Used to be there was no question about the rivalry between Cal State Fullerton and UC Irvine. Not when it was Leon Wood versus Kevin Magee on the court, and George McQuarn versus Bill Mulligan on the sideline.
For a while in the early- to mid-1980s, both teams were thriving. There were premier players--Wood at Fullerton, Magee at Irvine--and the coach’s styles were different enough to make people take sides. Irvine’s Mulligan wanted to run, McQuarn wanted to run the clock. The Titans played tough defense, and the Anteaters barely knew what defense was.
These days it’s a little bit harder to put a finger on it. Fullerton and Irvine are still the only two Division I men’s basketball teams in Orange County. It’s still a Cal State school against a UC school, an older inland city versus a planned coastal community, still one snouted mascot against another.
But Fullerton Coach Brad Holland is so new to Fullerton, his co-workers have to tell him who his rivals are. Irvine Coach Rod Baker is only in his second season, and lately, he has been reserving his grudges for referees in far-flung conferences.
And frankly, haven’t both programs had enough trouble of their own the last few years?
So a few things have changed. Not everything, says Bruce Bowen, the only Fullerton senior who has been a Titan his entire career.
“UC Irvine is still in Irvine,” Bowen said. “This is a big rivalry, two Orange County schools going at each other. We’re in for a big game (tonight). They work very hard.”
Irvine senior Craig Marshall said the game might not be what it used to be for the coaching staffs or the fans, but it hasn’t changed very much for the players.
“Since I’ve been here, the Fullerton-UCI game is still talked about among the students and players especially,” Marshall said. “I think there still is a rivalry between us and Fullerton. We’re so close, and we’re both battling for respect in Orange County.”
The fact is, neither school would mind having a little bit bigger rivalry--the sort that fills seats. The quickest way to intensify emotions would be for, say, one of the Anteaters to pull a Christian Laettner and step on a Titan’s chest, or for Baker and Holland to give each other the cold shoulder and refuse to shake hands.
Chapman Coach Mike Bokosky, a longtime Mulligan assistant who switched sides and spent last season at Fullerton under John Sneed, used to advocate just that sort of thing between Mulligan and McQuarn, whose friendship definitely had its prickly stages.
“I tell you,” Bokosky said, “in the summer when they were friendly I used to tell them, ‘You guys can make this such a big rivalry. All you have to do is act like it’s a WWF wrestling match. George can talk about Bill in the papers and then Bill can talk about George. The writers will buy into it. Then you can point your fingers at each other during timeouts, and afterward go have a beer and laugh about it. We can get it done!’ ”
Baker and Holland aren’t so inclined. “I’m not talking about a hate match; I ain’t gonna fight Brad at halftime,” Baker said. “I do think the game should be for something, a crate of oranges or something.”
It’s for a victory, folks. For the 2-8 Anteaters, that’s plenty. And though Fullerton is 7-4 and on a roll, Bowen remembers that during Irvine’s 5-23 season in 1989-90, one of the five was a 94-76 demolition of the Titans in the Bren Center. That’s the game in which Irvine’s Dylan Rigdon set a school record by making seven three-pointers in seven attempts.
The next season, Irvine went 11-19, but the Titans were victims again.
“They didn’t win that many games under Mulligan his last year, but they swept us,” Bowen said. “That spoke for itself about the rivalry. They lose to everybody else in the league, but they beat us and it’s fine and dandy.”
Holland knows a thing or two about rivalries, having played and coached at UCLA. He called the rivalry with USC “incredibly special.”
“You know how a rivalry is,” Holland said. “If one team isn’t that competitive one year and the other is on top, many times the underdog has beaten the team on top because that game is so special. You get up for each other like no other game, so strange things happen. Usually no matter how things are going, the teams get up for each other.”
Fullerton’s biggest rival during the mid- to late-1970s was Cal State Long Beach, still one of the Titans’ keenest competitors. In 1978, Fullerton beat Long Beach in the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. tournament final as it gathered steam for the run that took Coach Bobby Dye’s Titans to the final eight of the NCAA tournament. The Titans and 49ers used to fill up the Anaheim Convention Center and Long Beach Arena, drawing 10,737 in Long Beach in 1979.
But Long Beach’s success diminished in the early ‘80s about the time Nevada Las Vegas joined the conference, and Mulligan and McQuarn were hired in Orange County before the 1980-81 season.
