I've always dreaded those moments when the conversation would turn to college alma maters. I would brace myself for the usual sequence of events.
Where did you go to college?I'd be asked.
"Oh, Cal-State Fullerton," I'd reply as nonchalantly as possible.
A pause would always follow, then a look of puzzlement would form on the inquirer's face. Finally, the inevitable response: Where?
Sometimes I thought it would be a lot easier just to say UCLA and let it go at that. But no more. From now on, let'em ask. The days of my college identity crisis are over.
The curse was lifted Sunday morning, when newspapers across the country carried the news that this unknown school from Fullerton, Calif., had pulled off the biggest upset of a shocking NCAA basketball tournament first round. The mighty Titans - that's right, Titans - had beaten Top 10 Nex Mixico.
The sports world might have been asking Fullerton who? But not me. Suddenly, my world seemed better.
Office colleagues who delighted in leaving wire copy in my mail box detailing how Cal-State Fullerton's football team had been trounced again were strangely silent, much like the odds makers who decided CSF was a 100-to-1 shot Saturday afternoon against New Mexico.
Did you see the NCAA results this morning, I asked one colleague Sunday.
"Lot of upsets," he said quickly.
"How about the one in the West?"
"You mean San Francisco over North Carolina?"
"No, the really big one."
"Oh, that one. Well, everyone gets lucky once in a while."
Luck or not, it's been a long time coming. For nine years, I've waited for CSF Sports teams to do something dramatic. I even tried to capitalize on the success of our women's basketball squad, which has been one of the best in the country for the last five years. But no one seemed to care if center Nancy Dunkle was an All-America.
Now I can frame the NCAA Tournament bracket. Maybe I'll carry a copy in my wallet, just for those moments when CSF needs support. The bracket tells it all: there, in the West Regional this week, along with San Francisco, Arkansas and UCLA is Fullerton State. Not Maryland, not North Carolina, not Marquette but Fullerton State.
There are still some problems, however. First, it's really not Fullerton State. The NCAA insists on referring to my alma matter that way, which creates a slow burn in all alumni. It's okay to say Long Beach State or San Diego State but our name is California State University, Fullerton. The comma even has been approved by the California legislature. If you have to shorten it, say Cal-State Fullerton, please.
And this is no outlaw, mail-order school, despite what New Mexico might have you think. The Lobos charged this week that CSF used an ineligible player against them, an accusation they since have withdrawn. They should have known better; a school fees to finance their athletic programs isn't rich enough to cheat.
But CSF is big enough to produce good sports teams. A predominantly commuter school, it has a current enrollment of 23,000 making it one of the largest members of the 19-school California State University and College system. The 260-acre campus, built on what once was an orange grove, is located next to Anaheim and is 30 minutes south of Los Angeles in Orange County.
CSF has a tradition of strong minor sports, especially soccer, and its baseball team went to, the College World Series one year. But the school, which opened for classes in 1959 and didn't become a Division I member until 1974, has had a football team only since the early 1970s and its basketball squad had just a few successful years until coach Bob Dye took over four seasons ago.
Dye had the nucleus of a 16-10 team back this season, but even he did not expect things to turn out as they have. CSF finished third in the regular-season Pacific Coast Athletic Association race but swept through the conference tournament and then shot 62 percent to beat New Mexico for its 22nd win in 30 games this eyar.
"We aren't impressive physically," said Athletic Director Neale Stoner between congratulatory phone calls, "but we're smart. We ran with New Mexico, something they didn't think could be done, and we beat them.
"People are going nuts. This is the greatest thing that has ever happened to us. We are hiring a couple of buses to take students to the regional and we've chartered a plane. We even got the New Mexico game on Los Angeles TV on a delayed basis Saturday night. Everyone in the world must have watched it, the way my phone is ringing."
The best of the Titans is 6-foot-6 forward Greg Bunch, who has led the team in scoring and rebounding the last four years. A 53 percent shooter, he may be the most talented player in the school's history, but that really isn't saying a whole lot.
Other than a few good early squads, CSF has muddled in basketball mediocrity. A couple of hundred people at most games was a big turnout. One of its former coaches had to teach a full load of classes and thought recuiting was some disease. The biggest crowd in Titan history showed up for a game between the CSF freshmen and the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar-led UCLA freshmen.
Things are going to be different now. We no longer are the Rodney Dangerfields of college athletics. Even Al McGuire might learn something about CSF. During a TV game on Sunday, he was asked if he knew "Fullerton State's" nickname?
In between giggles and laughs, he blurted out: "Cherokees."
Al, it's Titans, not Cherokees, nor Warriors.