Nov. 07, 1988
Nov. 07, 1988

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Nov. 7, 1988

Tyson And King
NBA Preview
Point After


Josè Elgorriaga is both scholar and big-time coach, a rare double these days

Alone, Josè Elgorriaga retreated to the sanctuary of his office on the Fresno State campus. It was Dec. 7, 1986—the 45th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor—and Elgorriaga, the Bulldog soccer coach, had just seen his team bomb out of the NCAA Division I soccer playoffs, the biggest game in Fresno State's history. He turned on the lights in the small, book-lined space he shares with a Spanish language professor. Elgorriaga's own Spanish heritage is evident in the office in the large print of Picasso's Guernica and the wooden statuettes of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza on the bookshelves. Here, Elgorriaga grappled with the pain of a 1-0 loss to the University of Akron in the NCAA tournament semifinals.

This is an article from the Nov. 7, 1988 issue Original Layout

"One of the hardest things about the NCAA playoffs is that only one of the 24 teams ends the season on an upbeat," Elgorriaga says, talking of how he felt when he arrived at his office after the loss. "Everybody else ends the season on a downbeat. It's hard to recover, because even though logic tells you you've had a good season, your emotions say otherwise.

"There," he adds, like the teacher he is, "you're talking about the dichotomy between passion and reason in man."

Reason said that the Bulldogs had finished the season with a school-record 18 wins and had made it through three rounds of the NCAA tournament with 1-0 victories over the University of San Francisco, UCLA and Southern Methodist. Passion spoke only of the harsh defeat by Akron.

In his office, Elgorriaga changed his clothes, putting on a coat and tie, gathered his thoughts and locked up. Then he walked to Fresno State's Arena Theater, where a standing-room-only crowd waited. The people who jammed the theater weren't sympathetic soccer fans. They were poetry lovers, there to hear Elgorriaga, who is also a professor of foreign languages at Fresno State, read a selection of poems from Federico García Lorca's Romancero Gitano.

"After the game, I began concentrating on what we were going to do [at the reading], and I think the fact that I went there and performed blunted the pain I was feeling for having lost," Elgorriaga says.

Imagine Bob Knight squelching the sorrow of a Big 10 tournament loss by playing Mozart with a chamber music ensemble, or Bo Schembechler dealing with yet another Rose Bowl defeat by dancing the pas de deux in Giselle. For that matter, look anywhere in NCAA Division I, and you won't find many head coaches who are qualified to teach a subject other than their sport at the college level, much less do polished, multilingual poetry readings.

Then consider the 61-year-old Elgorriaga: He has been a faculty member at Fresno State for 26 years, nine of them as chairman of the foreign language department; he's fluent in four languages (English, Spanish, French and Basque); he's a teacher in two of those languages, Spanish and English; he serves as a judge on international poetry panels; he's a respected translator of prose and poetry, coauthor of a beginning- and second-year Spanish textbook, founder of Fresno State's master's degree program in Spanish and one of the creators of the school's humanities program. Over the years, Elgorriaga has received many honors for his achievements on the academic side of education, including the Distinguished Teacher Award from the California State University trustees, the Outstanding Teacher Award from the California Foreign Language Teachers Association and, last spring, a Meritorious Performance Award given by Fresno State president Harold Haak.

And despite that painful loss to Akron, Elgorriaga was named 1986 men's collegiate Coach of the Year by Soccer America magazine.

It is 8:15 a.m., and before a class of 30 students, Elgorriaga is discussing Candida—not another one-named Brazilian striker, but Voltaire's story of social satire. Elgorriaga in the classroom is like a conductor in front of an orchestra: With a broken piece of chalk as a baton, he controls the tempo of the discussion, jabbing the air, emphasizing his points with a staccato delivery. His voice and his conductor's hands are always moving, pushing forward.

Elgorriaga reads from the final page of Candide and weaves his own thoughts into the Voltairean tapestry:

"He became a very adequate carpenter...."

Elgorriaga interjects: "Imagine, Brother Giroflèe, the preacher who fell in love with Paquette.

