LONG BEACH STATE NOTEBOOK / JASON REID : Discontented Atkinson, O'Kelley Criticize Greenberg

The college careers of senior forwards Mike Atkinson and Terrance O'Kelley are almost over, although they're not sure where the time went. Isn't it always like that?

They play in their last two regular-season games this week as Long Beach attempts to win its first conference championship in almost two decades. Then the 49ers leave for the Big West Conference tournament in Las Vegas. With a little luck, the final game for these best friends, roommates and all-conference players will be part of the NCAA tournament.

Atkinson and O'Kelley will leave Long Beach having achieved individual and team success. But they won't leave content.

Atkinson and O'Kelley said the treatment they've received from Coach Seth Greenberg has soured their college experience.

Admittedly, Atkinson's senior season has not gone as well as he would have liked. An ankle injury has limited his effectiveness, enabling center Joe McNaull to emerge as the 49ers' offensive leader. Greenberg suspended O'Kelley for one game this season for academic reasons.

But their feelings toward Greenberg go beyond what has happened this season, they said.

"He hasn't been the greatest person," O'Kelley said. "I mean, as far as being a coach, he knows all his stuff on the court. But off the court he's not someone you want to hang around. To be honest, he's not a very nice person."

Atkinson took it further.

"I do regret coming here," he said. "If it wasn't for Terrance and some of the other guys on the team I would have never stayed.

"Granted, I've made some great friends. But the years of stuff that I've put up with to be here makes it a toss up."

Greenberg is troubled by his players' feelings. He believes they have misinterpreted his actions and intentions.

"Obviously, I haven't been right every single time," Greenberg said. "I honestly feel I've done what was in the best interest of the kids and the program.

"I have a passion about what I do. I care very much about these guys although it doesn't always come across the right way."

Long Beach assistant coach Clyde Vaughan and Greenberg have known each other since Vaughan was a high school All-American in Mount Vernon, N.Y., and Greenberg was a young assistant at Columbia. Greenberg coached Vaughan at Pittsburgh and they have been close friends since.

But Vaughan said he would not coach at Long Beach if Greenberg was the type of person Atkinson and O'Kelley describe.

"I wouldn't work for him if he was a monster," Vaughan said. "There are times when he does things I don't agree with and we sit down and talk about it.

"Any coach in the country is going to have players who disagree with some of the things he does."

This season has been especially trying for Greenberg because of numerous injuries--including the loss of standout sophomore guard James Cotton for the season--and increased expectations with the opening of the Pyramid. What's more, Greenberg's wife, Karen, recently gave birth to the couple's third child. In addition, USC wants to talk to Greenberg after the season about the Trojans' job.

Through all of this, Greenberg has guided the 49ers to first place and should be the conference's coach of the year.

This does not faze Atkinson and O'Kelley. They said they have been close to quitting several times this season because of Greenberg, only to be talked out of it by each other and their parents. One situation stands out for Atkinson.

During a blowout loss to New Mexico State on Jan. 5 at the Pyramid, Atkinson said he considered striking Greenberg. After the game, Atkinson and Greenberg argued in the locker room.

"He walked by us (on the bench) several times and cussed at us," Atkinson said. "Then I got (taken) out for something that wasn't my fault and, honestly, at that point I was so tired of being the blame of every problem that was on the team.

"I was standing at the end of the bench and if he would have tried to say something to me . . . I know I would have done something and hitting him probably would have been the one thing I would have done."

Greenberg declined to respond specifically to Atkinson and O'Kelley's complaints.

Such comments are rare from even marginal players, let alone successful athletes who are integral members of a team competing for a title. Big West coaches selected Atkinson and O'Kelley second- and third-team all-conference after their junior seasons.

Atkinson led the nation in field-goal percentage and O'Kelley led the conference in blocked shots. Each has started several games this season and been the difference in many close 49er victories.

Atkinson earned a degree in criminal justice last year, is enrolled in master's courses and wants a career in the Secret Service. O'Kelley is close to completing his degree in human development and he wants to teach.

Athletic Director Dave O'Brien points to Atkinson's and O'Kelley's achievements as proof that Greenberg helps them and others.

"We ask the coaches to recruit talented student athletes, to get them to perform in the classroom and perform on the court," O'Brien said. "Seth's record is impeccable on all three.

"Sometimes a coach pushes a student athlete harder than he or she wants. The fact that Seth is demanding should be praised rather than criticized."

Keeping complaints and problems within the program is a concept athletes learn early. Atkinson and O'Kelley realize they have broken an unwritten code, but say they are tired of their treatment.

"I think there is a difference in being a jerk and being truthful," Atkinson said. "I think there is a difference in telling the truth and being insulting.

"Nothing is encouraging unless you're a favorite. Then it's, 'That's the best jump shot I've ever seen from you, or that's the best this or that's the best dunk. . . .' If you're not in his 'best' little circle then he couldn't care less about you."

Greenberg has spoken with Atkinson and O'Kelley since they told a reporter their complaints. Many of the problems were discussed but not resolved.

Greenberg believes he has done nothing but try to help Atkinson and O'Kelley become better men and basketball players. Atkinson and O'Kelley don't agree.

"I've put these kids in front of my own family," Greenberg said. "Hopefully five or 10 years from now, they'll be able to understand that."

Notes

The baseball team defeated California in two of three games and won the first game of a two-game series with Loyola Marymount to even its record at 7-7. The 49ers end their series with the Lions at 7 tonight and begin a three-game series with Fresno State at 7 p.m. Friday at Blair Field. Outfielder Jeff Liefer leads the team in batting with a .444 percentage, a .711 slugging percentage, three home runs, 15 runs scored and 22 runs batted in.

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