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September 11, 1987|RICH ROBERTS | Times Staff Writer

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — The tall, lean figure appears familiar but oddly out of place, as if living one of Shirley MacLaine's other lives.

While watching the Buffalo Bills practice in their suburban stadium--and, boy, here's a team that really needs practice--one muses what cruel fate has transported Ted Tollner to Buffalo to tutor receivers and nobody else, while out there somewhere are whole teams that need to be coached?

Bad enough that Tollner should be fired from USC following a 7-4 regular season and a Citrus Bowl appearance, albeit a 16-7 loss to Auburn--but to wind up as an assistant coach in Buffalo? Hasn't this man suffered enough?

OK, OK, enough with the Buffalo rips. Let's just deal with why Tollner is in Buffalo.

Because there is no NFL franchise in Nome?

No, Tollner is in Buffalo because Mike McGee, the USC athletic director, decided one day last fall that he would rather see Tollner anywhere except on the USC sideline on a Saturday afternoon and recommended that USC President James H. Zumberge arrange it.

Some would even name the hour--the minute--when McGee reached his decision.

The annual game against Notre Dame had just ended and Tollner was standing at a microphone in front of the USC rooting section trying to introduce the seniors who had just played their final home game, but the crowd kept jeering him down. For all Tollner knew, McGee was one of them.

Reflecting on that sour incident in his small office at Rich Stadium this week, Tollner said, "There was a team that had gone 7 and 4 and been invited to a bowl game, and the students didn't even want to recognize the seniors, which was a tradition.

"That was no fun for the players. They had just gotten beat on national television, 38-37, on the last play of the game--a hell of a game. You think they wanted to stand out there? But you do it whether you win or lose. It's a responsibility. You stand up and you do it. I told 'em, 'We will do what we're supposed to do, regardless of the outcome.' But when I saw it was getting embarrassing, I just told 'em, 'Let's go. We've met our responsibility here. They don't want to meet theirs, so fine.' That part of it hurt me more than whatever abuses were being directed at me."

One wonders how Barry Switzer or Bo Schembechler would have handled that situation. McGee would say they probably wouldn't have put themselves into that situation--that is, losing 7 of 8 games in four years to the archrivals--Notre Dame and UCLA. Tough guys, their images say.

Tollner? A nice guy who lost the wrong games. He was 6-1 against teams ranked in the Top 10 when USC played them, was second only to UCLA in Pacific 10 Conference victories, 22 to 21, and never lost to a Big Ten team.

In Tollner's case, Leo Durocher was wrong. A four-year record of 26-20-1, with three bowl appearances, including a Rose Bowl victory, isn't Florida swampland. But, gosh, maybe if he had driven his players harder, or stood up to McGee . . .

Rodney Peete, the USC quarterback, said of his former coach, "He is a very nice guy. A lot of people say that. But I think he's a good coach, too. He doesn't yell and scream at his players like a lot of coaches, but that's his philosophy."

But Peete, for one, sensed that Tollner never was on solid ground with McGee "ever since I came here. People were on his back since I was a freshman.

"After the year he had his first year here (4-6-1), there were all kinds of pressures and negatives around the program. It was a tough situation for him, but I think he handled it great.

"Coach Tollner and the whole staff did a good job of not letting it affect the team. There was something in the newspaper every week about his job being in jeopardy, but when he went out to practice he didn't let it show.

"(New USC Coach) Larry Smith is a more aggressive type of coach. He's more hard-nosed, more a disciplinarian than Coach Tollner was. But their offensive schemes and philosophies are pretty much the same. We just didn't win some games we should have won--games that you have to win when you're around here."

Tollner's predecessor, John Robinson, won those games, 11 of 14 of them in seven years. He thought Tollner would, too, or he wouldn't have recommended him and fellow assistant Paul Hackett for the job. But Robinson, who went on to coach the Rams, doesn't think Tollner's demeanor or his failure to handle the Bruins and the Irish was a factor.

"If he'd have been real tough they'd have accused him of being too tough and not easy going enough," Robinson said. "When you don't win a satisfactory number of games, they find a way, somehow, some way.

"It was a time of change at USC. I don't think there was much stability around the program at that point. The athletic director was changing, the basketball coach changed, the baseball coach, the track coach. The place changed pretty much from top to bottom while Ted was there the last three years."

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