Pomona, Calif. — For 16 years -- well, 13 anyway -- Roman Gabriel was one of the top quarterbacks in the National Football League, first with the Los Angeles Rams ( 11 seasons) and later the Philadelphia Eagles.
Roman was an exciting field general who could whipsaw a defense and throw strikes to his receivers under pressure. He had an exceptional year in 1969 when, as the league's most valuable player, his credentials included 2,549 yards gained through the air, plus 24 touchdowns.
His right arm had a lifetime completion average of 52.6 percent, and that included 201 scoring passes. There was and is a lot of character in Gabriel's face, and part way through his pro career he appeared in a Western movie with John Wayne as a gunslinger.
Roman retired from the Eagles after the 1977 season. Now he's going to take what he learned as a pro player and try to make it work for him as the new head football coach at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona. The feeling is that if he can win at Cal Poly, he can win anywhere.
This is an NCAA Division II school that got blitzed last year by Tennessee State 71- 3 and whose alumni have had to learn how to get excited about first downs. Although pro quarterback Jim Zorn somehow found his way to Cal Poly in the early 1970s before going on to star with the Seattle Seahawks, the school has few blue-chip players.
Gabriel is in for a lot of hard work. He inherits a team that has won only eight of its last 31 games, and three of those victories have since been forfeited because of eligibility violations. His recruiting budget probably wouldn't buy a year's supply of paper clips for the Ohio State football department.
What is surprising is that Roman, as far back as high school, was basically more interested in the coaching side of football than the playing side. What happened was that his exceptional passing and overall athletic talent kept getting in the way.
Twice Gabriel made All-America at North Carolina State; later he rejected a baseball contract from the New York Yankees; and still later he was named the most valuable player of the Wilmington Semi-Pro League basketball champions.
For the past two years Roman has been an assistant coach at College of the Desert (near Palm Springs), with occasional network appearances as a pro football analyst for CBS television.
"Any football program, I think, has to be considered an extension of its head coach," Gabriel told reporters at his first Cal Poly press conference. "I feel that my strengths as a person will sell me to my players and that I'll learn to correct my weaknesses as I go along.
"Basically I'm a very organized person and I have every intention of operating my football program the same way," he continued. "Most of the things I know about coaching I learned from George Allen [former Rams' coach] and one of the things Allen doesn't believe in is sleep.
"I can tell you this: We won't ever lose because we weren't prepared or because we lacked the proper physical conditioning."
Gabriel, whose stomach is as flat as Florida and who still looks as though he could generate points in the NFL, is not going to have a playbook that only a 260- pound lineman can lift. Instead it will be relatively simple, with just a few basic plays from maybe 10 different formations.
"I believe in eliminating mistakes by eliminating doubts in players' minds about what they are supposed to do," he continued. "Although I'm a positive person who expects to develop a winning attitude here right away, I also know that people have to learn what the negative things are so that they can deal with them."
Roman gets 20 days of spring training to put a value on his troops, and a whole summer to look at films of past opponents. His first test comes in September -- on the road, against Puget Sound.