If you think Gene Murphy lost a heartbreaker last Saturday in Long Beach, consider what happened last April in San Jose.
Murphy was one of three finalists for the head football coaching job at San Jose State. His ticket out of Cal State Fullerton was almost punched. His only competition was a couple of rookies--career college assistants Terry Shea of Cal and Rick Rasnick of San Jose.
If experience meant anything, Murphy was about to experience all the trappings of medium-time college football: a stadium, a budget, a schedule with home games on it.
Ten years in the gulag had to count for something.
But sometimes your quarterback fumbles on the naked bootleg and sometimes San Jose goes with the familiar face. Shea coordinated San Jose's offense from 1984-86 and coordinated a trip to the 1986 California Bowl for the Spartans, so he knew his way around.
Shea got the job.
Murphy got a year extended to his sentence.
How about a compound fracture?
Today, Murphy's Titans are in the midst of the worst losing streak in Fullerton history--eight in a row--and are 1-8 overall. Their only victory was a close call against Division II Sonoma State. Four of their past five losses have been by scores of 48-17, 38-3, 67-37 and 45-21.
Meanwhile, back at San Jose State, Shea has what might be the premier team on the West Coast this season. What about the Washington Huskies, you say? Good question: What about them? San Jose had Washington tied, 10-10, in the fourth quarter during their game at Seattle before falling a field goal and an onside kick short, 20-17.
"And if you look at the flow of that game," Shea says, "you wonder, 'How in the world were they able to win that game?' "
San Jose also tied Louisville, 10-10, which is probably the only thing keeping Howard Schellenberger's 7-1-1 Cardinals out of the top 20. The Spartans had two last-second chances at victory too--a 32-yard field goal attempt that was blocked and, following a Louisville penalty, a 24-yard field goal attempt that was foiled by a bad center snap.
San Jose also beat Stanford the week before Stanford upset Notre Dame. San Jose lost to Cal, 35-34, when Shea opted for a two-point conversion in the waning moments, disdaining the tie for an eventual incompletion in the end zone.
With three potential bowl teams on their schedule, the Spartans are four points removed from an undefeated season. As it stands now, San Jose is 5-2-1--good enough to knock on the door of the top 30 and good enough to remain in contention for a bowl of its own.
"San Jose State has a chance to become the next great program on the West Coast," Shea says. "Teams like Florida State once had to start where we're starting. We've got the population base, we have a tremendous football team this year and we're beginning to gain some national recognition.
"I hope one step leads to the next."
The Santa Clara Valley has apparently been impervious to drought conditions this year. Athletic success stories have grown wild here.
Last fall, Stan Morrison took over a San Jose basketball team that cried mutiny on old coach Bill Berry, stripped it down to ground zero, put uniforms on part-time postal workers and walk-on freshmen and went on to finish ahead of UC Irvine and Fresno State in the Big West.
The San Jose football program, similarly, had to be wrenched from controversy. Claude Gilbert, the Spartan coach from 1984-89, was abruptly fired in late March amid allegations of NCAA rule violations and a poor graduation rate by his players. By the time the San Jose search committee completed its scramble, Shea had to join a new program with its spring football workouts already in progress.
Shea's immediate impression was that "this was a team crying out for leadership. There was such a cloud of dissension hanging over the team because of the dismissal of Coach Gilbert." Gilbert immediately filed a wrongful termination grievance--the issue remains unresolved--and Gilbert had many sympathizers in pads who wanted no new coach because they felt none was needed.
Shea had to win over an entire team. His methods involved lending an ear and pushing a bit of corn.
"We made it important to latch on to one another," Shea says. "We came up with a slogan: 'Absolute Loyalty.' I talked to all the players and told each of them that if they had any doubt in their minds about demonstrating 'Absolute Loyalty,' they were not going to be with us."
A few players left. Those who stayed received handsome new T-shirts emblazoned with Shea's magic words.
Actions, as always, have spoken loudest and Shea has been greeted by a sonic boom from tailback Sheldon Canley, who leads the nation in all-purpose yards; quarterback Ralph Martini, a fifth-year senior who already has passed for 2,027 yards and 16 touchdowns, and an aggressive defense that ranks fifth in the nation against the run.
"Did I expect this?" Shea says, repeating a reporter's question. "Well, let's say I'm not surprised.
"Obviously, I have a lot of confidence in myself as a football coach and a lot of confidence in my staff. I'd sure like to think that I'm capable of coaching a winning program. Right now, I think we have San Jose State football right where it should be."
It could have all been Murphy's too. But no. Instead, Murphy can only spend most Saturdays admiring from afar and this Saturday admiring from the opposing sideline. Then, after 3 1/2 hours of nose bleeds, they will go their separate ways--Fullerton a step closer to the worst finish in the school's history, San Jose a step closer to the California Bowl.
Some guys get all the breaks. The way Shea's going, they're going to name a stadium after him. Murphy? Just give him a stadium and some players to put in it. Do that and you can call it whatever you want.