The names of the recruits who might be able to turn around Cal State Fullerton’s 1-11 football record are listed neatly on the the wall in Coach Gene Murphy’s office, but as the clock moved toward 11 Thursday night, no one spoke of them.
This is the heart of the recruiting season, but Murphy and his staff had canceled all their evening visits. There didn’t seem to be any reason to go after they learned the school is on the verge of dropping its 21-year-old football program because of budget problems.
One of the five assistants there wondered if he should go out for beer. Another, Jim Chaney, sat with eyes that were red and swollen. “Hay fever” was his cover story to a visitor.
The school announced Friday that its athletics council had recommended that the football program be discontinued, and now Murphy, his staff and the players await the final decision of university President Milton A. Gordon, who released a statement saying no word will come until next week.
After years of operating on a shoestring budget that often forced the team to play mismatches against teams such as Florida, Louisiana State and Auburn--which they lost by lopsided scores--the end could be near for a program that had its best moment in 1984, when the Titans were rated in the United Press International Top 20 for one week.
The bottom came just last November, when the Titans lost to lowly New Mexico State and were ranked No. 106, the worst major-college team in America.
By Friday morning, the news of the team’s possible demise had begun to spread.
Larry Manfull, a longtime friend and 10-year assistant of Murphy’s who was fired last month, stopped by the offices in the morning.
“I rolled in this morning just to visit with Murphy,” Manfull said. “I was asking about recruits, and how many they were bringing in. (Assistant) Mike Foster said, ‘We’re done.’ I said, ‘What do you mean, you’ve signed them all?’ He said, ‘We’re done. They’re dropping the program. It’s over.’ ”
Around the campus, coaches of other Fullerton teams sympathized.
“It came as a total surprise,” said John Sneed, the men’s basketball coach. “I’m in agreement with everyone in the department that we’re disappointed and feel extremely bad for Murph and his staff and the student-athletes as well.”
Al Mistri, the soccer coach, agreed.
“I definitely think it’s a bad thing for us,” Mistri said. “It will mean a lot of lost jobs. It obviously affects all of us. No other sport was able to generate a lot of money. With the stadium (under construction), we might have had more cash. I think it’s terrible. At the same time, I don’t know what else could have been done.”
Ground was broken in October for a 10,000-seat on-campus stadium, which would become the Titans’ home field and replace Santa Ana Stadium, where the Titans often played in front of crowds of fewer than 3,000.
In Fresno, Coach Jim Sweeney got a call from his friend Murphy, asking if there were coaching openings at Fresno State or if he knew of any others.
“I think he was more concerned about helping his staff than anything,” Sweeney said. “It’s a hard time for any one single coach to get a job in college athletics, and now for a whole staff? It’s practically impossible.”
Murphy’s staff already had called its recruits and told them to look elsewhere, and Manfull said Murphy spent time Friday calling his returning players.
“I heard him on the phone to all the players, saying there would be a squad meeting on (Feb. 4) and that football was going to be dropped and that there would be other coaches coming in to evaluate them, that they’d be able to transfer and be eligible immediately,” Manfull said. “I just visited with him a short time and gave him a hug.”
The word will spread more slowly among former players.
“Dropping football?” said Gary Thornton, who was a senior defensive lineman on last season’s team. “That is amazing. I think this is definitely not the solution. I thought President Gordon was behind us all the way. . . . I can’t even believe it. I hope they’re not just going by (the 1-11 season). It definitely is going to get better. That’s not the solution.”
Thornton’s brother, Jim, played his senior season in 1987 and went on to success as a tight end with the Chicago Bears. He is one of a number of former Titans to make it in the NFL, including New York Giants cornerback Mark Collins, who will play in Sunday’s Super Bowl.
“It will be almost like having no home,” Jim Thornton said. “It will be like leaving home to go to college and then coming back and having no home. There won’t be any place where I spent a lot of time and a lot of memories. The school will still be there, but school as I know it wouldn’t. That’s kind of a shock.”
It was a shock at the Big West Conference office and a shock to Sweeney, who is the only conference coach who has been in the league longer than Murphy’s 11 years.
“It saddens me,” Sweeney said. “Gene Murphy’s a great coach and a great person. It saddens me most to see this happen at this juncture in his career, for him to be out of the profession. We need more Gene Murphys and fewer of the other types.”
Sweeney recalled that Murphy, 51, has had opportunities to leave Fullerton, particularly after the 1984 season, when the Titans went 11-1.
A precious commodity then, Murphy passed on opportunities at Utah and Oregon State and held out for the job at Missouri. He finished second and remained at Fullerton.
“He probably overstayed his productivity,” Sweeney said. “It’s too bad to see a guy that good gone.”
There is some hope for an 11th-hour stay, but Sweeney said that coaching staffs, including his own, are already looking at Fullerton’s returning players and 1991 schedule to see if there is any one or any game they want.
If the program is discontinued, it will be the realization of a possibility Murphy and his staff always knew existed.
“I’m sick,” Manfull said. “We felt we had reached a point by the mid-'80s where we had the program on solid ground. We were not going to compete with Auburn or any of those, but we could compete within our league. What happened? I still can hardly believe it.
“It’s funny, but it’s not funny. Probably three months ago or so, Murphy and I were on our way over to the student union to get some coffee. They had gotten the go-ahead on the stadium, and we thought, ‘Geez, think of the way things have been over the years. Maybe Fullerton would be the only school in America that would build a new stadium and then drop football.’ ”
Times staff writer Mike DiGiovanna contributed to this story.
* Football Near Extinction
CS Fullerton President Milton Gordon will decide next week whether to follow advice that the school drop football. A1