

"To say it's a challenge is the understatement of the century. But it's our schedule, it's the only schedule we have. If they want to play, they have to go with us."

Tales seldom get more tearful, unless you happen to be Walt Harris and your University of the Pacific team happens to open its 1990 season in Knoxville against Tennessee.

"I just hope we save our equipment," Harris says. "Our equipment and our players.

"When I was an assistant at Tennessee, Coach (Johnny) Majors used to get on me about running out the clock and not throwing when we had a big lead. I hope he remembers that."

Sandbagging is not an Olympic event, but eight coaches were jostling for the victory stand at the Airport Hyatt in Los Angeles Thursday, where they congregated for their annual preseason bull session. Bull was for sale--and the market, as usual, was bullish.

At Cal State Long Beach, George Allen is worried about depth. "We had to cancel our spring game because we were short of defensive linemen," Allen says. So Allen invited all comers. "As of yesterday," he reports, "we had 60 walk-ons. I call them 'free agents.' We have 60 free agents. Maybe four or five of them will be able to cover kicks."

Allen is also worried about his quarterbacks. The best passer in Long Beach is named San Jose. Bobby San Jose. "He has a chance to be a good quarterback for us," Allen says, "but he missed spring ball, so that's up in the air." Allen's other option is junior Todd Studer. Says Allen: "I told him, 'You remind me of Roman Gabriel.' He said, 'I've never heard of Roman Gabriel.' "

The new coach at Nevada Las Vegas is named Jim Strong. He's aptly named. When poking you in the ribs about the ground-zero program at UNLV, Jim comes on a bit too Strong.

"Our morale at UNLV was great this spring," Strong announces, white teeth gleaming. "We had 26 players out for football. Twenty-two knew they were gonna start. Two others knew they were gonna be kickers. That left us with only two guys who were upset and wanted to come to my office and talk about it. And everybody knows they're already on the traveling squad."

Strong comes to Las Vegas via Notre Dame, where he served as Lou Holtz's offensive coordinator. "I tried to get Tony Rice to come with me," Strong quips, "but he signed with the Canadian league."

Everybody has problems. Even Fresno State's Jim Sweeney, who coaches the San Francisco 49ers of the Big West Conference and has 10 offensive starters returning from last year's 11-1 team. "We have no depth in the offensive backfield," Sweeney complains.

And there are injury troubles. A key Bulldog showed up at Thursday's luncheon with his right arm in a sling, a souvenir from recent rotator cuff surgery.

"I hurt it at home when I fell in the swimming pool," Sweeney explained. "Obviously, my wife failed to clean it properly."

In the end, however, no one could go woe-to-woe with Hess, the man who inherits an 0-11 New Mexico State team.

Then again, Hess inherited better material.

Question: Could you evaluate your quarterback position?

Hess: "I wish I could. David Chisum, who's from Fullerton JC and nobody in California wanted, will start for us. We're going to set the national record for most passes in one game. We might as well. Why not? If we can get the ball off, that is. We'll call that many."

Question: How hard has it been to battle poor morale?

Hess: "Hard. I had to battle mine. I had to talk to me quite a bit."

Question: Why did you take this job?

Hess: "The challenge of doing something no one else has done. If I do it, I'm a legend. If I don't, I'll retire. Or they'll retire me."

One more thing: Hess also didn't care for his old job, athletic director at Stephen F. Austin University. "I wanted to get back into coaching," he said. "Instead of solving everybody else's problems, I get to go back to solving my own."

Pause.

Grin.

"Of which I now have many."

How can the rest of the Big West expect to match that kind of shtick?

It could be a problem.

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