"...and even an honest man.

"Very tasty, no?" the professor says. " He means to say, 'Let's do an honest day's work.' No? Why? Because the work is the thing that defines honesty. Do you see that if there is a morality in this limited world, it's based on the work ethic? If we do an honest day's work, we're going to be good people. That's what he's saying."

Elgorriaga intones the last line of the tale:

" 'That is very well put, 'said Candide, 'but we must cultivate our garden.' "

The coach then shifts into Socratic overdrive: "What does this mean? What does he mean? What does the act of cultivating the garden do for those people?"

The enthusiasm Elgorriaga has for his subject breathes fresh life into the ancient lungs of Voltaire's hero. The gray-haired, bespectacled, eminently academic professor seems a thousand miles from any soccer field, and an observer cannot help but think, "Very tasty, no?"

Josè Elgorriaga was born in 1927 in Irun, a Basque town in the Spanish province of Guipúzcoa, where his father was a customs official and a Republican loyalist. When the Spanish Civil War broke out in '36, his family fled to France. "The link between the province of Guipúzcoa and France was a bridge over the Bidassoa river," Elgorriaga recalls. "The first thing, when the war started on July 18, my father learned that the loyalists would blow up the bridge. Our house was maybe 30 meters from the bridge. We had to evacuate the town—fast. We went into France, just across the river, and as we went up the hill, we heard the explosion, we looked back, and we saw the bridge going up."

The Elgorriaga family settled in a farmhouse in the forest outside the French coastal town of Hendaye, two miles northeast of Irún. A year later, a forest fire caused them to move into the town. In 1940 the Nazis swept through southern France and occupied Hendaye. It was in that small town, on Oct. 23, 1940, that Hitler met Francisco Franco in an attempt to get the Spanish leader to cooperate in the capture of the British bastion at Gibraltar.

"I remember that day," Elgorriaga says. "Everything was closed. All the windows were shut. They did not allow anybody to go to town. After the meeting, Hitler said he would rather have his molars taken out without anesthetic than talk to Franco again. Hitler did not get a thing."

Josè's parents wanted to enroll him and his sister, Maria Dolores, in the local public school. As foreigners, Spaniards who knew no French and whose papers had been left behind in the haste of their departure from Irún, there was no assurance that the children would be accepted into the school. But the principal, Jean Carricaburu, looked the other way when Josè and Maria Dolores arrived without documentation.

"Jean Carricaburu was an incredible man, practically self-taught," Elgorriaga says. "He was one of the gentlest men I have ever met and very much concerned with the kids.

"He had an uncanny way of presenting a complex problem very simply. What also made him a good teacher was the fact that you wanted to do things for Him, not only because he was the principal, but also because he was such a caring person." From the time he met him, Josè wanted to be like Carricaburu.

After Elgorriaga finished school in Hendaye in 1944, he worked for a time at a factory that made sacks for materials like sugar and cement. One of his uncles, Ben, had emigrated to California's Central Valley in the early '20's, and it was arranged that Josè could work weekends with his uncle as a sheep rancher in Madera, 20 miles northwest of Fresno, and attend Fresno State.

"The deal was that he came to get a business degree, and he was going to work in the sheep camp," says Josè's son, Chato, 24. "But my father didn't want that. From day one, he wanted to be a professor. He took business and language classes just so he could do that. He loves to teach."

Elgorriaga got his B.A. in business in 1953, then went to UCLA and earned a master's in Spanish and then his doctorate in 20th-century Spanish literature. He taught for four years at Colgate University and in 1962 returned to Fresno State, where he has been ever since.

Elgorriaga is often described as a Renaissance Man, which seems an almost cautious characterization in an age that has cheapened the concept, slapping the title on anyone who can listen to the William Tell Overture and not associate it with the Lone Ranger. But actually Elgorriaga evokes an earlier and, perhaps, even grander tradition than that of the Renaissance.

"I think of a Renaissance person more in terms of someone who's versed in a broad range of the arts," Haak says. "I think Josè is a very well-balanced person who is more in the classical Greek tradition. By that, I mean the tradition of body, mind and spirit, the whole person. I associate the importance of physical activity more with the Greeks than with the Renaissance."

