Plunk the Cal State Fullerton football program in, say, Knoxville, Tenn.; or Iowa City, Iowa, or Clemson, S.C., and poof--instant local heroes. Daily stories in the sports section . . . big-rating coaches shows . . . 8 x 10 player glossies hanging above the frozen foods department of your favorite grocery store. Honest.
We'd know by now that Fullerton Coach Gene Murphy was born in Jersey City, N.J., that you wouldn't mind if he offered your son a football scholarship, that his sense of humor is worth the wait.
We'd know that guard Ed Gillies is a legitimate National Football League prospect; that Jim Thornton, a former quarterback, has developed into a promising tight end; that newcomer A. J. Jenkins, inserted into the starting lineup after only a handful of fall practices, made 10 unassisted tackles against Hawaii in the season opener.
We'd know the fight song, the school colors, the reasons for having an elephant as a mascot.
Just last week, Murphy and the fellas (Have Sacrificial Lambs Will Travel) made an all-expense-paid visit to Baton Rouge, La., another one of those places that treats football like a social event rather than an afterthought. They listened to 74,000 screaming LSU fans, saw an honest-to-goodness marching band, witnessed a community rally around a team. "The people were really good out there," said Phil Benson, the Titans' starting center.
Even the insults were clever. Read one stadium banner: "You've been in every time zone except the end zone." That sort of thing.
Said Murphy: "The word is jealousy. You say, 'Hey, this is Division I-A football. They've got a band, they've got this. This is neat.' "
At a recent booster club meeting, Murphy tried to recreate the moment. "I've got to admit it," he told his audience, "I had a tingle, the adrenaline was pumping. Then they kicked off."
Now, take a trip to Cal State Freeway, home of, well, nothing. The Titans must play their games in Santa Ana, in front of sparse audiences, under the oddest of circumstances. Schedules are written in pencil.
Remember the three seasons when Fullerton players and coaches assembled bleachers so the team could play on campus? Remember when they got wrench cramp and decided to play at nearby Anaheim Stadium? Remember when Anaheim Stadium officials, worried about field conditions for Ram games, kicked the Titans out whenever storm clouds drifted overhead? Remember when the Titans moved to Santa Ana Stadium?
Saturday evening's game against Cal State Long Beach was scheduled for Saturday afternoon, except an angry swap meet director refused to waive a contract clause. Don't ask.
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The Titans do what they can, but it's never enough. They went 11-1 on the field in 1984, broke into the top 20 and where did it get them?
These days, desperate to help cover a $1.1-million budget, they readily hit the road. To Hawaii, to LSU and, soon, to Florida, Utah State, San Jose, Northern Illinois and Fresno State. For this, the Titans will receive about $625,000. And what does it get them?
A 44-0 loss to Hawaii. A 56-12 loss to LSU. Maybe some nice frequent flyer awards. "We're not even in the Bottom Ten anymore," Murphy said.
But the Titans need the money, so they make themselves available for assorted carnage. This isn't unheard of. Cal State Long Beach has an appointment in Ann Arbor, Mich., later this fall and it's unlikely the 49ers are going there so they can see the leaves change.
Next season, Fullerton travels to West Virginia, Wyoming, Akron and Southwest Louisiana. Benson will be gone by then, but he applauds the good intentions.
"I don't think there's anything wrong with being, for the lack of a better word, ambitious," Benson said.
There is even talk of an additional road game.
"I think we're going to schedule the Bears," Murphy said.
He pauses. "I'm being facetious."
The Titans are stuck between a ledger and hardheadedness. They want a big-time program on a commuter campus. They crave national recognition, but wasn't it Murphy himself who, after rumors of a job change to Minnesota, once said: "I'm sure Minnesota is looking for a bigger name. Up there, it'd be, 'Who's Gene Murphy?' and 'Where's Cal State Fullerton?' " They fight the constant battle: What They Want to Be vs. What They Can Be.
Murphy settles for tiny victories for the moment. His players eat at a training table four days a week, "which is big-time for us." He counts the days until an on-campus stadium, now scheduled for completion in time for the 1990 season, is available. He waits eagerly for game days, even if it means watching the Titans go splat against the scoreboard.
He is a coach. This is his team. As for the rest of it, he's not quite sure what to do.
There have been suggestions, ranging from disbandment (unnecessary), to lowered aspirations (Division I-AA, a possibility).
"To say it isn't (frustrating) would be a damn lie," he said of the situation. "Since I've been here, things have gotten better, but they haven't gotten easier. What makes it worthwhile is what happens Saturday night.
"Our goal right now still is to win the (Pacific Coast Athletic Assn.) conference championship," he said. "Whether it's realistic, that has to be our goal. If we say anything else, we're going to take one big step back."
Said Benson: "There was a philosophy developed here. We don't have a stadium. We don't have a big following, though the fans are great. Here, the coaches and players are a family. We play it for us. We play to win for each other, when it comes right down to it."
And where does it get them?