Cal State Long Beach football will receive weekly national attention this season for the first time, though the team isn’t expected to be any better than usual.
George Allen, of course, is the reason.
As well-known as any coach in America, the 72-year-old Allen apparently has even created interest among fans in Long Beach, a city whose support for the 49ers has always been meager.
With a young team--the quarterbacks and linemen, especially, lack experience--Allen knows that he could be the only reason some fans will go to Veterans Stadium.
“Several hundred people have told me, ‘I’m buying season tickets because of you,’ ” said Allen, who makes his debut with the 49ers on Saturday at Clemson.
Nearly 900 season tickets have been sold, almost three times as many as last year, according to ticket manager Paul Stalma. “I’ve been here since 1984 and this is certainly the high point,” he said.
But it’s far below the goal of Merle Makings, the athletic department’s marketing director, who hopes to sell 3,000 season tickets. “We plan to sell them right up to Sept. 22,” said Makings, referring to the date of the home opener against University of the Pacific. “How we play in the first three games is going to have an impact. That second game is real important.”
The second game will be Sept. 8 at Utah State, a team the 49ers defeated last season when they went 4-8.
Any improvement will realistically be judged by how the 49ers do after the opener with Clemson, a national power Allen has dreaded playing for months. The game, for which the 49ers will receive $250,000, was scheduled before Allen was hired last December.
“It’s just an unreasonable opener,” Allen said. “We’re not ready to play a team like Clemson. I’ve never had an opener where we were such a big underdog.”
But the players aren’t expecting to be humiliated.
“They probably think it’s a scrimmage, but we’re looking to go in there and give them a game,” said linebacker David Riley.
Since his arrival almost nine months ago, Allen has endeared himself to 49er boosters, upgraded equipment and practice facilities, raised money (more than $100,000 at a dinner in May) and bombarded his players with inspirational slogans.
“They’re all hustling and hitting hard, and have a good attitude,” he said, mentioning the attributes his teams were known for during his 12 successful years in the NFL.
But is there enough talent on the team for Allen to avoid his first losing season since 1954, when he was at Whittier College?
The 49ers, who have had three consecutive losing seasons, have been picked by Big West Conference coaches to finish fifth in the eight-team league. Last year under Larry Reisbig, Long Beach finished in a tie for sixth with a 2-5 record.
Todd Studer is the new quarterback. He replaces Paul Oates, who completed his career last year by throwing for 2,621 yards and 19 touchdowns.
A 6-foot-3 redshirt junior, Studer last played at Los Angeles Valley College in Van Nuys.
“It will be a tough situation for him (Saturday),” said assistant coach Randy Whitsitt. “He’s never been in front of 80,000 people. He’s very, very inexperienced, but he’s confident and he’s improving. As far as his background, he’s never been on a passing team.”
Another quarterback expected to play against Clemson is senior Bobby San Jose, who starred at Wilson High School and was on UCLA’s roster for three years, though he didn’t play,
Studer and San Jose have two talented receivers in Sean Foster and Mark Seay.
Foster, who made the All-Big West team last year, caught 49 passes for 1,021 yards and nine touchdowns. Seay has not played since 1988, when he caught 31 passes for 480 yards in eight games. Late that season he was shot by a suspected gang member at a children’s party and lost a kidney. He was denied medical clearance last year but will play this season with a protective jacket.
Jeff Fassett, who ran for 629 yards a year ago, is back at tailback, as is Freddie Leslie. The fullbacks will be veteran Herman Nash and newcomer Rickey Clark, a redshirt last season.
Bryon Hamilton, a junior who started six games in 1989, returns at tight end.
Center Joshua Schwager and guard Ron Byers are the only experienced offensive linemen, but some of the new players are of imposing size, including tackle Kelly Schlegel (6-7, 290) and tackle Joe Chadbourne.
Allen, who has rebuilt many defenses during his career, is trying to rebuild one that allowed 34 points and 450 yards a game last season.
The best defensive player is senior linebacker Pepper Jenkins, whose 88 tackles and 11 quarterback sacks won him a place on the All-Big West second team last season.
Other experienced linebackers are Nick Pantuso, who had 76 tackles last year and who Allen says has the attitude of an NFL player, and David Riley, a fifth-year senior who redshirted in 1989 after playing in every 49er game his first three seasons.
“We’re a little short in the defensive line,” said Allen.
All of the players on that line are new, and most are inexperienced. Exceptions are 6-3, 270-pound Chris Stetz, a junior who played at Utah State as a freshman, and Bascom Mellon (6-3, 290), a junior who played two years ago at Utah. Mellon will miss at least the first couple of games because of knee surgery.
The defensive backfield will be led by strong safety Leon Patterson, a three-year veteran who had 62 tackles and eight pass deflections last season, and free safety Shawn Wilbourn, a senior track star who set a school record last spring in the decathlon.
Wilbourn has impressed Allen, who said: “I like him. He’s a leader, he’s dedicated and he pays attention at meetings.”
Oliver Thompson, who started four games a year ago and had 55 tackles, returns as a cornerback. Darwin Walker, formerly of Lynwood High School, and two transfers from Prairie View A & M, Bingo Williams and Shawn Lawson, are also in the cornerback picture.
Allen, who always emphasizes special teams, said Sean Cheevers, a junior walk-on from Moorpark College, will be his place-kicker. Cheevers connected on all five field goals he attempted in an intra-squad scrimmage last Saturday.
Competing for the punting job are veteran Fred Morales, who averaged 35.8 yards last year, and Ray Magana, a junior walk-on.
Allen said it is hard to evaluate his players because so far they have played only against one another.
“We’ll find out (Saturday),” he said. “I know my players will play hard and with enthusiasm. No matter what happens, I’ll still believe in these guys. So much has been accomplished here, but we’ve got a long way to go. You don’t turn things around in one year.”