As a boy, Elgorriaga played soccer, and, like many Basques who grew up playing Basque handball, he was an excellent goalkeeper. But his game of choice was pala, a variation of handball played in an outdoor fronton with a small wooden bat. He was one of the top junior players in France and continued to excel in competitions in California.

As a student at Fresno State he played center midfielder for a club soccer team, and during his years at Colgate, he was an assistant coach for the Red Raiders soccer team. When he returned to Fresno with his wife, Carmen, he worked as a volunteer referee at community soccer games on Sunday afternoons. It wasn't until a decade later, in 1972, that he serendipitously got back into coaching.

"This friend of mine, Bill Barbis, had a son who was a year older than Chato, and Bill asked if I wanted to help him coach the boys' team," Elgorriaga says. "I told him yes. For that season." Their team of under-10-year-olds, the Malloch Mustangs, went undefeated, untied and unscored upon in a California Youth Soccer Association league. The Mustangs subsequently lost 1-0 in the state semifinals.

"That season" turned into two, then three and four. Barbis and Elgorriaga's teams enjoyed repeated success. Their under-14 team won the U.S. Youth Soccer Association's Far West regional championship in 1975, beating out sides from 13 other states. Then, in '79, Fresno State coach Bob Bereskin asked Elgorriaga to become his assistant.

"I have always been bugged by the sport," Elgorriaga says. "I didn't know what arrangements could be made, because I didn't want to quit teaching. Teaching is my first love. And that's where I think I function best. Once we arrived at an accommodation, there was no problem."

Bereskin, a geology professor, had founded the varsity soccer program at Fresno State in 1970. In '80, an oil company lured him away from Fresno State, and Elgorriaga was named coach. His first team went 14-4 to break the school record of 11 wins.

Since then the Bulldogs have grown ever stronger, scheduling tougher teams and developing a remarkable base of fan support. In 1984 they began a run of four straight NCAA tournament appearances. Elgorriaga's '87 team was notable on two counts: It was the top-ranked team in the country going into the season, which was the first time a Fresno State team in any sport had reached No. 1, and, in a game against archrival San Francisco, the Bulldogs drew 12,000 spectators, one of the biggest crowds ever to attend a college soccer game in the U.S.

With only four starters returning from that 1987 squad, which went 16-5-1 before losing to UCLA in the first round of the playoffs, Fresno State was 8-5-2 with six games to play this season, and its prospects for a fifth consecutive NCAA bid were bright.

"Essentially, he has elevated the program to a national level," says Stephen Negoesco, who has coached San Francisco to four NCAA championships. "He's honest, above board. I can't say anything bad about the guy. Win, lose or draw, he insists on feeding our team afterwards. It's always, 'Let's get together and talk.' "

Elgorriaga and the Fresno State program have a number of advantages. Foremost, for the last five years, the Bulldogs have had John Bluem as a full-time assistant. A 1975 graduate of Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y., Bluem, 35, played fullback for three Warriors teams that made it to the NCAA playoffs. Then he was a member of the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the now-defunct NASL for two years, before switching to coaching. From 1979 through '82, he coached St. Charles Prep in Columbus, Ohio, and was the Ohio High School Soccer Coaches Association Coach of the Year in '82. Bluem does much of the recruiting and conditioning, leaving Elgorriaga to spend his limited time with the team coaching.

In seven seasons, Elgorriaga built a 122-43-12 record. Such success may be unusual for a Division I professor-coach, but it's not unprecedented. There used to be more cross-fertilization between the fields of learning and athletics. Knute Rockne taught chemistry at Notre Dame under Father Julius Nieuwland, the man who discovered the formula for making sythetic rubber. John Wooden could not only diagram a play, he could also parse a sentence; long before he became the Wizard of Westwood, Wooden taught English at Indiana State, where he also coached basketball and baseball. Clair Bee, who guided Long Island University to NIT championships in 1939 and '41, when that was the title in college basketball, was the head of LIU's business and accounting departments. He also had five degrees, was a best-selling author of juvenile fiction and served as the assistant to two university presidents. Phog Allen, the distinguished Kansas basketball coach, had a medical degree, as did James Naismith, the man who invented the game and coached Allen at Kansas. Glenn (Pop) Warner had a law degree and, like Illinois' Bob Zuppke, was an accomplished painter.

