The Cal State LA Experience

From Riches to Rags

cal_state_la… having proudly entered those hallowed halls of the academy through the front door at age 29 in the Summer Quarter of 1972, I exited through a basement window at the end of Spring Quarter, 1984… defeated, humiliated and angry.  I was 41 years old and that departure shaped the rest of my life.  I served as a professor, coach and administrator in the Department of Physical Education and Athletics at California State University, Los Angeles for 12 years and in the end, it nearly killed me.

The Back Story

…knowing what one does not want out of life may be as important as what one seeks.  Sly Stallone in his first Rocky movie said, “I just don’t wanna be another bum from da neighborhood” when asked what he sought.  Not such a lofty goal, but a real one indeed for Rocky Balboa.  On the other hand, Ray Liotta’s character, Henry Hill in the movie “Goodfellas”, said, “from the time I was nine years old, I knew I wanted to be like them,” referring to the ‘wise guys’ hanging out at the cab stand across the street from his parents’ third floor walk up in NYC.  It was easy for me to relate to both movie characters.  With roots in South Philly and coming from a loosely ‘connected’ family, I knew those guys albeit from a distance. While they were very colorful and fun to be around, I did not aspire to become part of that fraternity.   What I wanted was a different story:

Teachers have a calling not unlike those who choose the clergy or medicine, or the Peace Corps…or even Wall St.  I wanted to teach physical education and knew it from the time I was a high school junior.  As a kid, I was a no talent athlete but really enjoyed all sports and always wondered what made some kids better than others.  I played baseball, softball, basketball, touch football and was a hurdler on my high school track team and not very accomplished at any of it.  However, I knew that being good at sports would curry favor not only with the guys in the neighborhood but also with the girls.  This was a ticket to popularity and respect amongst one’s peers, hence my incentive to become a good athlete like my big brother Jimmy.  While this adolescent attitude might yield short term pay days, it was really the science of sport which always piqued my interest.  Why can some guys run faster than others or jump higher or throw harder?  Is it their natural talent or their training?  Nature or Nurture?  If it is natural, does that mean talented athletes come to life with a greater number of fast twitch muscle fibers or better constructed nerve synapses or larger and more erythrocytes?  If it is training, can you create those advantages through good coaching, dedication and hard work even if raw talent is not organically present?  I would spend the next 25 years of my professional life in the pursuit of answering those questions.

Temple University

TU logo… I enrolled at Temple University as a full time matriculating student in the spring semester of 1961 as a major in Health, Physical Education and Recreation (HPER).  The curriculum was a classical one where we studied all sports in both theory and practice along with biology, anatomy, physiology, exercise physiology, physics, bio- mechanics and anatomical kinesiology.  Majors were required to take four gymnastics courses all taught by the gymnastics team coach, Carl Patterson.  I was always fascinated with gymnastics while in high school but never participated other than that which was required as part of the standard physical education curriculum.  In taking my first gymnastics course, I found that I had a trace of talent on the rings when compared with my classmates, and I liked the event.  The gym was open to all majors who wished to have more time on the apparatus in addition to regularly scheduled class time. Coach Patterson encouraged his gymnasts to assist any majors who asked for help during team training sessions. OPEN GYM! This was truly an unselfish policy on behalf of the coach in that all coaches, regardless of sport, detest distraction from training.  Temple’s gymnastics program was and still is an elite one competing at the highest level in the NCAA.  Temple gymnasts have historically been national champions, international competitors and All Americans… and, remain an integral part of the National USA team since the 1920s.  This is a storied program with a rich history and great tradition.

1964 Temple Championship Team

1964 Temple Championship Team

Freshmen were not eligible compete in any NCAA sport at the varsity level until 1972.  Prior to that time, the newbies competed on freshman teams so that they may evolve into ‘student athletes.’  That term, ‘student athlete,’ meant something special at that time unlike its unworthy connotation of today which is very apparent in football and men’s basketball.  Another story for another time!   Coach Patterson recruited me from his gymnastics class for majors …a first!  I put together a fairly simple routine on rings but executed it well, and was getting ready for my first competition in the second semester of my freshman year.  The meet I would compete in would be the first college meet I had ever seen.  It was against the Navy plebes at Annapolis.  The bus ride from Philly to Maryland with the team was great.  The varsity guys would compete Saturday evening while the freshmen competed on Saturday afternoon.  I performed a routine with no breaks and no mistakes.  I was as clean as a whistle…and scored a 5.7 out of a possible 10.0 (Olympic scoring).  Good execution, but no difficulty!  All the varsity guys were there to lend support to the frosh and, I needed it after posting that score.  I was welcomed back to bench with rousing applause, warm handshakes, smiles and slaps on the tukus.  Somehow, my teammates made that 5.7 ok and their acceptance and encouragement was my motivation to get serious about gymnastics.

