COMPTON — The gophers were gone, which was a much-needed victory for Compton College, and now the players no longer had to worry about stepping in holes on the football field.
Such encouragement that a new, inviting image is developing here was tempered, however, by a glance last Saturday afternoon at the scoreboard, whose bulbs formed a dim reminder of the deeply burrowed reality: The gophers have been beaten, but no one else.
And even before the end of the first quarter of the Tartars' game with Pasadena City College, the specter of defeat loomed again in the breeze.
A few hundred people sat in the stands, from whose upper rows could be seen the scoreboard (Visitors 21, Home 0), the Artesia Freeway, the pale yellow campus buildings and the reason why losing has been inevitable for the Tartars.
Below, along the home bench, Compton had barely 30 players in uniforms of maroon and gray, while more than 80 Pasadena players in gold pants--a junior-college football army--filled the opposite sideline.
The Compton players, however, were not viewed by themselves or by William Thomas, the sports information director and perhaps the college's biggest booster, as losers.
"I call them special players because it takes a special player to come here and play," said Thomas, 33, who wore maroon and gray too as he statistically charted the game. "They want to go up against the odds and they never give a thought of losing; it's kind of a character builder. If you come here and go 0-10 and play every game knowing you're against the odds all the time, you can make it in life."
But although a fifth straight loss in a winless season was already imminent, the players did not offer the odds as an excuse.
"You only play 11 at a time," said split end Roland White after Pasadena had scored a fourth touchdown.
And quarterback Lance Salters, whose long spiraling passes were not connecting with receivers, insisted: "It seems to me we're always a better team. It's just our mistakes that beat us."
But the losses have not come unexpected to the team's coach, Art Perkins, a realist with a forbidding musculature that leaves no doubt that he once played with the Rams.
"The size of our institution doesn't merit our being in a conference of this size," Perkins, also the athletic director, had said before a practice last week.
Compton, with 4,500 students, is the smallest school in the South Coast Conference, which has community colleges five to seven times larger, including Cerritos, Long Beach, El Camino and Pasadena. It was moved into the conference in 1983 in all sports but football. It began playing football in the South Coast Conference this year, but knew ahead of time that it would be overmatched. The Tartars asked to leave the conference last fall but the request was denied by state athletic officials because it came too late in the year. Now they must wait until 1988 to move into a conference with schools their size.
"It's very difficult for our athletes to realize any success playing the caliber of athletes we do," Perkins said. "So we try to make them realize that the No. 1 priority of being here is to get an education and that football is a subsidiary. We try to make the game fun. But some form of success is needed. You've got to win two or three games a year (the Tartars are 4-31 since 1983) because the kids need to feel there's an opportunity to win."
The best high school players do not go to Compton College as they did in the 1940s and '50s, when the team accumulated trophies that sit tarnishing in a glass case in the lobby of the gymnasium. Among the great Compton players were Joe Perry and Hugh McElhenny, who later became pro stars.
"We do not have the same type athletes as the other (South Coast) schools," Perkins said. "The athletes that started at our high schools (Compton, Dominguez and Lynwood and others in their area) go to Cerritos, Pasadena, El Camino or Long Beach because they feel those schools are more prestigious. That leaves us with athletes who were second- or third-string in high school. So we have to do a Herculean-type coaching job."
Among the players Perkins was left with is Arnold Minninger, a 25-year-old center who hadn't played football since 1978, when he was at Poly High School. "I thought I better get back to school and get an education," said Minninger, the team's only white player. Looking down at his belly, he admitted that he also needed to get back in shape.
But the Compton players are far from being a laughingstock.
After the Tartars lost by only 24-13 to Cerritos recently, Cerritos Coach Frank Mazzotta said: "They are one hell of a team. They have some real talent. The only thing they really lack is depth."
Salters may be the most talented Tartar. The quarterback was lured from Dallas by Perkins, who himself was a Texas college football star. Salters ranks second in the state among community college players in total offense.