49er Coach Brown Has Big Job Ahead : CS Long Beach: He must follow Allen, keep program together.
Willie Brown, named to replace the late George Allen as Cal State Long Beach football coach shortly after Allen’s unexpected death Dec. 31, is in an unenviable position.
The 49ers have little depth at most positions. They face an 11-game schedule featuring games at Arizona and Miami, and only three home games.
Also on the horizon are massive university budget cuts that might jeopardize the football program and Brown’s job. A task force has recommended that football be reduced substantially or dropped.
In addition, Brown has been asked to replace a legend who brought the 49ers publicity and respectability last season by guiding them to the university’s second winning season in the past seven. Writing in Sports Illustrated shortly before his death, Allen called it the most gratifying season of his coaching career.
Brown, a star cornerback with the Oakland Raiders and a member of the National Football League Hall of Fame, seems undeterred.
“My contract is to put together a good football team. That’s what I’m trying to do,” he said.
Nevertheless, on recruiting trips he has experienced fallout from the program’s murky future. “Kids don’t want to read and hear about (dropping the program),” he said.
So, when the 49ers open against San Diego State at 6:05 p.m. today at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, a big question will remain unanswered--is this the beginning of the end?
Senior quarterback Todd Studer does not think so.
“I definitely don’t think it will be dropped,” he said. “It would be a shame if it is.”
Long Beach is being forced by the chancellor’s office of the state university system to trim more than $13 million from its $155-million budget. The football budget is projected to be $1.3 million, more than a quarter of the total athletic budget. Already the 49ers have dropped two football coaching jobs, which will save about $90,000, according to Associate Athletic Director Dan Radakovich.
Soon after a university task force recommended last June that Long Beach eliminate or downgrade its football program, President Curtis McCray created a committee of about 20 people to review the recommendation. The committee is expected to announce its findings in November. The football program faced a financial crisis in 1986, but was spared when boosters raised $300,000 in 45 days. But an additional pledge by boosters to raise $500,000 per year thereafter has not been met.
“There’s lots of speculation, lots of talk about the possibility of dropping football here,” Brown said. “Like anything else, I don’t let it bother me. The president has not told me that it’s being dropped. The committee cannot make that decision. That’s up to the president.”
Even if the football program is spared from the most recent round of budget cuts, Long Beach may have to leave the Big West Conference because of poor attendance. According to Big West Commissioner Jim Haney, all teams playing in the conference must meet complicated attendance criteria by 1995. Basically, it requires an average of 17,000 fans per home game.
The 49ers play in Veterans Stadium, which seats only 12,500. Long Beach averaged 4,700 spectators per home game last season.
Leaving the Big West would jeopardize the 49er football team’s status in Division I-A, the highest level of collegiate competition. To remain Division I-A, the 49ers would have to join another conference, but would have difficulty because of the low attendance figures. Long Beach could become an independent, but that alternative could require more travel, which would increase the program’s costs.
Where could the 49ers go? One possibility is the Division II Western Football Conference, composed of such universities as Sacramento State and Cal State Northridge.
On the practice field, meanwhile, Allen’s presence can still be felt. The 49ers wear T-shirts that ask, “Do you know G.A. vision?” Refurbished practice facilities, a result of Allen’s persistence, were recently dedicated in his name.
“He’s definitely lingering with us,” Studer said.
Brown’s goal is to blend elements of Allen with his own style.
“The kids have to get used to me, my way of coaching and thinking,” he said. “When you play only three games at home and eight away, heck, yes, it’s (going to be tough.)”
The 49ers were 6-5 under Allen a year ago, but did not win a road game. All six victories came at Veterans Stadium, where Long Beach is 81-47 and has not lost since November, 1989.
The only breather on the 49ers’ schedule could come against Big West rival Cal State Fullerton on the final day of the season.
San Diego State has its best team in a decade, having posted back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1981-82, Boise State (Sept. 14) was a Division I-AA playoff semifinalist last season and Utah State (Oct. 26) boasts that it has its best team in a dozen seasons.
In their first home game, Sept. 21, the 49ers play San Jose State, which won the Big West Conference championship and the Raisin Bowl last year.
But many of the tools are already in place.
On offense, seven starters return. Studer passed for 2,618 yards and 19 touchdowns last year. Wide receiver Mark Seay led the team in receptions (48) and yardage (771) and split end Jeff Exum caught eight touchdown passes. Kicker Sean Cheevers, who made 13 of 17 field goal attempts and all 25 points after touchdown attempts, led the team in scoring with 64 points. Offensive tackles Kelly Schlegel and Corey Yeager and fullback Ricky Clark also return.
Eight starters return from a defense that allowed opponents an average of 30.1 points a game. All-Big West defensive end Ed Lair, who had 9.5 sacks a year ago, leads the group.
Brown says the 49ers are improved.
“I believe we are on the right track. We have athletes with speed and size this year that can make an impact, to give us the type of game I want.”