After eight years as head football coach at Cal State Long Beach and New Mexico, Mike Sheppard could have been excused if he had gone into another line of work. People would have understood.
People also would have understood if he had ended up in an insane asylum.
His 16-18 record in three seasons at Long Beach looks absolutely brilliant compared to his five-season record at New Mexico.
There, Sheppard’s coaching nightmare began.
Working with a program that had gone 17-30 in its previous four seasons and then decided not to take football so seriously , Sheppard--who had known nothing but roaring success during his football and baseball playing days at Cal Lutheran--was simply overwhelmed by a system that was designed for failure.
In 1987, instead of using the then-NCAA-allowed maximum 98 scholarships, the New Mexico administration had decided to scale back the program. In his first season in the fall of ’87, Sheppard was allowed only 58 scholarship players, 40 fewer than other Western Athletic Conference programs, the teams he was being asked to compete against.
“I knew there would be trouble right from the start,” Sheppard said. “When the difference is that great, there is just no way to overcome it. No way. I’ll compete with anyone at anything. Just make sure we have the same weapons when the contest starts.”
At New Mexico, there were few weapons and even fewer contests.
In Sheppard’s first season, his team went 0-11 and things weren’t even that good. Of the 11 games, there was only one that his team had even the slightest chance of winning after halftime.
Things got only slightly better after that. When Sheppard entered his fifth season as head coach in 1991, his teams had posted a dismal 6-41 record. Practice and playing facilities were in horrible shape, the players’ equipment was often patched together and morale was lower than a cleat.
“New Mexico became a basketball school,” said Thousand Oaks High football Coach Bob Richards, who helped guide his quarterback, Scott Peterson, to the school in 1991 because of Sheppard and followed the New Mexico program intently last season.
“Football took a back seat to basketball, and the football program had to operate on a shoestring budget. Scott told me horror stories.”
Last season, the New Mexico media guide had this to say about Sheppard: “He is one of the nation’s most innovative and progressive coaching minds.”
By the end of the season, Sheppard was something else: fired.
The entire coaching staff was dismissed, despite having won its final two games of the season, huge upsets over Air Force and Colorado State.
Other coaches knew the circumstances. And at least one, the newly appointed Cal head coach, Keith Gilbertson, knew it wasn’t Sheppard’s fault.
Gilbertson hired Sheppard, 41, in February and installed him as the Golden Bears’ quarterback coach and offensive coordinator.
“The difference between the Cal football program and the New Mexico football program cannot be described,” said Sheppard, who was back at Cal Lutheran earlier this week conducting a football camp for the Christian Fellowship.
“The two programs are, I believe, at the two ends of the spectrum.”
The other thing that saved Sheppard’s career was that despite the lowly won-lost records at Long Beach and New Mexico, he created defense-wrecking passing offenses at both schools.
Long Beach had the fourth-best passing offense in the nation in Sheppard’s first season there. It was the fifth- and seventh-most potent passing offense in the nation his two subsequent years.
Even New Mexico lit up scoreboards--its defense lit up the other side of the scoreboard--ranking sixth, eighth and 10th in three of Sheppard’s five seasons. Terance Mathis became the NCAA’s all-time leading receiver during his four seasons in Sheppard’s offense at New Mexico. His quarterback the past four years was Jeremy Leach, a former Granada Hills High standout.
At both schools, Sheppard put together the high-powered offenses without benefit of a standout runner. In his new position at Cal, he has a bonus: Russell White, the former Crespi High star who is perhaps the best collegiate running back in the nation.
“I want to be accused, at the end of this season, of giving the ball to Russell White too much,” Sheppard said, smiling. “I get chills thinking about what this young man might do for us this year.”
It is not the first time that Sheppard has gotten chills in the coaching profession. From November of last year until he was offered the job at Cal, chills were a part of each day. Out went the resumes and back came the bad news:
We’d love to have you, but there’s this other guy and ...
“I finished second three jobs in a row,” Sheppard said. “I was the second choice for the offensive coordinator job at Illinois, and then the same thing with the London Monarchs of the World League. Then I was second for the offensive coordinator job at Arizona State.”
A devout Christian, Sheppard said he was tested during those months.
“Human nature being what it is, you start to doubt yourself,” he said. “You wonder if things will ever work out again. Maybe I had my chance and blew it. But when you have faith, you believe that whatever happens is supposed to happen.
“That’s the attitude that got me through those tough months.”
There was to be one more test.
Sheppard had known Gilbertson for years, since his days at Long Beach when Gilbertson was an assistant with the L.A. Express of the U.S. Football League in the mid-1980s. The Express shared the Long Beach practice facility, and Sheppard and Gilbertson became friends.
When the offensive coordinator and quarterback coaching job became available after Gilbertson was named head coach at Cal, Sheppard called.
Gilbertson, who had coached the previous season at Washington State, told Sheppard he would be his No. 1 choice.
Except there was this other guy ...
“He had an offensive coordinator from Washington State that he offered the job to,” Sheppard said. “They had coached together for a few years, and that’s important in this business. He had his guy. I finished second again.”
But this time, the other guy turned the job down. The next day Gilbertson called Sheppard and offered it to him.
“I jumped on it,” he said. “No hesitation. What sold me was Gibby, most of all. He’s known nothing but success in his coaching career, from Idaho to Washington State and everywhere he’s been.
“And secondly, the chance to be involved at a place like Cal, where the concept of a student-athlete is the perfect one. Russell White is a great example. They gave him a chance, academically, and worked with him and gave him all the help he needed to succeed. And, with Cal’s help, he has succeeded. They made it work for him.”
So, his feet firmly planted in Berkeley, Sheppard looks to the biggest challenge of his coaching life. But he also looks beyond this challenge.
“Football is the ultimate game of strategy,” he said. “The team with the best players doesn’t always win. And if you love this game of strategy, then you obviously want to play it one day at its highest level. So the NFL is certainly a goal of mine.
“But it’s not fair to yourself to put it in a time frame. If I said I had to be in the NFL when I’m 45 and then I don’t make it, am I a failure? No. My time just hadn’t come yet. What you do is work toward that goal now, every day, by doing the absolute best job you can. Someday, people will notice that.”
People have noticed that attitude of Sheppard’s for a long time already, from his days as an athlete at Burroughs High to his sparkling career at Cal Lutheran.
His football coach at Cal Lutheran, Bob Shoup, said it came shining through in all four of Sheppard’s seasons there, including the 1971 team that Sheppard, a receiver and defensive back, helped guide to the NAIA national championship.
In the championship game, a 30-14 win over Westminster of Pennsylvania, Sheppard was named the defensive player of the game.
He was a two-way starter who caught 24 passes for 395 yards and four touchdowns during the season.
“Leadership, courage and savvy,” Shoup said. “Mike had it all back then and it’s even more apparent now. Whatever success he has in coaching, it won’t surprise me.
“Mike Sheppard is one of those few guys who can go just about as high as he wants to.”