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Chris Dufresne

He Looks Around for Paradise, but Maybe He's Already There

March 22, 1987|Chris Dufresne

The coach has it all. I mean everything. He packs a lunch each morning, kisses his wife and walks through a Garden of Eden college campus and into a building surrounded by a landscape someone may have already painted and donated to a gallery.

It is here that he assumes his job as basketball coach at UC Irvine.

Some days, Bill Mulligan could just kiss the chancellor's feet.

There are lazy, sun-filled noontime walks to the commons for ice cream and popcorn, a trip that takes him past the shade of willow trees and a basketball arena so squeaky-clean and new that you may wish to remove your shoes before entering.

The coach's job is a sweet one. In fact, there's a letter on his desk from a booster who swears he'll take his money and run if Mulligan ever does.

The coach has averaged 17 victories a season for seven years with players who are also asked to graduate with degrees in chemical engineering.

An academic scandal at UCI amounts to a player breaking a test tube during a lab project.

All five of last year's starters graduated, which is the school's equivalent of making the Final Four.

"Our chancellor has told us that," Mulligan said.

Still, three of the coach's former players are in the National Basketball Assn.

Irvine is the best of all worlds.

Mulligan is happy. So is the dean of admissions.

So it was shocking to hear that Mulligan recently was granted permission to be interviewed for a coaching position at Cal State Long Beach, heretofore known as the Bermuda Triangle of athletic departments.

This is the school, remember, that held what amounted to a bake sale to salvage the football program--and did it--which so inspired the basketball coach and athletic director that they left town.

The point is, you don't leave Irvine for Long Beach any more than a chef leaves Spago to flip pancakes on Route 66.

Mulligan swears there's nothing to the story of his departure.

Yes, Long Beach called and he said he would listen. That was two weeks ago. Long Beach hasn't called back, he said. The story's dead.

"It would be a million-to-one shot," Mulligan said of leaving Irvine. "But I'm at a point in my life where I have to listen to somebody."

But why would Mulligan even choose to listen? Is there trouble in paradise?

Has that goofy school nickname, the Anteaters, finally driven him off the deep end?

Actually, Mulligan has his reasons, which he prefers to keep to himself.

And if you listen and look long and hard enough, his seemingly crazy notion is better understood.

Consider that Mulligan is in his late 50s now and can count on two hands and two feet the number of years he has left in coaching.

The coach walks with a limp now because of the pain in a hip that soon will require surgery. He suffered a minor stroke three years ago.

What Mulligan wishes for now is one last run at the NCAA tournament. He wants one last shot before he retires. He wants to write the last chapter.

Mulligan thinks he can do it at Irvine, but he wonders sometimes. He is reminded daily of the great players who got away, the ones smart enough to play for most schools but not for Irvine.

Players in the NCAA tournament. Franchise players, like Wyoming's 6-foot 11-inch center Eric Leckner, who signed a letter of intent at Irvine three years ago but couldn't cut the school's academic standards.

Mulligan recently caught a glimpse of Leckner on television, leading the Cowboys to an upset victory over UCLA.

"Sure, it hurts," Mulligan said.

There are others. Tom Tolbert, who couldn't make the grades at Irvine, averaged 14.4 points and 7 rebounds for the University of Arizona, another NCAA tournament team.

Ronnie Grandison was player of the game for the University of New Orleans in the team's NCAA tournament loss to Alabama. Grandison once played at UCI, and he, too, left because of his grades. So it's understandable that Mulligan might be torn.

He never could come out and say he's considering another job because he's tired of competing with Irvine's impeccable academic standards. He might as easily denounce Easter Seals.

So Mulligan struggles with his future. He insists he is proud of Irvine's academic success, but it doesn't make putting together a basketball team any easier.

If you're Bill Mulligan, when Long Beach calls, you listen. You consider it. You're tempted. You dream. You wonder how far you could take one of Jerry Tarkanian's teams.

Then, if you're Bill Mulligan and you're smart, you come back to the real world. You hang up the next time Long Beach calls. You walk outside and smell the roses. You walk across campus and kneel at the steps of the Bren Center. You count your blessings and your season-ticket holders.

You thank your academic counselor for keeping your team's name out of the paper. You're thankful that you're not coaching basketball at Southern Methodist. You're glad the governor of your state didn't set up a slush fund with your boosters. You go talk to the Anteater mascot. You pat him on the back, tweak his nose, walk to the commons and buy him an ice cream.

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