A football attraction (Fullerton State) grows near Fantasyland
Among football fans, Cal State Fullerton is a team that needs all the introduction it can get - especially east of the Anaheim fast-food Jack in the Box. But Coach Gene Murphy's unbeaten Titans are finally forcing the rest of the country to pay attention.
For starters, a 9-0 record is difficult to ignore. And this week the veil of obscurity was lifted further when the Titans cracked the top 20 in both the Sports Illustrated and United Press International nationwide college football polls.
Still on the horizon are key Pacific Coast Athletic Association games against Fresno State and Nevada-Las Vegas (both also unbeaten in conference play) plus a season finale with New Mexico State.
Whatever happens in these contests, the Titans are already assured of a successful season, but obviously they have it in their own power to make even more people take notice over these next three weeks.
This is a university which is short on athletic funds; recruits many of its players from local high schools; used its football staff to build its 100 feet long by 30 feet wide weight-training facility; and has approximately 25 squad members who still live at home.
Fullerton State also has no training table or athletic dormitories, and has played 42 road games in the past five years.
Until two years ago, Titan players paid for their own pregame meals. Although Fullerton State does have a practice field on campus, the outer perimeter of its green apron is often shared by members of the school's golf team. Its members reportedly shoot only slightly more accurately than the Indians on the late show.
Don't let this get around, but Coach Gene Murphy has a drawer full of errant golf balls on the theory that helmets only protect so much of the body. Rather than tee up his temper, Murphy prefers to stoop to conquer.
When Fullerton State does play a so-called home game, it is 10 miles to the south at Santa Ana Junior College, which also shares its field with several local high schools, creating kind of a novelty grass that grows every which way but up.
When Murphy became the Titans' head coach in 1980, he says school officials told him but didn't actually promise him that Fullerton State would have its own football stadium by 1983. Carry that conversation any further and Gene will punt. How Murphy, an oversized leprechaun with a flair for detail, got to Fullerton State after 12 years as an assistant plus two seasons as a winning head coach at North Dakota, is a fat part for Jack Lemon. That is, if Jack can hold a whistle in his mouth and talk at the same time.
Murphy was already thinking that maybe he had stayed in the same place too long and would be happier with a bigger challenge when Fullerton State's new athletic director, Lynn Eilefson, called him on the phone.
Eilefson was aware of Gene's success from having worked previously for a South Dakota college whose football team had lost regularly to North Dakota.
Despite the fact that the Titans hadn't enjoyed a winning season since 1974 and were considered somewhat of a disaster area, Gene took the job. Arriving at Fullerton two days before Christmas in 1979, he went straight to the school's film library of past games and found about 10 minutes of footage.
''One thing I did discover is that there are a tremendous number of skilled, but relatively unpolished high school football players in California,'' Murphy explained. ''Of course, a school our size is never going to get the blue-chip athletes who have matured quickly.
''However, if you ignore a kid who obviously has talent just because he packs only 165 pounds on a 6 ft. 1 in. frame, he'll go to a junior college instead. Then in two years, he will have matured enough when he graduates so that you'll also lose him to a big school.
So what you have to do is recruit the talented but physically immature kids as freshmen, teach them all you can, put them on a weight program, and by the time they become juniors and seniors they will start winning football games.''
Probably the No. 1 example on the Titans of a youngster who had not yet reached his peak physically or packed the needed weight to excel in football when Murphy recruited him is offensive tackle Daren Gilbert.
Today at 6 ft. 5 in. and 285 pounds, Gilbert looks as though he had been rustled out of a herd. And with feet like Fred Astaire's plus the strength to bench-press 355 pounds, Daren regularly attracts his own silent rooting section at Titan games - ''silent'' because the National Football League scouts who watch him don't want to do anything that will drive the price up.
Among several other Fullerton State players who probably will go lower in next year's NFL draft, is quarterback Damon Allen, the younger brother of former Southern Cal Heisman Trophy winner and present Los Angeles Raiders' running back Marcus Allen.
Damon, whose 90 m.p.h. fastball has already resulted in his being drafted by the Detroit Tigers, rejected a baseball scholarship to USC so he could play both that sport and football at Fullerton State. In the latter sport, Damon broke his brother's passing records at Lincoln High School in San Diego and now owns most of Fullerton State's marks. This year the 6-1, 170 lb. signal caller has thrown for 17 touchdowns in his last seven games and is nearing a national collegiate record with 171 consecutive passes without an interception.
Asked to explain Fullerton State's current unbeaten record, Murphy replied: ''We have worked very hard as a team at not making mistakes (the Titans' 29-plus turnover differential leads the nation), and in most of our games we've been able to get out in front early and stay there.''