Morgan, 49ers Have Growing Pains

An education is taking place at Long Beach State, which seems as good a place as any for that sort of thing.

But the lessons involved here have nothing to do with Psych 101. This is a crash course in development; an individual's as well as an athletic department's.

Wayne Morgan, first-year 49er men's basketball coach, is learning on the job and often under duress--some of it self-inflicted. It hasn't been pretty, and in Morgan's view, it could get a whole lot worse before it gets better.

"We're having some problems right now, but we're going to correct them," Morgan said. "In order to have a successful program, you have to establish certain things.

"We're in the process of doing that right now, but along the way you might have to do things that aren't a lot of fun. But you have to have everyone on the same page and working to win."

The latest emotional upheaval came Tuesday, when Morgan dismissed starting junior forward Akeli Jackson for an attitude "contrary to team goals." That marks the fourth time this season that Long Beach or the Big West Conference has taken disciplinary action against a 49er.

As for Morgan, Jackson's dismissal marks another rocky moment since taking the job in April.

In fairness to Morgan, he inherited the disciplinary problems. Of course, Morgan can't say this because it would sound like a dig at former 49er Coach Seth Greenberg. But these are the guys Greenberg left behind when he bolted for South Florida.

Long Beach has been among the biggest disappointments of the season. The 49ers were the consensus pick of preseason college basketball magazines to win the Big West Western Division title and represent the conference in the NCAA tournament.

In their conference opener Monday at the Pyramid, Long Beach was embarrassed, 78-53, by Boise State. Boise State is probably no better than the fourth team in the Eastern Division, and it is definitely not as talented as Long Beach.

Guard James Cotton is among the top five players in the conference, and guard Brandon Titus also might earn all-conference honors. But they are the 49ers' only true offensive threats now that Jackson is gone.

And the absence of prized freshman forward Greg Clark has been a major setback. Clark has not played after suffering a left shoulder injury during preseason practice.

Admittedly Morgan has created negative situations himself. He alienated some of the 49er athletic administrators with what they perceived as his outrageous demands for the program, such as requesting more funds for recruiting than Long Beach has ever allocated.

It seems that resources are in greater supply at Syracuse, where Morgan was an assistant for 12 years, than at Long Beach.

Looking back, Morgan now realizes he should have done some things differently.

"It's not that I think I've never make a mistake or that I can't do anything better, because I know that I can," Morgan said. "Any coach that says that, or says that he's never made a mistake with a player, is just fooling himself.

"I think we all are still learning about each other. I think I have an opportunity to grow a lot here, and Long Beach wants to grow along with me."

Stuck between his rookie head coach, the other athletic employees and 49er fans is Athletic Director Bill Shumard, the guy ultimately responsible for hiring Morgan. This isn't lost on the media-savvy Shumard, who knows that a lot of things won't work out if Morgan doesn't. Men's basketball is definitely the big dog at Long Beach.

"Long Beach State, even though it's a Division I program, is not at the same level as a Syracuse, and adjusting to that in itself is difficult," Shumard said. "There's a first time for everything as a head coach, and Wayne is sort of going through a baptism by fire."

Shumard counsels Morgan often on the reality of life at Long Beach. Shumard said he sees improvement, but realizes the problems surrounding the program could have a negative effect on walk-up ticket sales.

"It's been my experience that the discretionary ticket buyer in Southern California wants to see a good product and wants to be entertained," Shumard said. "People might stay away until we can get things straightened out."

That, of course, is not what an athletic director enjoys admitting when he has a building to finish.

"[Morgan's] next 60 days, and the tone he sets and work he does, is crucial," Shumard said. "He has a responsibility not just to coach winning basketball but to help build an image and sell a program. That's of paramount importance to any success we can have here."

Make no mistake about it: Shumard and Long Beach President Bob Maxson are totally behind Morgan. They will give him time to fix the broken parts he was handed by the previous owner. But don't be surprised if the 49er roster undergoes radical change next season.

*

Not a consensus: Some Long Beach supporters were not pleased by Jackson's dismissal.

The official reason for the action was that Jackson arrived late for a mandatory team meeting to review tape of the Boise State debacle. The meeting was scheduled at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday because of an NCAA rule that prohibits meeting the same day as a game.

Jackson was in the Pyramid parking lot by midnight, a team source said. However, he didn't enter the Pyramid until "a few minutes" after midnight, Morgan said.

When Jackson tried to explain why he was late, Morgan became upset. From there, Morgan said he and Jackson exchanged words.

This wasn't the first time Jackson was tardy for a meeting. A suspension was probably in order, but a dismissal?

As even Morgan admits, forward Marcus Johnson arrived later than Jackson for the meeting. Johnson received only a one-game suspension earlier this season for beating up teammate Corey Saffold in what school officials described as an unprovoked attack.

"With Akeli, there had been several things," Morgan said. "I just felt this was something I had to do."

49er Notes

The baseball team began practice Sunday. Last season, the 49ers (34-26, 15-6 in the Big West Conference) won their fourth regular-season title in five seasons. Coach Dave Snow (490-249-4) has two All-American pitchers in Marcus Jones (Esperanza High), last season's Big West pitcher of the year, and Rocky Biddle . . . . The baseball "Leadoff Dinner" is scheduled Jan. 22 at the Long Beach Hyatt Regency. Dodger Manager Bill Russell will be the keynote speaker. More information: (310) 987-0457 . . . . The 49ers will play alumni in an exhibition game Jan. 25 at Blair Field. More information: (310) 985-4949.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
50°