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FOOTBALL

Alumni remember Fullerton football

Former players and staff reunite for the first time since the school dropped the program in 1992. Some want to resurrect it.

March 08, 2009|Robyn Norwood

They finally got to step onto the field of their stadium, and they got the joke. All these years later, Cal State Fullerton's former football players could almost laugh. Just don't leave out the almost.

The greats and the not-so-greats of a Fullerton football program that has been defunct for 16 seasons gathered for their first reunion Saturday afternoon.

They did it in the only appropriate place they could have: seated around banquet tables on the field of the long-awaited stadium that in the end hosted only four Titan football games before the program was dropped in 1992.

Damon Allen, who went on to become the leading passer in the history of professional football as a quarterback in the Canadian Football League, flew in from Toronto to be there.

Mark Collins, who won two Super Bowls as a defensive back for the New York Giants, came from Kansas City, Mo.

"I don't even wear my Super Bowl rings. I wear my Cal State Fullerton ring," Collins said. "It means a lot to me. I don't want to get too emotional, man," he said, looking toward Gene Murphy, the Titans' coach from 1980 until the end. "I love you man, I do."

Some players arrived pushing strollers, but Daren Gilbert -- like Allen and Collins a member of the 11-1 1984 team that briefly cracked the top 20 of the old United Press International poll -- was accepting backslaps about his son Jarron, a San Jose State defensive lineman who is projected to go in the first two rounds of the NFL draft.

The first Titans football team in 1970 played in front of crowds as small as 3,000 in cavernous Anaheim Stadium. In 1971, tragedy struck when three assistant coaches -- Bill Hannah, Joe O'Hara and Dallas Moon -- died in a plane crash on a scouting trip. Moon's son Dave was there Saturday to thank the players and coaches for caring for the families in the aftermath.

Before the Titans' history ended with a 2-9 record in 1992, the nomadic team called seven fields home.

"Murph promised, hey, we're building a stadium, and we would, we'd build an Erector set stadium, a Tinkertoy stadium, out of Long Beach Grand Prix stands," said Steve Mariucci, a Cal State Fullerton assistant in the early 1980s.

Mariucci went on to become coach of the San Francisco 49ers and Detroit Lions and now works as a television analyst.

Mariucci is representative of a Fullerton staff that became a cradle of coaches. Tom Cable, the new coach of the Oakland Raiders, was once an assistant at Fullerton. Mike Heimerdinger is offensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans. Rich Ellerson is the new coach at Army. Jim Chaney is the offensive coordinator at Tennessee. Greg Robinson is defensive coordinator at Michigan. The list goes on and on.

"I've worked for John Robinson, Mike Holmgren. . . . They're household names," Mariucci said. "I will tell you, I learned more from Gene Murphy about coaching and how to be a head coach than all of them put together."

Murphy, recently retired as the coach at Fullerton College, recalled the era when Fullerton played games at Southeastern Conference powerhouses Louisiana State, Florida and Georgia to earn six-figure guarantees to keep the program afloat.

"I remember eyes as big as saucers at Florida when we got in the locker room," Murphy said. "We took pictures and the next year in recruiting said, 'That's our locker room.' "

The players didn't know they were cannon fodder, even though the 1987 team lost to Florida, 65-0.

"We were 18, 19 years old," former fullback Tim Byrnes said. "We thought we could go knock off anybody."

The reunion, organized by Danny Pasquil, a member of the final Titans team, is part of an effort to revive the program. It is a venture unlikely to succeed.

Athletic Director Brian Quinn estimated it would require $2 million in annual operational budget alone. Some don't want to give up.

"We never thought there'd be a black president, either," Allen said.

For now, the school will hoist a placard in Titan Stadium, now home to soccer and high school football: "Remember the Titans," it reads.

"Bring back Titan football? I don't know if that will happen in my lifetime," Murphy said. "The most important thing is to bring back the Titan football family."

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robynnorwood@verizon.net

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