Temple University 63-64 Gymnastics Team Championship at Penn State

Temple University 63-64 Gymnastics Team Championship at Penn State

I trained consistently and diligently from that point on and became a student of my sport.   As a result, the best one could say about my gymnastics ability was that I “scratched and clawed my way right up to the very low middle.”  I earned my varsity letter as a senior and wore it proudly…until I was about… 60.  I have often said that Temple University’s gymnastics program did way more for me than I could ever do for it.  To this day, I am ever so grateful for the opportunity, education and counseling Coach Patterson delivered.  My experience then and there provided me with the background and opportunity to earn a living doing what I loved…teaching and coaching.

From South Hills to Cal State LA

Coaches Barnes & Bastion - SHHS 1967

Coaches Barnes & Bastion – SHHS 1967 My Colleagues

 

My first permanent professional job was teaching physical education and coaching gymnastics at South Hills High School in West Covina, CA.  I was 24 years old and held both a bachelor’s and master’s degree. I had some success with my first team by going 10-1 and won a conference championship with a fledging program and team.  While I did not know if I could be a successful coach at the start of that season, I knew it at the end.  During six seasons, we won six conference titles, had a dual meet record of 74-3, a CIF Championship and a Southern California Championship by defeating LA City Champions in 1972.  We sent countless ‘student athletes’ to elite NCAA gymnastics programs around the country and several went on to become NCAA All-Americans but more important they became doctors, lawyers, educators, scientists, politicians, business leaders/owners, craftsmen and journeymen.  My gym was a metaphor for the real world.  Winning and losing gym meets seemed like life itself, but the intrinsic value of competing was found in the commitment, preparation, execution and ultimately the accountability.

Alfie, Nadia Comaneci, Bart Conner 2002

Alfie, Nadia Comaneci, Bart Conner 2002

At the conclusion of that 1972 high school season, I was offered a job at Cal State, LA as a kinesiology professor and gymnastics coach.  Life was great.  I had just concluded my doctoral program at UCLA; was recently married to the love of my life, Nancy; I became an instant father to Danielle who was now age seven and my high school team had just won two big championships.  My close friend Gordon Maddux was the Cal State LA coach and he was leaving to work for ABC’s Wide World of Sports as the color commentator alongside of Jim McKay. They made history together.

Gordon-Maddux,-Glen-Sunby,-Al-Marino

Gordon-Maddux,-Glen-Sunby,-Al-Marino

Gordon became the voice of gymnastics and singularly brought our arcane sport into everyone’s living room. While the ’72 games in Munich were horrific due to the assassination of the Israeli athletes, a bright spot emerged when Gordon responded to McKay with an enthusiastic… “I’d give her an eleven” when asked what Olga Korbut should score on a bars routine.  I’ll have a lot more to say about Gordon in future stories as he had a significant influence upon me and many others.  He was a great mentor.  I respected him as a coach for a host of reasons not the least of which is he was the first who brought real science to our sport.  Bio-mechanics was in its infancy as it related to gymnastics and Gordon was at the front of the pack. To this day, I am very proud to be his friend and we have remained close since those early days of the mid sixties when I was just beginning my coaching career.

Cal State LA Gymnastics Team '73 - '74

Cal State LA Gymnastics Team ’73 – ’74

I rejected the initial Cal State offer which called for a one year contract at less money than I was earning at the high school.  Somehow, that didn’t seem right.  I was happy to continue at South Hills with a team that had graduated only three starters and I was the ASB Director (a Vice Principal’s job without the title).  The department chair at Cal State came at me again and offered an associate professorship at the last salary step (just one click under full professor) without tenure but rather annual reappointment at the pleasure of the university president.  That was fine with me although I was advised against it by everyone in the know. Opposition to that offer was based upon the lack of tenure with no possibility of gaining such under this newly installed, CSU system wide ‘coaching tract’ policy.  Somehow, tenure was never a priority with me.  I believed it protected the weak and incompetent…and it does.  Further, I wouldn’t want to work with those who didn’t want me.  My attitude on the second contract offer was, “let’s rock ‘n’ roll” and I signed on.