Today, combining teaching and coaching is a more difficult proposition, and those who do it are notable for their scarcity—and their energy. Peter Fox Smith, the women's cross-country and track coach at Dartmouth, has a doctorate in philosophy and music from Harvard and teaches an undergraduate course, "Magic, Marriage, Myth, Mistresses and Murder," which for all that alliterative intrigue, is an introduction to German opera. He also has his own opera program on Vermont Public Radio. Paul Westhead, the man who guided the Lakers to the 1980 NBA championship, now coaches the high-scoring five at Loyola Marymount, where he also teaches a writing course. Wayne Stalick, a chemistry professor at George Mason for the last 16 years, has taken the Patriots' men's volleyball team to the NCAA Final Four three times.

"I personally believe that every coach—this would be an El Dorado situation—should teach, and should teach solid subjects," Elgorriaga says. "What has happened is that the time element of coaching has fostered the bigness in coaching. This whole thing starts when there's a guy who's coaching a football team or a soccer team, and he's a full-time teacher. And he's had pretty good success in coaching. And he thinks, 'If I only taught three fewer units, I would have more time to coach.' Or, 'If I only taught half-time, son of a gun. I could do more recruiting. I could put more time into practice.' All of a sudden, he thinks, 'If I could coach full-time, look at all the time I would have.' It's the time element that has fostered the game as a thing independent from the university. If you said that coaches have to teach half of the time, then this would shrink first the time spent on sport and the staff devoted to it, and, maybe, the proportions would be better."

"What we need is to have more of a blend, to show that academic values and athletic values are part of the same institution, the same warp and woof," Haak says. "I think it's good to have a person like Josè involved in coaching, treating sports as an integral part of the campus and campus life."

Yet, from the beginning, there have been Fresno State boosters greasing the guillotine for Elgorriaga, even though none of his teams has won fewer than 13 games. Some fans have questioned the idea of a part-time head coach; some have been troubled by Elgorriaga's accented English; some are just perturbed by having a professor serving as a coach. The situation became particularly nasty in 1983, when a self-appointed committee of three went to Jack Lengyel, then the Fresno State athletic director, and suggested that Jim Standen, a former first-division player in England who ran the soccer department of a local sports store, be given Elgorriaga's job.

"At the beginning of my coaching career, there were hints that because I was a professor, I didn't know anything about coaching," Elgorriaga said one morning as he sipped coffee in the student union after his humanities class. "There were some people who wanted to bring somebody else here. They said that because I wasn't a full-time coach, I couldn't do a good job, that the program couldn't go anywhere, that I couldn't recruit well. They thought that maybe I didn't have the personality or whatever's needed to meet the right people and convince them to promote soccer."

"Frankly, there is a small group that always thinks every coach ought to be replaced," says Haak, who adds that Elgorriaga is in no danger of dismissal. "He's really what we would like to see more often, a true faculty-member coach. And we would go the last mile to preserve that as an option for him. I think it's something good, something special."

Still, Haak says, "if Josè were to retire as coach, and someday he'll choose to do that, I would be surprised if he were replaced with another Josè. I have a feeling that at this point the program is too far along, and we would probably go out and look for a full-time soccer coach."

Is there really a strong tie between teaching and coaching? "First, both teaching and coaching have to do with human beings," Elgorriaga says. "In part, the love for other people is one of my strongest suits. Fifty to 75 percent of coaching is based on human relationships. In the classroom, it's 75 percent to maybe all of it.

"In class, you are working on certain basic questions, to prepare the kids so on the day of the exam they can perform. You do the same thing in soccer. What you are doing during the week is preparing the kids so they can play on Saturday. The difference is that on the soccer field there's a very open and constant evaluation of yourself. In class, maybe you come to evaluate once a semester."

