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UCI TAKES A MULLIGAN ON THIS SEASON : Coach Would Like to Forget About 13-17 Record, Sixth-Place Finish in PCAA

March 22, 1985|CHRIS DUFRESNE | Times Staff Writer

For Bill Mulligan, this was the year the roof caved in. This was the season when everything went wrong. It was his year of living dangerously, a time when it was best to stay away from blackjack tables, vibrating manhole covers and the dog tracks.

Mulligan's anthem became the words from an old country song, "If it weren't for bad luck I'd have no luck at all." Woe was him.

On Oct. 19, 1984, the UC Irvine basketball coach suffered a mild stroke while leaving a restaurant in Billings, Mont. He lost feeling in his right arm and hand. On Nov. 21, he had minor neck surgery to clear an artery believed to be the cause of the stroke.

It forced him to miss UCI's opener against the University of Colorado. It was the first game he'd missed in 29 years of coaching.

The Anteaters operated the first month or so of the season with seven freshmen and no head coach. Worse yet, the writers and coaches of the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. had picked his team to finish third.

It got worse. UCI lost its first three games and Mulligan quickly discovered that his prized recruit, freshman forward Wayne Engelstad, really played like a freshman. Ditto for his other prized recruit, freshman guard Rodney Scott. UCI lost five games at Crawford Hall. In 1983-84, the Anteaters were 10-0 at home.

Cross-county rival Cal State Fullerton beat the Anteaters three times in one season.

The last defeat bounced UCI out of the first round of the PCAA Tournament and left Mulligan staring at a sixth-place finish in conference and a 13-17 overall record.

Mulligan had never had a losing record in his 29-year career.

"A lot of people will look at me now and say 'He's a bum,' Mulligan said. "I don't know how to respond. I don't like to respond."

But now, for the first time, he hears the whispers of disgruntled boosters and athletic directors.

So where did he go wrong? (A) Was this UCI team overrated from the start? (B) Did Mulligan expect too much from his freshmen? (C) Did Mulligan, coming off a stroke, lose some of his coaching zeal and intensity? (D) All of the above.

It's probably a combination of all of the above. Throw in the fact that UCI played defense as if it was illegal and it all adds up to a losing season.

This UCI team allowed more points (2,366) than any other team in school history.

"I will make them play defense next year," Mulligan vows. "We will defend."

But does he have the material? To prove how poorly the Anteaters were defensively, consider that junior forward Tod Murphy was probably considered the team's best defender this season. Two years ago, on the 19-10 team that featured Bob Thornton, Ben McDonald and George Turner, Murphy was the player Mulligan was trying to hide on the court.

Mulligan said it didn't help matters that he was ill early in the season.

"They were looking for leadership and they didn't have it," he said of his absence. "It put us way behind schedule. If we had had a bunch of veteran guys, or someone like McDonald, he would have just said 'We don't need him.' But we didn't."

And the Mulligan these freshmen first met wasn't the fiery coach they'd heard about. Under doctors orders, Mulligan was more subdued at practice and court side.

After the stroke, Mulligan admittedly looked at basketball from a different perspective.

"I wanted to win as badly as I ever did," Mulligan said, "But I may have conveyed that (perspective) to the players. I don't know."

At times, the Anteaters didn't seem to take things seriously. Players could often be found laughing in the locker room after a loss. UCI also lacked leadership. It was a team that needed an enforcer on the court, a guy (like center Bob Thornton the year before) who was aggressive under the basket.

The Anteaters, this year, didn't know who to turn to in times of trouble.

"We played 18 conference games and got blown out of the opener," Mulligan said. "But we were in all 17 other games."

But perhaps Mulligan's biggest mistake was expecting too much from his freshmen, Engelstad and Scott in particular.

Both were among the top players in the CIF last year. Mulligan said Engelstad, from Bosco Tech High School, had a chance to be the best player to play at Irvine, which is saying something considering that the school once had a two-time All-American, Kevin Magee.

"I have two letters on my desk from coaches who said that, from coast-to-coast, Wayne was the best player they saw in high school," Mulligan said, defending his pre-season hype. "He was not ready as early as we hoped."

Engelstad averaged 5.6 points per game this season.

Scott suffered an early ankle injury and never played to his potential. He averaged 3.4 points per game.

There are plenty of familiar faces returning next season and that's either good or bad news, depending on how you look at it.

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