Sacramento State’s meandering and mostly mundane football program took a major whack Friday. Marshall Sperbeck wasn’t just another coach who comes in, takes a look around, becomes frustrated by the lack of funding and inferior facilities, and moves on to greener pastures.
Sperbeck was homegrown. He was local and likeable. He arrived on campus with a portfolio that touted his success as a high school and college quarterback and in 15 seasons as the head coach at Foothill College in Los Altos.
Eleven bowl appearances and a 109-53 record made a compelling case for the job. The fact that Sperbeck’s father, Dick, was a prominent area prep coach for decades, head of the Hornets’ booster club and an aggressive fundraiser – and fundraising is a major part of college sports these days – pretty much closed the deal.
Seven years later? Never say never. Scandals happen everywhere.
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Sperbeck’s abrupt resignation amid allegations of NCAA recruiting violations, an internal investigation and discord within his coaching staff and the athletic department was a significant setback for a program scrapping to become a major player in the Big Sky Conference and a dominant force on the local recruiting scene.
The Hornets under Sperbeck always seemed close, always appeared on the cusp. While approximately $1.2 million was spent upgrading the turf and another $12 million allocated for construction of the Broad Athletic Center, Sac State under Sperbeck was 35-44with victories over Oregon State and Colorado, but really only sniffed the postseason in 2012.
Grumbling among alumni during last season (5-7) intensified and coincided with reports about simmering tension between Sperbeck and athletic director Terry Wanless. Philosophical disagreements also existed between Sperbeck and offensive coordinator Paul Peterson, who maintained a close relationship with record-setting quarterback Garrett Safron.
Wanless, who elevated recently hired defensive coordinator Jody Sears to interim head coach through next season, acknowledged the rifts.
“Football is not canasta,” he said Friday. “Conflict is not unnatural. You understant that, respect that, have a gladiator mentality. If you only have people who agree all the time … you only get better if you challenge each other. At the end of the day, they were united, and we had a game plan we were comfortable with.”
The longtime Hornets athletic director refused to discuss the abrupt timing of Sperbeck’s resignation or whether Friday’s developments were prompted by allegations in a 10-page unsigned letter sent to the NCAA and Sac State, as well as The Sacramento Bee. The document accuses Sperbeck of possible recruiting violations such as exceeding the number of allowable phone calls to recruits and observing prospects during the dead period. It also lists the hirings and firings of assistant coaches and offers observations about the inner workings of the program with unusual specificity.
Regardless of the outcome of the investigation, the events sent a shudder through the area’s prep football community. This one hit close to home. Sperbeck was born in Sacramento, graduated from Valley High School and starred as a quarterback at Nevada. His wife and children often attended luncheons and other Hornets functions. His father coached prep football for decades before devoting himself to Hornets fundraising and furthering his son’s success.
Wanless, who in the past repeatedly praised his former coach for graduating “the vast majority” of his seniors, welcomed Sperbeck home in 2007 with a festive gathering at a local hotel. After Steve Mooshagian’s four-year, 11-33 tenure, luring Sperbeck was touted as a coup, a dramatic do-over. The messy ending leaves accusations on the table, hundreds of questions unanswered, reputations at stake, players’ emotions shattered and the stability of a program at risk.
“Marshall is liked and respected,” said Grant High’s Mike Alberghini, the area’s longest-tenured and most successful prep coach. “He’s a good person. We are all kind of shocked. You’d really like to see Sac State and UC Davis have success, be places local kids can play football and get a good education, kind of showcase Sacramento. Now there’s a shadow over the (Hornets) program. It’s a shame.”