It had been ages between victories, let alone punch lines, so when Bill Mulligan walked off the Titan Gym court Thursday night to meet the press, he couldn't resist.
"I took the job back."
Too little too late to save the season, too little too late to save Mulligan's career as a basketball coach, UC Irvine rallied to save at least one last laugh for the little coach who couldn't take it any more, bumping off cross-county rival Cal State Fullerton, 96-92, for the second time this season.
What does it all mean?
That Irvine is playing 1.000 ball against Fullerton this season--and .280 ball against everyone else.
That Irvine, at 4-11 and in last place in the Big West, can still qualify for the conference's eight-team postseason tournament.
That Fullerton, at 6-10 and in eighth, can still miss it.
And, no, Mulligan insists he is not thinking about pulling a Jim Palmer. Even in victory, the way the Anteaters spell victory, retirement looks good.
"Now you know why I'm resigning," yelled Mulligan, clutching a stat sheet. "Take a look at the points Butler and Herdman scored and then take a look at what's left."
The stat sheet showed Ricky Butler with 28 points--on a school-record 13-of-13 from the field.
It also showed Jeff Herdman, via 5-for-5 accuracy from three-point range, with 31 points.
Thirty-seven points on 13 of 27 field-goal shooting.
"And both Butler and Herdman are seniors!" Mulligan shrieked.
No, even in the best of times, Mulligan nervously paces the sidelines, paper cup in one hand--yes, the team has finally driven him to drink--with the other hand on top of his head, reaching to pull out hair that isn't there.
With 17:01 left in the second half, Mulligan's Anteaters are up by 20 points, 63-43.
With 10:20 left in the second half, that lead is down to four, 70-66.
Mulligan thought he gave up yo-yos as a kid. Up and down, up and down. The erratic pace of this Irvine season has taken a bizarre toll on Mulligan, as evidenced by the colors he chose to coordinate for his Thursday night attire--purple sweater and pink cuffed pants. "Hey Mulligan," one Titan fan called out, "why don't you trade in those pants for some wallpaper?"
These are the times that try men's wardrobes.
Nothing strange about the appearance of the Anteater offense, though. This is the way Mulligan had planned it, so many practice sessions ago--Butler and Herdman hogging the basketball and going hog-wild with it.
"That's how the offense has been set all season," Butler said. "Jeff and I are on the same side. If I'm double-teamed, Jeff should be wide open for a jumper. And if they're guarding me one-on-one, I usually can take it inside."
Too often, Fullerton guarded Butler one-and-one--with that one positioned behind the Irvine center, rather than the in-front approach favored by most Big West defenses. The Titans are slow learners. Butler scored a career-high 32 points in Irvine's 92-87 victory over Fullerton last month at the Bren Center.
"I guess they don't respect me," Butler deadpanned.
Butler's 13-for-13 perfecto eclipsed the old Anteater mark of 12-for-12 from the field, set by Mike Doktorczyk in 1988. "But when Mike Dok did it, he shot real shots. He shot 'threes', " Butler modestly explained. "Tonight, I was shooting layups."
But Butler will take it.
In this season? Hell, yes.
"It's good to get into the record books somehow," he said.
Next, the Anteaters try to get Mulligan into one last Big West tournament. Although for what, Mulligan isn't sure. If Irvine finishes eighth, it will draw UNLV in the first round.
Uh, thanks, guys, but I was really hoping for a Longines.
"If we finish eighth . . ." Mulligan said before interrupting himself. "Ah, I don't want to get into that."
He mulled a second.
"I'd just like to keep playing," he decided.
So bring on UNLV. Irvine gets the Runnin' Rebels on Saturday night--we know how that's going to turn out--but closes with San Jose State and Utah State in the Bren Center, so the tournament is still very much in reach.
"We want to win as many as we can for the poor guy before he leaves," Butler said.
Before Mulligan leaves, Fullerton wanted to show an old foe a token of appreciation--besides 96-92, of course--so before Thursday's game, Titan football coach Gene Murphy was summoned to half court for a special presentation. Murphy and Mulligan are tight, so no explanation was needed, but Murphy grabbed the microphone and provided one anyway.
"You're probably wondering why I'm here," Murphy told the crowd. "Well, the Daily Titan held a contest. You had to be Irish, you had to be a Division I coach in Orange County and you had to have won fewer games this year than Mulligan.
"I won the contest."
Murphy and Mulligan shook hands and Mulligan collected his trophy--a wooden plaque featuring Fullerton mascot Tuffy Titan and an inscription:
To Bill Mulligan
Our 2nd Favorite Irishman and Respected Opponent
UCI 5, CSUF 5 in Titan Gym
Better recall the engraver and make it UCI 6, CSUF 5. This is one place where Mulligan is guaranteed of going out a winner.