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It’s Fullerton’s Field of Dreams : Stadium: But the question remains, will Titans be able to draw fans?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

And now, for the Cal State Fullerton athletic department’s $10.2-million question:

If you build it, will they come?

It appears that the Titan Sports Complex, in the planning stages for more than a decade, will finally be built; construction is scheduled to begin this fall.

But will Titan fans fill the 10,000-seat, on-campus stadium for football games?

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School and city officials are optimistic that the stadium, expected to be completed for the 1992 football season, will boost football interest and attendance, which has sagged while Fullerton has called Santa Ana Stadium home.

Fullerton Coach Gene Murphy, hardened by years of unfulfilled promises--he was told in 1983 the stadium would be built--is more cautious.

“You can’t assess one iota of what (the sports complex) is going to do,” Murphy said. “Being optimistic, I would hope to think we could generate some university and community support. But this isn’t Columbus, Ohio; Honolulu; Boise, Idaho, or even Fresno, so that remains to be seen.”

Yes, this is Fullerton, the 25,000-student commuter school where football apathy rules. Very few Fullerton students go to football games, but Murphy isn’t offended. Not many Fullerton students go to baseball games, campus theater productions or concerts, either.

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For many years, the athletic department has tried, with little success, to break this mind-set of Fullerton students. The Titans have been at or near the bottom of the NCAA’s Division I-A home-attendance rankings for years.

But come 1992, they’ll have a new weapon in the war against apathy--an on-campus stadium, not the erector-set bleachers the Titans used for on-campus games from 1980-82. A real stadium with a press box and restrooms with modern plumbing.

“I’m optimistic that students and the community will support the team and the new stadium,” said Kevin Forth, a Titan booster and president of Straub Distributing. “This has been a long time in planning and will be a very positive thing. It will be nice to go to a college game on campus.”

This fact alone, some students and community leaders believe, will increase interest.

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“Going to Santa Ana is a pain,” said Jennifer Hardy, a junior communications major from Placentia who has been to four games in two years. “I don’t like driving there and I don’t like that area. It’s a hassle to go there.”

Added Wes Morgan, community services superintendent for the City of Fullerton: “A home game is a home game, and when you’re in Santa Ana, it’s not a home game. I think they’ll double attendance right off the bat (on campus) and then go from there.”

Ken Feldman, a senior who goes to all Titan home games and often travels to Fresno and Las Vegas for games, isn’t so sure.

“I’m sure there will be increased interest, but it’s still a commuter campus,” said Feldman, a Delta Sigma Phi fraternity member. “Until the university builds more on-campus housing, until the city has the attitude that, yes, we want students living in Fullerton, they’ll have that problem.”

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Feldman says school population figures are deceiving. Of the 24,961 students, 14,385 are full-time and 10,576 are part-time. The average age of students is 23, and many of them work full-time, go to school part-time and have little time for extracurricular activities.

Robert Gabriel, who graduated last spring with a political science degree, says it will take more than a home stadium to draw fans.

“As it is now, it’s no big deal to go to a Fullerton game--a lot of people would rather go to a USC or UCLA game,” Gabriel said. “They need to make the atmosphere more exciting. That’s tough now when you play small schools at home or have only three home games a year. How can you get fired up to see Sonoma State?”

Fullerton Athletic Director Ed Carroll believes Fullerton can solve this problem. The Titans have lined up Mississippi State for the 1992 home opener, and Temple, Army and Texas El Paso will play at Fullerton in coming years.

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In addition to having strong opponents, Morgan believes it’s imperative the Titans field competitive teams in 1992 and ’93.

“I could be Mr. Nice Guy and say winning doesn’t matter, but it does,” Morgan said. “If the team isn’t successful, if they go 2-10, it’s going to hurt at the gate, no doubt about it.”

Murphy can’t guarantee a winning team, but he does believe the new stadium will help his recruiting.

A staple of recruiting trips at most schools is a stadium visit, but Murphy and his assistants have never brought recruits to Santa Ana Stadium.

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“We take him out here and show him where the stadium will be,” Murphy said. “It will be a lot easier to recruit an Orange County kid when you tell them they’ll be playing in front of their parents for five or six games a year.”

Murphy can’t put a number on how many recruits he has lost because of his home-field disadvantage, but he knows there have been several.

“We try to sell the campus and the coaching staff, but the bottom line is a kid wants an education, good facilities and he wants to go to the California Bowl,” Murphy said. “This hasn’t helped us.”

But what if the sports complex doesn’t help to improve the football program?

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“Given the political and economic realities of football, if you can’t draw a minimal-type crowd, people are going to question why you have a team,” Carroll said. “No one would say that about the women’s tennis team, but they say it about Division I football.”


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