LONG BEACH — A team called Goose. Imagine the indignity, the shame, the disgrace. Heretofore it had been known--although vaguely in most of the football world--as Cal State Long Beach or Long Beach State. But the eggs it laid at the start of the season thrust it into national prominence.
After losing their first two games, 19-17 to underdog Utah State and 34-14 to San Diego State, the 49ers made Steve Harvey's "Bottom Ten," which appears in The Times and many newspapers across the country and which has been known to incense coaches who lack a sense of humor.
Harvey referred to the 49ers as Cal State Spruce Goose, then shortened that to an unflattering CS Goose. People from coast to coast chuckled, including Goose Coach Mike Sheppard and his players.
"I look at it ('Bottom Ten' column) and laugh," Sheppard said. "We don't talk about that with our players. If it's entertaining, then that's fine."
But they also had to suppress a desire to cry.
"I suppose I felt sorry for us," Sheppard said.
Goose, however, has refused to be cooked.
But it came close to hitting the fire one recent night in paradise. It had been quickly stuffed by the University of Hawaii--the score was Hawaii 23, Goose 0 in the second quarter--and the Hawaii players were salivating over Goose as they would a roast pig at a luau.
Another egg was halfway out.
Loss Seemed Imminent
An 0-3 record was imminent. And this was a team that was supposed to be good this year.
On the sidelines, Sheppard wondered, "What other job could I do in life?" but said, "We're in it. I think we can come back."
Goose roared back. Quarterback Doug Gaynor threw three touchdown passes and the 49ers won, 33-30.
The victory "raised" them to 19th in Harvey's rankings, one spot ahead of Notre Dame, so they were still the Goose. Hawaii took over No. 1, which was the lowest of Harvey's rankings.
Last weekend the 49ers bused to Las Vegas where despite new hope the odds were against them.
A defeat by favored Nevada Las Vegas would drop them to 0-2 in the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. and essentially put an end to the season in September. Under Sheppard, the 49ers had never won against any of the league's top teams. And Gaynor had a sore wrist.
Shortly after the sun sank behind the purple mountains surrounding the Sam Boyd Silver Bowl on Saturday night, the Rebels had a 14-0 lead and Goose on a silver platter.
49ers Won By 4 Points
Then Gaynor took over again. Forgetting the pain, he threw three more touchdown passes as the 49ers won, 28-24 and said farewell to the Bottom Ten.
"We're starting to get respect," split end Charles Lockett said.
"The biggest victory of my life," Gaynor said.
"To defeat them at their place after they nearly upset a Big Ten team (Wisconsin) is quite an accomplishment for our players," Sheppard said.
Before the season, Sheppard knew his team was not good enough to make mistakes and win. They proved that in the opener, after which Sheppard announced to his players, "From now on, anyone who gets a personal foul will be watching the game with me." Two players discovered in San Diego that Sheppard was not kidding.
To Sheppard's delight, the 49ers kept their poise against an aggressive UNLV team he said is difficult to play without getting into fights. Las Vegas was the team which lost poise and the resulting personal-foul penalties cost the Rebels dearly.
Now, the 49ers are revitalized. With a 1-1 league record (2-2 overall), a championship and a trip to the California Bowl are not farfetched goals, especially with Gaynor and his offensive line getting better each week.
Eight Touchdown Passes
Gaynor, a senior All-America candidate from Fresno, has completed 116 of 172 passes for 1,119 yards and 8 touchdowns.
"He makes better decisions now," Sheppard said. "He's always been a fine athlete but now he's much better mentally. I think he's got a great chance in pro football."
Lockett said, "There's a fire in his eyes this year."
It burned brightly last Saturday night. Twice Gaynor eluded rushing Las Vegas linemen and made key runs. At 213 pounds, he is not easy to bring down.
"Many quarterbacks don't have big-play ability," Lockett said. "He does."
Gaynor has an array of receivers. Lockett has caught 29 passes, fullback Mark Templeton 20, flanker Troy Ory 16, freshman tailback Brian Browning 15 and tight end Greg Locy 13.
"They're all smart," Gaynor said.
Back After Injury
Templeton, who suffered a pinched nerve against Utah State, returned against Las Vegas and his importance to the team was evident. He rushed for 37 yards and caught five passes for 35 yards.
He amazes Gaynor. "You look at him and say, 'How can he play?' " Gaynor said. "He's not big (6-1, 205 pounds). You throw the ball to him in the flat and think there's no way he's going to make a gain and then he gets you 10 yards. He can stop on a dime better than anyone. He has the best hips in the game."
The 49er defense, which had been giving up almost 28 points a game, held Las Vegas to 3 points in the second half.
"They're not really big enough to stuff anybody," defensive coordinator Ken Visser said. "But they'll run and they'll hit and they'll keep playing hard."
Two straight comebacks have given the 49ers confidence. "We can play with anybody," Gaynor said.
But not overconfidence.
"But anybody can play with us," he added.
On Saturday night CS Goose plays at Boise State. Correction: Cal State Long Beach plays at Boise State.