Wanted: One Basketball Court : Finding a Home Is Just Part of the Problem at USIU

Times Staff Writer

If anybody knows of a gym available Jan. 31, call the United States International University athletic department. The Gulls have scheduled a home game against Chicago State that night, but they don't have a place to play.

The USIU basketball program has had many low points since it started Division 1 play six years ago, but its credibility and esteem have reached an all-time low.

They are forced to practice off campus at the Standley Recreation Center in University City. More than half of their games are on the road, and most of their "home" games are at the 2,500-seat gym at UC San Diego.

The Gulls are 1-15 and have lost to St. Mary's by 52 points, to UCLA by 48, to Marquette by 47 and to Idaho State by 40.

"We are probably at the lowest point we could possibly be," said Coach Freddie Goss, who is in his sixth season at USIU. "We have to do something to turn the program around. I know the president is very disheartened and very disturbed."

According to USIU Athletic Director Dr. Al Palmiotto, Goss' status will be reviewed by himself and president Dr. William Rust at the end of the season. Goss has a one-year contract that comes up for renewal at the end of each season.

"Your guess is as good as mine as to Freddie's future here," Palmiotto said. "I can't say I want to run out and get a new coach or new players, but I am disappointed in this year. I don't think any year before this year hurt us as much. This year hurts because of the differential in scores."

Palmiotto said he hoped USIU would be strong and competitive within two or three years in Division 1. Instead, the Gulls are still scratching and clawing to gain a favorable reputation in the community.

"Right now, I don't feel basketball is on the right track," Palmiotto said. "We're groping."

To schedule San Diego State for tonight's 7:30 game (KSDO-1130), the Gulls had to guarantee the Aztecs $10,000 to play in the San Diego Sports Arena, which is SDSU's home court. The Aztecs are officially the visiting team, but they have included the game as part of their season-ticket package.

"Those were stipulations we had to agree to," Palmiotto said. "We hope it will improve our relationship with SDSU. I don't feel that bad about it, but I do feel it was kind of steep for a neighbor."

Why are the Gulls willing to make concessions to schools with more established basketball programs? Why does USIU insist on playing a Division 1 schedule?

"I think we are very credible," Palmiotto said. "We are not a fly-by-night Division 1 team. We put a lot of work and money into our program. We're vulnerable because we don't have an arena, but we don't feel there is anything rinky-dink about the UC San Diego gym."

But consider the mix-up involving the game against Cal State Long Beach on Dec. 11. According to Long Beach Associate Athletic Director Bob Donlan, the game was originally scheduled for 7:30 at the Sports Arena. Unfortunately, San Diego State was already playing UC Santa Barbara there.

The USIU-Long Beach game wound up being played at 6 p.m at UC San Diego as the first game of a doubleheader. Donlan said the Long Beach athletic department was not notified of the site and time change until a couple of days before the game.

Long Beach Sports Information Director Steve Janisch said the confusion "kind of floored me. They weren't real organized. They were very disorganized all the way around, and were not like any Division 1 program that I've seen before."

USIU Sports Information Director Don Tennessen has a different story.

"My understanding is that they knew the game had been changed in October," he said. "That's when we knew."

That was news to Donlan.

"Supposedly, they said they sent a letter up here and they could have," he said. "They claim they contacted our basketball staff, but if they did, we don't know who they spoke to."

Incidentally, USIU drew 31 people to the Long Beach game, which turned out to be the Gulls' only win of the season, 54-53.

Not having a regular home court is obviously a hindrance for a team trying to establish itself. The Gulls have played 7 of their 12 home games at 3 sites. They have played five games at UC San Diego, one at Point Loma College and one against Colorado at the Sports Arena which drew only 92 fans.

USIU had planned to play five or six games at the Sports Arena, but it had difficulty coming up with available dates. The Aztecs, San Diego Sockers and numerous other events have priority.

Norm Smith, assistant general manager of the Sports Arena, said the arena is willing to discuss future dates with the Gulls. Smith is one of many people surprised to hear that the Gulls list the 13,800-seat Sports Arena as one of their two home courts. They're playing only two games there this season.

It's no wonder the Gulls are driven to playing on the road. At one point last season, they played 12 games on a 21-day trip, including five in five days. So far this season, USIU has games at Marquette, Chicago State, Air Force and Weber State. An upcoming trip will take the Gulls to Brooklyn College and the University of Connecticut.

"If you're not looking to have a winning record, playing on the road can be the answer," Donlan said. "That's if you get the right guarantees."

But the Gulls cannot command the right guarantees.

"We're not in a position to dictate $20,000 or a big piece of the gate," Palmiotto said. "We've had to comply and pay our dues."

Because of Goss' connections with his alma mater, UCLA, and because Coach Walt Hazzard accurately figured he could pick up an easy victory, the Gulls were invited to play at Westwood. Palmiotto said the Gulls received $5,000 for playing the Bruins.

Getting a major-league arena it can call home is important to the USIU program, but Goss and Palmiotto agree that building a practice gym on campus is the top priority.

USIU is considering four on-campus sites for a gym, and Goss said he thinks it will be built by next year. That would save his players from making the 25-minute drive to Standley Recreation Center.

Goss said practicing at odd hours at an off-campus gym has resulted in his having less than 80% of his team for at least 20% of the practices.

Many of the practices are held during the middle of the day when some players cannot get out of class. Basketball players at USIU are required to maintain a 2.7 grade-point average to remain on scholarship. The NCAA states that a player must only maintain a 2.0 GPA.

Dwayne Cross, the Gulls' leading scorer this season, is no longer on the team because he could not maintain a 2.7 GPA and could not afford to pay to stay at USIU.

There is no end to the obstacles facing Goss and the basketball program, and most of them make recruiting even more difficult than usual. And when a team suffers a rash of injuries like this year's Gull team has, it can make for a long season.

However, Palmiotto and Goss refuse to consider playing a Division 2 schedule. They believe the Gulls can compete in Division 1, and are determined to keep at it.

Ideally, they both agree the Gulls would be best suited for playing in a conference such as the West Coast Athletic Conference.

"If we could align ourselves with a league where we could compete, I think it would help our program tremendously," Palmiotto said.

One of the pluses of the WCAC is that the other schools also don't play Division 1 football. The USIU women's basketball, softball, volleyball, cross-country and tennis teams will compete in the WCAC for the first time next season.

The men's basketball team has made an appeal for membership in the WCAC, but WCAC Assistant Commissioner Mike Matthews said the conference has no immediate plans to expand.

So, the Gulls are stuck trying to make it as an independent and trying to find a place to play Chicago State on Jan. 31.

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