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For Palmer, Stress of Coaching 49ers Finally Became Too Much

March 05, 1987|DICK WAGNER | Times Staff Writer

The pressure to win claimed another victim this week when Ron Palmer resigned as basketball coach at Cal State Long Beach.

On Monday morning, though, just after he said he was quitting, Palmer discovered that his stomach no longer felt like a boiler and that he had a desire to eat again.

But full recovery may take a while for this man of 50 who had become frustrated, tired and thin in recent weeks, worn down by the cancer of his profession: losing.

Without time to recruit, Palmer was called upon in 1984 to build a winner, and he realized the impossibility of that task from the start. He improved the team but not enough, and basketball success still remains a distant memory at CSULB.

In three seasons, Palmer's record was an alarming 23 wins and 63 losses. That is expected to change to 23-64 tonight when he coaches the 49ers--probably for the last time--against top-ranked Nevada Las Vegas in the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. Tournament at the Forum.

In March, 1984, Palmer had just led Poly High School to a state championship. When he was selected for the job at CSULB, it excited the City of Long Beach, for here was a local hero who would surely, in time, be able to recover the 49ers' lost basketball glory.

'I'm Just Tired'

Wearing his brown 49er warm-up suit, Palmer sat in his office Monday and said, "I'm just tired . . . and frustrated a little bit. I've got to get away from the pressure, and the biggest pressure comes from me. No one here has said, 'You have to win.' "

Except Palmer.

He was a stranger to losing when he took over the 49ers, having won 271 games in 11 years at Poly. That record--and the assumption that he could keep talented local players from leaving Long Beach--got him hired.

And so he made the rare jump from high school to a Division I university, an architect without building materials. His team's mixture of mediocrity and inexperience was reflected in the records: 4-23 in 1984-85 and 7-22 in 1985-86.

"It was a shock," Palmer said of going so swiftly from winning to losing. "And I had no control over it."

Palmer did retain an ability to laugh at the situation, although he was shaking his head at the same time.

He waited patiently for his young team to improve and mature, and eventually recruited players with more than average ability.

This season there had been a glimmer of hope, which turned into a glow when the 49ers won five straight PCAA games in January and found themselves in second place. In Palmer's first two seasons they had never been out of last place. Fans crowded into the 49ers' little gym. Interest in the team, which had been badly lacking since Jerry Tarkanian's nationally recognized teams of the early 1970s, was awakened.

Seven-Game Losing Streak

On Feb. 5, the 49ers beat UC Santa Barbara, 81-77, and Palmer called it one of his biggest wins. It was the 12th victory of the season, one more than they had won the first two seasons. They were still a respectable 7-4 in the league, still in second place.

They haven't won since.

A seven-game losing streak has left them with a 12-18 overall record. "If we'd have won 17, 18 or 19 games, I wouldn't be making this decision (to quit)," Palmer said.

The team still made the tournament, which was Palmer's goal this season, only because their 7-11 league record was good enough for eighth place, and eight of the 10 league teams qualify.

"I'm very happy we're in the tournament," Palmer said. "I wanted our kids to have that experience."

The happy team of early January turned into a brooding, bickering one that only a victory could cure. But one never came.

"I'd get so doggone sick," Palmer said Monday. "It only happened at game time."

And then he had to stomach the inconsistency of his players, whose shooting became so poor that they would go long stretches without scoring, and the realization that he had no one he could count on for the crucial points or rebounds.

Palmer was also frustrated because he had to drop two of his most talented players, Andre Purry and Morlon Wiley, for disciplinary reasons. He had coached both at Poly.

Purry, who inspired the team with his soaring dunk shots earlier in the season, started skipping classes and began having tantrums on the court. After a game at the University of the Pacific, according to other players, Purry loudly cursed Palmer on the court. Late in February, after benching Purry, Palmer suspended him for the rest of the season.

And last Friday, the coach learned that Wiley, his leading scorer, had allegedly threatened to fight assistant coach Bruce Buhrandt during a locker room flare-up after a game at UC Santa Barbara the night before. He suspended Wiley for next season. That was one of two decisions he made that day. The other was to resign.

In an interview Monday, Palmer said he and his wife, Marietta, had begun talking about his resigning halfway through the season because of the stress and the physical toll.

"I was very concerned about him," Marietta said Tuesday. "He's not one who will show his feelings very easily."

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