University Coaching

Asst Coach Al Hernandez, Alfie, Asst Coach Barney Potus 1974

Asst Coach Al Hernandez, Alfie, Asst Coach Barney Peters 1974

My first two years were great!  I taught upper division and graduate level anatomical and bio-mechanical kinesiology courses to majors.  I coached my gymnastics team to two PCAA championships (NCAA Division I), had a 20-1 dual meet record with wins over USC, UCLA (both seasons) as well as other nationally ranked teams and was selected NCAA Western Region Coach of the Year by National Association of Collegiate Gymnastics Coaches in 1974.  Life was really good! 

PCAA Conference Champions 1973

PCAA Conference Champions 1973 and 1974

Upon arriving home from the National Championships, my athletic director, John Hermann called me in for a chat.  John was and is a great guy with a storied athletics background where he was Pacific Coast batting champion and a starting defensive back for Red Sanders at UCLA during their hey day of the mid fifties. He also had a stint with the NY football Giants and the Baltimore Colts before returning to UCLA as an assistant coach. He was a gifted athlete who made it all look so easy…pissed me off.  John Hermann was congratulatory over our great season and it came from his heart because he loved winning regardless of sport, but there was something else.  John told me of the recent PCAA athletic directors’ meeting where it had been determined that all member universities would eventually drop gymnastics as a conference sport due to budget concerns and the PCAA will probably fold. Title IX (gender equity) was now a reality and would arguably become the most important event changing the face of college sports in this country. 

PCAA Conference Champions 1974 Cal State LA

PCAA Conference Champions 1974 Cal State LA

In 1974, you either loved or hated the implementation of Title IX.   John continued with the declaration that we might take the university’s total athletics program and drop it down to NCAA Division II.   Further, he said the NCAA will eventually drop gymnastics ‘officially’ but would retain it on a ‘club’ level.  Along with the physical education department chair, they collectively asked me to head up the university’s intramural sports program and retain my teaching position. While I did have other Division I coaching opportunities, all required relocating to other parts of the country and Nancy and daughter Danielle hated that idea.  Further, men’s gymnastics was heading toward extinction. So I asked myself, “if  I accept a coaching position at another university, wouldn’t I eventually face the same fate?”  And the more pressing question, “how important is domestic tranquility?”  The most difficult thing for me to reconcile was the fact that I was evolving into an elite coach and my gymnastics career would be over if I accepted Cal State LA’s alternative offer. After considerable thought and solicited advice, I was prepared for that next step in my professional growth and development.  I always knew that at some point I would serve as an administrator, but this was a bit sooner than planned.  I accepted the offer.  There is some truth to that ol’ Yiddish axiom…“God laughs at those who plan!”

The precursor…

Assoc Chair of PE Athletics Dept. 1977

Assoc. Chair of Physical Education and Athletics Dept. 1977-1980

The next three years (1974-1977) were rewarding and very educational in that I was on the frontline of administering the Intramural Sports Program, assisted in the management of the Athletics Program, continued teaching both undergrad and grad courses, chaired master’s thesis committees and I was elected to the University’s Academic Senate (the first from the Department of Physical Education/Athletics). Working for John was great.  He was a good Athletic Director and a very savvy business man from whom I learned much…like his quote, “you make your money when you buy, not when you sell.”  To this day, I am grateful for the mentoring that Coach Hermann provided and it has served me well. Life was good!

The succeeding three years at Cal State (1977-1980) brought about another change where our new department chair asked if I would serve as her associate.  This was a big step up.  The chair was accountable for seventy five or so full and part time faculty and staff including both men’s and women’s athletics in addition to managing all financial resources, facilities, athletics schedules, game management, faculty teaching schedules and curricular matters.  I was second in command of a large and highly visible pan-university program and was I 35 years old.  Now, things would get…”INTERESTING.”

My boss, Dr. Joan Johnson was a wonderful and accomplished woman who led with honesty, integrity and a definitive vision.  A Wimbledon competitor in her youth and Billie Jean King’s tennis coach at Cal State LA, Dr. Johnson was a sound administrator who pioneered women’s athletics causes when the fightin’ was “down ‘n’ dirty.”  Resolve in her mission was never compromised by lack of civility.  She fought hard, intelligently, fairly and with an air of dignity.  While she did not always agree with all colleagues on all matters, she never made it personal…at least not publicly.  We worked well together for a variety of reasons, but most important, we liked and respected each other.  During my first year as Associate Department Chair, we were advertising for a new tenure track faculty position at associate professor’s rank, and the job description sent forward suited me well.  Dr. Johnson wanted me to get that job because of TENURE.  I agreed!  The search ensued and the selection committee “unofficially” offered the job to me but it had to go through the proper channels.  That entailed a paper trip through the dean’s office, the academic VP’s office and eventually the university’s president.  What followed was the seminal event that impacted my station amongst some colleagues but more important, it thrust doubt upon my very being and it influenced my remaining six years at the university.  Here is what ensued:

The Beginning of the End

During this process, an anonymous letter was sent to Dr. Johnson protesting my appointment to the position due to overweighting of male when compared with female new hires and that the job description had been purposefully written for me.  The letter was not signed by any individuals but rather, “The Secret Seven.”  Dr. Johnson was furious, as was I, but to no avail and the search was suspended.  The university president, Dr Greenlee, summoned me to his office after learning about this series of unfortunate events and he advised me to wait until a new search was created and to reapply at that time.  His advice was sound and I was not smart enough to take it.  President Greenlee understood the value of tenure in the academic world and he did not think it best for me to travel that path ‘unprotected.’  However, having observed some quality senior faculty denied promotion to full professor numerous times, my thinking was that I would be no exception if appointed to that soon to be re-released job having just drawn department faculty blood.  I submitted an alternative suggestion to both Dr. Johnson and President Greenlee asking for promotion to full professor rank and salary but would sacrifice tenure and remain on the coaching tract without it.  Further, I would the avoid the politics and risk of promotion to full professor for which I would not be eligible until at least five years at associate professor rank. I was back to that ol’ issue of “who needs tenure, anyway; it only protects those who are undeserving.”  Well, I got my wish and was promoted to full professor at age 36 (coaching tract) and it further drew the ire of selected faculty.

Prior to that time, I was a social animal and really enjoyed life, love, family, food, sex, music, sports, movies, friends, the beach…all of that, then suddenly it changed.  I became somewhat withdrawn and depressed and by all accounts, a bit anti-social.  I no longer enjoyed the things I loved doing and those with whom I did them. I was angry!   Recently, I heard a great definition of depression and it certainly fit:  “Depression is anger turned inward.” Several years removed from the university environment and on to another career, I deliberately engaged the process of deconstructing this series of events and arrived at the following: I suffered from pride, vanity, ambition, a healthy dose of narcissism and a somewhat fragile ego.  Over time, I came to realize that in many ways I was a victim of my own self destruction…with considerable assistance from selected others.

Al and John Hermann in Catalina 1992

Al and John Hermann in Catalina 1992

At the conclusion of Dr. Johnson’s tenure as Chair of the department, a brief three year stint, a compromise chair was elected (actually installed by the ‘elders’).  That individual was a junior faculty member without administrative experience but was perceived to be non-threatening and malleable by those who wanted to direct from the ‘closet.’  He was young, smart, politically savvy, cunning and a bit ruthless.  During his early years on campus we were close friends.  We had a lot in common in that we were both east coast born, bred and educated, and we shared similar cultural backgrounds and sensibilities.  Once elevated to the chair, all changed.  He was smitten with power while primarily serving those who influenced his elevation to ‘station.’

Al, Nancy, Walt Williamson 1998

Al, Nancy, Walt Williamson 1998

Upon the resignation of John Hermann as Athletic Director which was inspired by a brief encounter with our newly installed university president, our new department chair forwarded a recommendation for his replacement. John’s resignation was inspired (in part) by the president’s insistence that all who were serving in an athletic administrative capacity during a bogus scandal associated with the Men’s Basketball program be terminated. There were two choices to replace John…Walt Williamson and me. Of those choices, Walt was also serving as Head Track and Field Coach where his team won the NCAA Division II championship. Great coach and a great team! Both of us were John’s Associate ADs and the chair sent Walt’s name forward.  While Walt may have been the better choice, I believed someone needed to inform me of this decision since I too was a candidate but the silence was deafening and I learned about the appointment in the University Times (and unofficially from my friend, Walt).  That was the beginning of the end of my friendship with our chair and his cronies who ‘pulled the strings’ which made others dance.  My relationship with the puppeteers was relegated to cold war status and they would make it their life’s work to send me packing.  It took four more years.  My friend Walt was terminated in two.

Universities pride themselves in the notion that they are THEE place where divergent ideas may come to the table without fear of reprisal.  Therein lies the myth.  The political environment in academia is best described by a university chancellor who had previously been an elected member to the House of Representatives. When asked by the media, “how would you compare politics in higher education to that within beltway?”  His response…”oh, that’s easy; politics in academia is much more savage.”  “How so?” asks the correspondent.  “That’s even easier” said the chancellor… “ the stakes are so small.” 

