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Ex-49er Coach Leads Enchanted Life in Land of Losing Lobos

November 19, 1987|DICK WAGNER | Times Staff Writer

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — If he had some football players, this really would be the land of enchantment for Mike Sheppard. The losses for his University of New Mexico football team go on endlessly, like the sky here, but on the horizon he thinks he sees hope.

Sheppard, who reluctantly left California State University, Long Beach, last Christmas Eve after coaching the 49ers for three years, has yet to win a game with the Lobos and likely will finish his first season 0-11.

"Never in my wildest dreams did I think I could be part of a team that wouldn't win a game," Sheppard said last week, a few days before his team would play the Air Force Academy.

He stood on the UNM campus, amid its pueblo-style buildings and golden trees, and kidded that he is 36 going on 50, but he still looks as boyish and fresh as when he moved to Long Beach in 1984.

He gets through these days with his customary uplifting attitude and tries to mask the hurt each defeat brings.

"I'm so disappointed," Sheppard said. "We're probably as down as any program in the country. We're farther away than I first judged, yet not any less enthusiastic or confident that it can be done here. It's going to be different in a few years."

Sheppard plans to increase scholarships (the Lobos are 25 under the 95 maximum) and recruit freshmen instead of having to rely on junior college players as recent Lobos teams have. "We're starting over," he said.

"Losing is the worst thing in the world, but it is still second to losing your pride. Our kids still play hard and fight, but we lack depth. Six players quit in the spring, saying they were burned out. We lost nine players to injury in one game."

Lobos fans are the rare variety who are tolerant of a coach in a winless season.

"He hasn't taken much heat (because) people here are immune to losing football, they don't know what a comedown is," said Phil Casaus, who covers the team for the Albuquerque Journal.

Since 1965, the Lobos have had only five winning seasons.

"I don't feel pressure," Sheppard said. "I'm confident things are going to work out as they should. People are very understanding of the situation. They know what's wrong, we just don't have the ammunition. I've yet to hear a negative word."

When Sheppard arrived to speak at a luncheon last Thursday, former Lobos football player Rick Tavelli said to him, "You've got our support, hang in there."

Sheppard's new life is the kind that does not breed irritability or forlornness. He has become nearly as recognizable as the Sandia Mountains that rim Albuquerque.

In Long Beach, where there was only mild interest in the team, Sheppard was fairly anonymous. But here he is on a television sportscast almost every night, has a TV show on Sundays and does a pregame radio show. He is in demand as a speaker, and even judged the first round of the Miss USA pageant.

"I've made between 105 and 115 appearances," Sheppard said. "I've worked hard at being available. I realize how important that is, but I'd rather be rolling film or trying to beat somebody. After the Wyoming game (a 59-16 shellacking), I was asked to bowl for a charity. That's when it's tough, after you get your tail beat."

He has a five-year contract with an annual salary of $62,000--about $9,000 more than he made at Long Beach--but he said he makes about $90,000 after his radio-TV money is added. He has bought a home in an exclusive area. The use of a car and free dry cleaning have been bestowed on him, as has membership in three country clubs, "not that that's something to brag about," he said.

He wears lizard boots proudly, as if they alone are testimony to his solid entrenchment in the Southwest.

But a year ago Sheppard still thought of himself as a fixture at Cal State Long Beach, where he had compiled a 16-18 record. Then in late November it was announced that unless $300,000 was raised in a month, the 49er football program would be dropped. Sheppard, dismayed because the crisis wiped out his recruiting, said he did not want to leave. Ultimately, although the program was saved, Sheppard realized his future was elsewhere.

To get Sheppard, UNM agreed to increase scholarships, the recruiting budget and coaches' salaries. "I felt strongly that New Mexico had a (long-term) commitment and Long Beach didn't," he said.

But his heart, he admits, remains with the 49ers.

"I still feel part of it there," he said. "Those are kids I had a lot to do with. I still feel guilty about leaving the players; I hope they understand."

Long Beach, which has not been the offensive power it was the last three years, is 4-6 this season under new Coach Larry Reisbig, who had been an assistant to Sheppard.

Sheppard, wearing a red V-neck sweater, was in his office late last Wednesday night. The athletic building was empty; most of his coaches were on recruiting trips, laying groundwork so that never again will there be such a terrible season.

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