If the preparation and approach to teaching and coaching are similar, the rewards are not. "In coaching you win and the newspaper says, FRESNO STATE WINS," Elgorriaga says. "In the classroom, you can give a terrific lecture and nobody will know, except the students."

Carmen Elgorriaga can't get over how much attention Josè receives for his coaching. "It freaks me out when he's introduced as the coach," says Carmen, who teaches Spanish, Hispanic literature and English at Fresno City College. "To me, he's a scholar, a teacher who has received the Distinguished Teacher Award.

"The biggest reward that you have as a teacher is that somebody might come after class, maybe five years later, and say, 'I took your class and it changed my life, it gave me another perspective,' " says Elgorriaga.

He's the best teacher I ever had," says Ignacio Santesteban, a professor of foreign languages at Fresno State who studied for his master's degree under Elgorriaga." Santesteban says it was Elgorriaga who convinced him to continue with his studies and to get his doctorate. "He is always with his students. In the cafeteria, in his home, everywhere. For him, there is no classroom. Wherever he is, that is the classroom.

"He's brilliant," says Mike Sotelo, who was a starting forward for Fresno State in 1985 and '86. "You go into his office and you see all kinds of books and literature, and he seems to know them all verbatim."

But Sotelo wouldn't recommend Elgorriaga's class to other players. "I would tell them not to take him, because he's tough," Sotelo says. That's true: Elgorriaga once flunked one of his star players. Sotelo adds a proviso to his advice: "If you want to learn, take him, but if you want an easy way out, seek other opportunities."

As he does every summer, Elgorriaga returned to Hendaye in July and spent two weeks visiting his sister, catching up on his sleep, seeing old friends. It was too cold to wade in the Bay of Biscay, but Elgorriaga returned to the old pala court and the soccer stadium where he played as a student.

He walked past the low stone wall where he and his friends met after school to discuss the latest war news. He visited his old school, which is still producing scholars. "Time has stood still for the school," he says. Not completely. The building is there, but its guiding spirit, Jean Carricaburu, has died.

"One day when I was a kid, we went home at 12 o'clock for the lunch break," Elgorriaga says. "We came back an hour later, and the Germans had taken the 12 most prominent men in town to a concentration camp. Carricaburu was one of them. I think eight of the 12 never came back. Carricaburu was one of those who came back after the liberation. They were like skeletons, like ghosts, emaciated. He resumed his teaching, but he was a very sick man, very tubercular.

"Sometimes we were sent to the principal's office," Elgorriaga recalls. "You misbehaved or didn't do your homework, and at the end of the day, the teachers used to send five, six, maybe 10 people to the principal. And everybody said, 'What the hell's he going to do now?' And he would say, 'O.K., guys, let's go. We're going to cultivate our garden.' Which we did, in a garden right next to the school. I'll never forget that. That stuck with me."

It stuck with him in a way he didn't even realize until five years ago, when Elgorriaga remembered that this was also the final exhortation in Voltaire's tale: "That is very well put," said Candide, "but we must cultivate our garden."

"All of a sudden, I was talking and I was realizing, my God, I'm teaching this thing, and that's what he was telling us. I could not believe it. What a coincidence. I don't know, was he thinking about that or what?"

PHOTOMICKEY PFLEGERAt Fresno State practices, Elgorriaga isn't reluctant to teach by example.PHOTOMICKEY PFLEGERAs much as he likes coaching, Elgorriaga's first love is teaching.PHOTOMICKEY PFLEGERElgorriaga's Bulldogs made it to the NCAA semis in 1986, and he was named men's coach of the year.PHOTOMICKEY PFLEGERThe Basque game of "pala," not soccer, was Elgorriaga's favorite pastime as a child.PHOTOMICKEY PFLEGERJosè shares interests with Chato, who was coached by his dad, and Carmen, a teacher.PHOTOMICKEY PFLEGERAdorning Elgorriaga's campus office are books, balls and a Basque shepherd's crook.