Mulligan, who spent 11 seasons at Irvine and is now the coach at Irvine Valley College, might have tweaked the first nose when he said he’d take the Fullerton job, then changed his mind and went to Irvine.
Fullerton got in the second tweak. Mulligan says Mike Mullally, the Fullerton athletic director at the time, called and asked which coaches he planned to hire as assistants. Mulligan told him about McQuarn, praising the Nevada Las Vegas assistant’s abilities. Mullally turned around and hired McQuarn himself, as head coach.
Then there was a little episode at a luncheon, when Magee, who had been Mulligan’s star at Saddleback College, told an audience he would follow Mulligan to Irvine. Mulligan sat on one side of Magee and McQuarn on the other. McQuarn ignored the commitment, and kept recruiting Magee between courses.
Plenty of the rivalry stemmed from what happened on the court. McQuarn’s first team was 4-23 in 1980-81. Mulligan’s first went 17-10 that same year, sweeping the Titans.
“The first year, after we beat ‘em at Fullerton, some guy came out of the stands and pushed me,” Mulligan said. “I started to go after him but my brother grabbed me and said what are you going to do, chase him and hit him back?”
The next year, Irvine won by one point in Crawford Hall, its home gym.
“A shaky call, if I remember,” said Mel Franks, Fullerton’s sports information director. “If I recall, Leon came down and got hammered. Then in our gym, we beat them in triple overtime, 68-62.”
The teams met again in the PCAA tournament, and Fullerton won again.
“Magee . . . didn’t play very well,” Mulligan said. “Randy Whieldon missed a one-and-one late in the game, and he was about a 90% shooter. We doubled Leon, then (Gary) Davis, their freshman, hit a jumper to beat us by one.”
McQuarn was on his way to a stretch in which he won 10 of 12 against Mulligan--and went 4-0 against Irvine in crucial conference tournament games.
“They seemed to always knock us off in the tournament,” Mulligan said. “Going against McQuarn was really tough. McQuarn really got those guys to play hard. Some years we’d have better players, some years they did.
“I’m trying to think of positive things, then I think of the tournament and I don’t have that many exciting memories.”
Irvine got the Titans back, though, sweeping them in Wood’s senior year, 1983-84. Fullerton had a 26-game home-court winning streak when Irvine visited that year. It ended that day.
Those are the years Bokosky remembers as the height of the rivalry.
“I think the rivalry got big probably in ’82, when we had Kevin Magee and they had Leon Wood and Tony Neal. We had our best team (23-7), and that was when it really heated up, and stayed that way until George left, really,” Bokosky said.
Fullerton’s best season under McQuarn, 21-8, came the next season, 1982-83. By 1987-88, the Titans had slipped to 12-17. McQuarn, now an assistant at Arizona State, resigned in frustration after a meeting with then-university president Jewel Plummer Cobb before the season began the next year, and was replaced by Sneed, who won the job after an interim season.
“Since then, I think it’s kind of subsided,” Bokosky said. “It didn’t have the intensity it once had.”
Mulligan, who plans to attend tonight’s game with a Titan, former football coach Gene Murphy, sees it the same way.
“It didn’t seem to be as big a rivalry when John Sneed took over,” Mulligan said. “It was more of a war with George, because George is so intense. Not that John couldn’t coach. John could coach.”
But by 1989-90, Mulligan had trouble of his own, a 5-23 season. The next year, Sneed began to face the player uprisings that ultimately contributed to his firing last year.
That brings things around to tonight. Now the old rivals are led by Baker, a coach who was born and bred on the East Coast, and Holland, a UCLA Bruin through and through who is new to Orange County. Even their players are less and less homebred.
But the emotions still sometimes percolate. Last season, Fullerton led by 13 points with 1 minute 40 seconds left at the Bren Center before Irvine’s furious rally cut the lead to three. Fullerton held on, but there was a scuffle between the teams after the buzzer as Bowen and Irvine’s Uzoma Obiekea tangled leaving the court.
Bowen said Obiekea swung at him after the two exchanged words, and that Obiekea had been standing on his feet on inbounds plays. Obiekea, who is Nigerian, said Bowen called him “a (bleeping) African,” and that he took the opportunity to educate Bowen, who is also black, about the history of the race.
Marshall said that was just the overflow of emotion from a close game--and perhaps a little of the Fullerton-Irvine intensity.
“Because Fullerton is our neighboring school, that makes it a little more stressful,” he said. “You’re always going to hear words said about that game because they’re Fullerton and we’re UCI. I don’t think anything has changed but the coaches.”