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THE COLLEGES / FERNANDO DOMINGUEZ : Moorpark's Bittner Can Cite Nearly 100 Reasons to Be Happy

November 03, 1994|FERNANDO DOMINGUEZ

It was the question many football coaches hate to answer for fear of offending some or neglecting others, so Jim Bittner paused briefly before taking the diplomatic road.

If there is something the Moorpark College coach knows, it is how to build winning teams and keep his feet planted firmly on the ground instead of lodged in his mouth.

Yes, he said, there have been many outstanding players at Moorpark since he took over the program in 1979, but it would be unfair to call one the best and ignore the rest.

He could have said Fred Bradley, for example, the marvelous tailback who rushed for 3,212 yards in two seasons. Or quarterback Ken Lutz, who holds the school career passing record with 3,194 yards. Or perhaps Jamal Anderson, the Atlanta Falcon running back who had a distinguished career at Moorpark.

But Bittner opted for an uncompromising response to the question regarding great moments of his coaching career.

"The day we opened the stadium," Bittner said. "It was a dream for us to have a stadium. We did all kinds of things (fund-raisers) to build it and it took a while."

Now, 10 seasons after Griffin Stadium officially opened, Bittner stands to reach a milestone in the place he envisioned. A victory Saturday night against Hancock will give Bittner 100 with the Raiders.

The Western State Conference game also will have North Division championship implications for Moorpark (5-2, 5-1 in conference play) and Hancock (5-2, 4-2). Both are 2-0 in the division with three games remaining.

It will be a difficult game for the Raiders, the two-time defending North champions who have struggled offensively the past few weeks. They depend on an impenetrable defense and seem to score just enough points to win despite mistakes made by the offense in virtually every game.

In a 21-14 victory over Glendale last week, for instance, Moorpark was penalized six times for illegal procedure and once for holding. The week before, in a 26-20 victory over Pierce, the Raider offense was penalized nine times. One game before that, in a 28-14 loss to Valley, it was eight.

"It has been frustrating," Bittner said. "I've never had a team that has gone through this phase. It's one thing after another on offense. But somehow we've found a way to win and overcome the problems."

Bittner, 59, has been doing that masterfully after rescuing a program that had only two winning seasons in 11 before he became head coach. His first few years were tough, with overmatched teams that won sparingly, but the Raiders turned the corner in 1985 when Griffin Stadium was completed.

Until 1984, when they moved to their partially completed stadium, the nomadic Raiders played home games at several high schools.

Then, on a September afternoon Bittner remembers well, the Raiders dedicated their new facility with a bang. Bittner decided to open that 1985 nonconference game against Harbor with a trick play designed to honor Paul E. Griffin Jr., the land developer who donated $40,000 for the stadium project. Much to Bittner's surprise, it worked.

On the first play from scrimmage, wide receiver Paul Davis connected with flanker Dan Russell on a 61-yard touchdown pass play that got the Raiders rolling on their way to a 31-3 victory. Moorpark won seven more games that season and played in its first bowl game, a 27-14 loss to Pierce in the Brahma Bowl.

"It was just a gimmick," said Bittner, who has taken his teams to eight bowl games. "Harbor always seemed to try something like that on us so we wanted to turn the table on them a little."

Bittner said the stadium gave his program more credibility. It was the first boost. Others, like attracting players from the San Fernando Valley when Pierce dropped its program in 1986 and 1987, and the construction of the Simi Valley Freeway also were instrumental.

And then there is that stabilizing force called continuity. All prosperous teams have it. The Raiders, with four assistant coaches with six or more seasons in the program, are among the most fortunate in that area.

"No one guy can coach a football team by himself," Bittner said. "At the junior college level, it's very hard to keep (assistant) coaches. I've been able to keep a solid staff and that has had a great impact on the program.

"As a younger coach, I had a lot of trouble delegating duties. But in football, you have to do that. There are too many responsibilities."

Bittner has handled them superbly. But there were times, before five consecutive nine-victory seasons from 1988 through 1992 and the 8-3 record last year, when he heard the inimical murmur of discontented fans.

"I always had faith in my program," Bittner said. "I'm an optimist. Certainly, there were people who had doubts (in the beginning). It looked like some problems might not have answers."

They did, however, and Bittner found them. His 100th victory, whether it comes Saturday night in his favorite stadium or elsewhere later, will be proof enough.

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