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Mom Nudged Morrison Back to Basketball : Coaching: Former USC mentor ends three-year absence. He'll be on home bench at San Jose State.

November 22, 1989|RON KROICHICK | MCCLATCHY NEWS SERVICE

SAN JOSE — This is a story of Mother Knows Best. Exit Robert Young, stage right. Enter Louise Moran.

While her son, former USC basketball Coach Stan Morrison, worked himself sick in picturesque Santa Barbara, Moran decided she should pick up the telephone.

"She called one day and said, 'What are you running from?' " Morrison recalls. "She thought I was burying myself in my work because I was so pained by not coaching. There was a great deal of truth in that."

So a gentle reminder from his 70-year-old mother helped nudge Morrison back toward a basketball court. He lives there now, amid the squeak of high-tops on hardwood, shrieking whistles and winded players.

When San Jose State christens its new arena and new season Friday night against South Alabama, Morrison will drag his coach's grimace out of the closet and plant himself on the home bench. It will end a three-year absence from coaching for California's basketball vagabond.

Morrison was a sophomore on Cal's 1959 NCAA championship team. He later coached at Sacramento's El Camino High School, guided the freshman team at San Jose State, assisted at USC, took over at Pacific, then returned to USC as head coach.

When that job came to a puzzling crash landing in 1986, Morrison slid up the coast to UC Santa Barbara. As athletic director there, he ignored the beaches, worked way too many hours and eavesdropped on basketball Coach Jerry Pimm's halftime speeches.

But the powerful grip of coaching eventually prevailed. By the time Oct. 15 arrived--Morrison's 50th birthday--he began San Jose State's first practice with typical enthusiasm.

"It was unbelievable," Morrison says. "I had chills when I blew the whistle on Oct. 15. Major-league goose bumps."

That was a natural reaction. But Morrison had a more urgent concern than basketball practice in 1988. While in Santa Barbara, persistent fatigue and a disturbingly pale complexion sent him through months of medical tests.

Doctors were perplexed. They ultimately took bone marrow from his lower back, a painful process with more painful ramifications: They suspected leukemia.

Eight days later, on Dec. 8, the news came back. Pernicious anemia. Treatable, with regular Vitamin B-12 shots. No leukemia.

"I cried," Morrison says.

Morrison spent a strange seven years at USC, a decidedly football school, twice directing the Trojans into the NCAA Tournament and sharing the Pacific 10 Conference title in 1985.

Eventually, he ran straight into an immovable obstacle named Mike McGee.

McGee became USC's athletic director in the summer of 1984. Two years later, after an 11-17 showing, Morrison resigned under pressure and became an associate athletic director at the school.

Within months, he fled to Santa Barbara.

Morrison will not specifically address the USC issue, but it seems clear that he and McGee simply did not get along. McGee also replaced football Coach Ted Tollner and encouraged baseball Coach Rod Dedeaux into retirement.

"Mike's not an easy guy sometimes, especially if you're not one of 'his people,' " San Jose State Athletic Director Randy Hoffman says. "And he always wanted his own people in the football and basketball positions."

Says Morrison: "I know when you carry bitterness, it's such an energy-sapping process. I just knew I needed to leave USC."

So he did. Despite his administrative responsibilities, Morrison spent much of his time in Santa Barbara with a round, leather ball occupying his thoughts.

Hoffman remembers conference meetings in which Morrison drew basketball plays on napkins. Pimm, a longtime friend, did nothing to discourage his new boss's obvious addiction.

"I gave him a coach's shirt, invited him into the locker room before games, at halftime, after games," Pimm says. "I did everything I could to feed his coaching hunger."

Only someone like Hoffman could offer the real meal. He fired Bill Berry last March, capping a tumultuous season in which 10 players walked out in protest of Berry's coaching methods.

Hoffman hired Morrison last April.

Morrison takes ebullience to new levels when talking about the Spartans. He inherits a team that went 5-23 last season, was rocked by dissension and has only three players with major-college experience.

"I didn't come in with my eyes closed, but I didn't know the high detail of the situation here," he says. "Three of our top four post players didn't play at all last year. But that's part of what I'm about, taking on a great challenge."

The returning "star," guard Dwain Daniels, could not collect playing time until most of his teammates left in a huff. He averaged 9.1 points.

"We are not the Boston Celtics, by any stretch of the imagination," Morrison says. "I really am at square one, moving toward square two. I just don't know how many squares there are."

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