The End

My ReFIREment dinner

My ‘ReFIREment’ dinner

The first week of January, 1984, I received a letter from the university President, who was now in the fifth year of his “reign”, informing me that my position was being reclassified from full professor status to that of assistant professor.  Further, my contract would not be renewed and, the end of Spring Quarter, 1984 would be my last at Cal State LA.  What the university did not know was that I had been licensed by the NASD (now FINRA) as a financial advisor with Diversified Securities, Inc. in December of 1983…just three weeks prior to my notice.  I knew they would eventually get to me somehow, someway, sometime and I was not going to permit that to happen without alternatives.  During this cold war, I applied for several university AD jobs and often it would get down to two candidates…. me and the guy who was hired.  Typically when a final offer to an AD is made, it is usually a conversation between two presidents that determine the appointment. My candidacy was always stopped at that juncture…at Cal Poly Pomona (twice), Loyola Marymount, Cal State Dominguez Hills (twice), and Pomona College.  I was offered the job at UC Santa Cruz but declined…crazy place. Likewise, I was offered the AD’s job at Chapman College (prior to university status) but declined due to a one year contract. That is when I knew I was finished in the academic and athletic world and would have to retool.  I had opportunity at Diversified Securities, Inc to become an investment advisor and began an intense self study program in June of 1983 in preparation for the exams.

I wrestled with the idea that I was going to put twenty years of teaching and coaching along with three degrees out to pasture.  One doesn’t study for a terminal degree at UCLA on a lark.  You expect to use that education and accomplishment in a meaningful way and now it would have little to no bearing on my possibilities for success in an entirely unrelated endeavor.  During this same time period, my father was dying and I was going back to Philadelphia on weekends to assist my mother and brother with his care.  He passed away the day after Christmas, 1983 and I sat for my NASD exams just two weeks prior. The most difficult part of my separation from the university was knowing how disappointed my dad would have been had he known of my departure.  He was so proud of the fact that he had a kid who was a university professor.  I’m glad he never knew.

The ‘take away’ for me was… Cal State, LA  paid for my services but I willingly gave my soul for nothing.  If ever I was able to recapture any part of that soul it would never again leave me.  It is my personal province and I determine what parts to share and with whom to share them.  Needless to say, it was a difficult period in my life but what follows is a tale of redemption and reclamation. “Out of the Ashes Rises the Phoenix” and that is a story for another time.

5 Comments

Filed under Featured Story

5 Responses to The Cal State LA Experience

  1. joe saldana

    coach, just finished reading your piece. incredible! as one of your thousands of students at csula i can say that having you as a teacher was probably the highlight of my cal-state experience. i took your gymnastics class, and was scared to death. you were such a positive force that you actually had me believing that i could perform gymnastic routines that i had no business attempting. i was about as graceful as a hippo, but with your encouragement i got through. as i went on to a 33 year career as a p.e. teacher and coach, i often reflected back to your positive attitude, and tried to pass that on to both students and athletes. i remember having to do a routine on the rings. i was hopelessly stuck. you came up to me, as i was hanging awkwardly,the entire class watching, and told me in italian to relax. i relaxed, and completed the routine. thanks coach, and stay well, joe saldana

    • Alfie

      Joe…thank you for your very kind words. As professors, teachers and coaches, we are not all that sure we are connecting with our students/athletes as we deliver. It is feedback like this which tells us it was not for naught. Thank you again for providing the knowledge that something ‘took’ and you were able to pass it on to your students.
      Best wishes,
      Al Marino

  2. M. Dominguez

    Coach, I took some of your classes in the late 70s – early 80’s. I was not the best in gymnastics but enjoyed it completely. I was determined to learn and you helped. You helped me with coordination and strength. Your patience in teaching is why I continued to sign up for your classes. I believe those years helped me maintain my health to this day. So, thank you many years later.

  3. Dan Smith

    I was one of your grad students in the mid 70s. You were a great source of inspiration and knowledge. The title nine crunch hit swimming and diving programs. University diving coach had been my goal. I had the privilege to coach diving for the Thailand team for the 1978 Asian Games. There, I was invited to coach with the Chinese National team. If I have any regrets in life, it was not following through with the invitation. What followed was a Masters in TESOL from Michigan State University and a rewarding career of 30 years teaching English in the Middle East and S E Asia. I still dive and have taken up figure skating. The science of human movement and inspiration from people like you still is an important part of me and I love imparting those to other athletes on an informal basis. Thank you Doc. Appreciatively, Dan Smith

  4. Alfie

    Dan, wonderful that you have enjoyed a varied career and I am so pleased and satisfied that you found inspiration while at CSULA . I do remember you as one of my grad students and I am gratified that you found value the training you received….very rewarding. We don’t get to hear that often.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.