LONG BEACH — Mike Sheppard was 32 when he became head football coach at Cal State Long Beach, a job that seemed destined to make him grow old quickly.
But two years have passed and the agonizing defeats the 49ers have suffered are imprinted only in the record book, not on his boyish face. Although the struggle to improve himself and his team churns within him, on the outside he still looks 32.
His record in his first season was 4-7 and he graded his performance as a C-minus.
Last year, the 49ers came within reach of the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. championship but finished ingloriously at 6-6.
"About a C," Sheppard said of the job he did last year. "I didn't ask as many questions, I knew more what I wanted to do."
Midway through last season, after an embarrassing 30-23 loss to I-AA Division Eastern Washington, Sheppard stepped somewhat out of character and got tough with his team, putting them through long, hard-hitting practices. He cut down on his "darns" and threw in more "damns."
The players responded by winning three straight games before losing, 33-31, to Fresno State, and then getting thrashed by Cal State Fullerton, 38-27, in their last game.
The taste of those defeats lingers for Sheppard, but a spring of promise has taken away much of the bitterness. He has seen talent, size and attitude, which have convinced him that he and the team are ready to win.
"It's going to start getting exciting now," he said. "I've never had as many quality players."
And, because of a new weight room and a fanatical strength coach, Mark Paulsen, they are bigger and stronger.
Hurt by his team's lack of poise the last two seasons, Sheppard is de-emphasizing excess emotion.
"Last year we needed to play emotionally to play well. Against Fresno we were so emotional it hurt us--we had penalties that changed the game. This is a much more disciplined team. They think they're good and know they don't have to play sky-high to win."
There would appear to be one major problem--replacing quarterback Doug Gaynor, who completed 71% of his passes last season and threw for almost 300 yards a game. Gaynor has been drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals.
Redshirt sophomore Jeff Graham is Sheppard's choice to be Gaynor's successor.
"Jeff has great potential, but he's very young and needs to play," Sheppard said.
Graham, who got into two games and threw four passes last season, is a quarterback who, unlike the scrambling Gaynor, stays in the blocking pocket until the last possible second. He will have a huge offensive line to protect him, led by the imposing Joe Iosefa (6-3, 300 pounds) and Spencer Battle (6-3, 275).
And Graham will have the offensive weapons that Gaynor had--talented receivers Charles Lockett, Kwante Hampton, Greg Locy and Mark Templeton (if the frayed nerves in his neck heal), plus tailbacks Michael Roberts and Brian Browning, who were impressive runners as freshmen last season.
The 49ers scored at will in 1985 but so did their opponents, who averaged more than 26 points a game.
"The emphasis this spring was simply defense," Sheppard said. "We did everything we could to improve it."
The 49ers will switch to a 3-4 defensive alignment next season, which, Sheppard said, should create more confusion for opponents.
Sheppard said the spring's outstanding defensive players were senior safety Roger Beavers, senior linebackers Steve Rahon and Ronald Knight, freshman linebacker Mauricio Guitierrez, sophomore linebacker Phillip Morrison, senior defensive tackle Don Hiti, junior nose tackle Nathan Deaton and senior cornerback Val James.