Campus Byword: Upbeat : Highly Visible 49er Athletic Director Builds Up Everyone, Including Financial Donors

Times Staff Writer

He was born to sell and promote, a smooth-talker from the crib, and now, almost 48 years later, having polished his suaveness, honed his powers of persuasion and acquired the silver hair and lizard boots that complete the package, he makes his pitch for sports at Cal State Long Beach.

With a smile that turns his eyes to slits, he seeks money to build a top Division 1-A program. To get it he twists arms--with just the right amount of gentleness. And never do the boots, which befit a man who has spent some time in Texas, step on toes.

For John Kasser, this is much like selling Chevys, which he once did.

Now, as athletic director at CSULB--a job he has held for almost 16 months--his style has not changed.


Just as he used to daily check out the boys in service and parts to make sure they were happy, now he ducks into gyms--”working the halls,” he calls it--to give coaches of 20 varsity sports the attention they often crave and to let the athletes know he cares.

“You have to be visible,” said Kasser, a lighthouse at 6 feet 6. “They all feel better because they had a little audience.”

Game on National TV

Last Thursday afternoon, Kasser gave his football coach, Mike Sheppard, a little audience--he insists on going to coaches instead of calling them to him--and kiddingly suggested that it would be a good time for Sheppard to start putting on his makeup.

In a few hours the 49ers would play on national TV for the first time. It was a big day around an athletic department striving for recognition.

“They’re ready,” Sheppard said of his players. “This is fun, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it’s great,” Kasser said.

Kasser has created a happy family of about 100, and the family members--coaches, administrators, secretaries--obey the head of the house. When he asks that they wear school colors of brown and gold on Fridays, they do. On Halloween, everyone came to work in costume.

“Upbeat” is the word in vogue.

“He’s such an upbeat guy, it’s hard to get down on yourself--and he won’t let you,” said Robert Donlan, senior associate athletic director who has been at CSULB 11 years. “Everyone has gotten in step with him. People believe in him. The mood is very much like himself, all upbeat now.”


And of his staff, Kasser says, “They’re an upbeat group of people.”

Coached Prep Basketball

Kasser came to CSULB from the University of Houston, where he was athletic director of a successful program for two years before returning to Southern California and his roots. He was born in Inglewood, played basketball at Pepperdine (“As a sophomore I fouled out of 9 of 12 games I was in, that’s still a record”), coached that sport at Fountain Valley and Downey high schools in the 1960s and for most of the 1970s was general manager of auto dealerships in Long Beach.

When Kasser arrived at CSULB, the athletic department was badly in need of a savior. Boosters were disenchanted, particularly with a losing basketball team and the fact that local athletes were going elsewhere to college. The community was contributing apathy instead of money.

Ron Nolte, a lawyer who has been a Cal State Long Beach booster for nine years, said that with Kasser there is a much more positive attitude.

“I can’t find anybody who isn’t behind him,” Nolte said. “With past athletic directors there has always been dissension among the boosters.”

Water polo Coach Ken Lindgren said of Kasser: “He’s lifted everybody’s spirits. We’re starting to see things happen.”

Weight Room Added

What they see is a renovated campus gymnasium, a $600,000 project that is scheduled to be completed next month, and a new weight room, something deemed vital for the success and prestige of any ambitious big-time college sports program.


Although the men’s basketball team has yet to prove it can win or draw fair-sized crowds, the women’s basketball team is nationally ranked and the football team has a chance to win the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. championship if it defeats Fresno State on Saturday night. And more area athletes are choosing to become 49ers.

CSULB will receive an identity boost next March as the host school for postseason regional tournaments in men’s and women’s basketball at the Long Beach Arena.

Still, as Kasser knows, sports at Long Beach can be a very hard sell. The 49er football team, despite its 6-4 record, is averaging only 7,600 fans a game.

Kasser has not been able to raise football attendance but he has been able to raise the money needed to finance scholarships for the quality athletes coaches want.

“The key to selling,” he said, “is you’ve got to get other people working for you.”

Money for Scholarships

So Kasser enlisted more than 100 business people to help him and Donna Cole, assistant athletic director for fund development. They have solicited about $240,000 in cash pledges this year to finance scholarships. That is the most money raised in the 13-year history of the 49er Athletic Foundation. A full scholarship is $4,949 a year, Cole said.

“I’ve learned from John,” Cole said. “He’s one of the most dynamic men I’ve ever met. He’s a great leader, a great politician and has a great impact on people in the community.”


What makes Kasser unique is that he appears to be universally liked. Perhaps it is because he has learned to shrug off the dreaded words, “No, I don’t want to buy the car,” or, “No, they don’t want to help us” without lashing out in anger and frustration.

Not that rejection comes often, for he is hard to say no to. But when it does come, he still manages to look like a man who has just made a deal. No hard feelings. Have a nice day.

“I’ve never heard a bad word about John Kasser since the day he arrived,” said Dr. Stephen Horn, university president, who hired Kasser. “That’s unusual for an administrator.”

Assistant Came With Him

Not one bad word?

“That’s almost scary,” said Matt Coffey, assistant athletic director for business affairs, who came with Kasser from Houston.

Kasser, despite his visibility and influence, is not overbearing.

“He’s very easy going, he enjoys kidding and he knows when to leave you alone,” Sheppard said. “After a game we lose, he knows I don’t want to talk to anybody, so he disappears.”

Last Thursday, before the 49ers’ victory over San Jose State at Veterans Stadium, a group of CSULB boosters was eating a buffet supper under a tent.


Kasser, a man comfortable with buying the beer and cracking the jokes, was mixing with them.

“I’m a people person,” he said. “I don’t know what I’d do if I wasn’t around a variety of people every day. I’ve always enjoyed myself. I don’t take myself too seriously.”

He was in a sport coat with suede elbow patches but most of all he was in his element. And it was upbeat all the way.