49ers' Sports Leadership 'Graduates' After Only 3 Years

Times Staff Writer

The exodus has continued at Cal State Long Beach with the departure of widely praised Athletic Director John Kasser, and once again there is concern about the future of 49er sports.

Kasser's announcement last week that he will be leaving in April to become associate executive director of the College Football Assn. was a stunner because it came a day after Ron Palmer quit as men's basketball coach. A third major figure--football Coach Mike Sheppard--left for the University of New Mexico in late December.

In 1984, when all three came to CSULB, they gave followers of 49er athletics hope that a new era of big-time respectability--and winning--would dawn.

Kasser, dynamic, silver-haired and 6-feet-6, was to be the long-needed savior. On the day he arrived from the University of Houston, he exuded confidence and revealed his blueprint for a top Division I program: "It takes a tremendous amount of money, a tremendous commitment from the community and the campus, and you've got to win."

Attendance Alarmingly Low

Despite Kasser's powers of persuasion, the money and the commitment fell a good deal short of tremendous, and neither the football team nor the men's basketball team won. Sheppard was 16-18 in three seasons and Palmer was 23-64. Home attendance improved for both teams but still was alarmingly low for a Division I school.

Kasser, the main force behind the December drive that saved the 49er football program, created a positive environment in the athletic department that apparently remains despite financial problems and the resignations.

"To anyone outside looking in, it must look like it's all crumbling down here," said Steve Bresnahan, an assistant football coach. "It's never been as positive toward athletics in general as far as I can see."

But 49er supporters are worried.

"I'm basically shocked, disappointed and real concerned," said Bill Ridgeway, an officer of the 49er Athletic Foundation. "I'm frustrated because we make it easy for people to leave Long Beach. Every time Long Beach starts to stand on its feet and go forward, we get knocked back on our knees."

Search for Successors

The university may be without an athletic director and a basketball coach for several weeks, according to John R. Beljan, vice president of academic affairs. "We're going to look for the athletic director first," Beljan said Tuesday. "We'd like to get the athletic director identified as soon as possible and have him in by the time John Kasser leaves (April 15)."

Kasser maintained that his resignation was unrelated to Sheppard's or Palmer's or to CSULB's unhealthy financial climate for sports.

"This is probably the best opportunity that will be afforded to me in my athletic career," Kasser said in an interview. "If I didn't take it, I'd have second-guessed myself for years to come and might not have been able to do my best job here."

Kasser, 49, will supervise production of college football telecasts that are broadcast on CBS and assist in the development of marketing and promotions for the Boulder, Colo.-based CFA, a group of 63 universities with major football programs.

'Very Attractive Package'

"It's a very attractive package," said Kasser, who will have a three-year contract for an undisclosed salary with the CFA. He reportedly made $80,000 a year at CSULB.

Until he was contacted by the CFA about five weeks ago, Kasser said he had no intention of leaving Long Beach.

"This is where I wanted to be as athletic director," said Kasser, who was considered for athletic director at the University of New Mexico and the University of Oklahoma.

But he said he expects that some people will perceive him as a deserter.

"I wasn't looking to jump ship," he said. "If I'd have given up the ship, I'd have done it when I was told to raise $300,000 in 30 days."

That happened Nov. 25 when university President Stephen Horn announced that because of an athletic department deficit, $300,000 would have to be raised by Dec. 31 to pay for grant-in-aid scholarships or football would be dropped.

Efforts Renewed for Funds

With Kasser working relentlessly through December and saying how much he enjoyed the challenge, the money was raised. When he resigned last week, he had already begun efforts to raise an additional $500,000 required by Horn by July 1, 1988.

The school did not come through the initial crisis unscathed, however. Sheppard, dismayed that the football crisis came at the start of recruiting season, quit Dec. 23 and took a better-paying job as coach at New Mexico. But Kasser acted quickly and named assistant coach Larry Reisbig as Sheppard's successor.

Another crisis developed in February when the 49er basketball team went into a tailspin that caused Palmer, citing the stress of losing, to quit. Kasser said that one of his regrets was that "the Ron Palmer situation didn't work out as well as I hoped it would."

But the athletic staff, which Kasser molded as an upbeat group, is trying to stay optimistic.

"People here are shocked but realize it's such a great opportunity (for him)," said Matt Coffey, assistant athletic director for business affairs. "There's no resentment. He did a great job. If he were leaving to be an athletic director at San Jose State or Fullerton, people would say, 'What's going on here?' "

Too Enticing to Pass Up

Most people close to Kasser, including Sheppard, agree that the job was too enticing to pass up.

But by telephone from Albuquerque, N.M., Sheppard said, "John went through some real trying times at Long Beach which may have made him more receptive to other things."

There have been rumors that Kasser is leaving because of Horn, whose commitment to athletics has been questioned by 49er boosters. But Kasser has always publicly denied any rift between him and Horn.

Coffey said, "John's not going to bad-mouth the university, no matter what. I don't think John is disenchanted with Horn. He's leaving because it's a great job."

And Ridgeway, searching for a reason why the athletic department keeps suffering setbacks, said, "It's either the administration or God doesn't want us to be competitive. I don't have a clue. I'm very frustrated."

Wanted to Stay 5 Years

Kasser said that when he took the job in 1984 he wanted to stay five years, which he said is usually the maximum length of time an athletic director is effective at a school, and then perhaps become a conference commissioner. "After five years, you usually need to evaluate the situation because you tend to create enemies," Kasser said.

But for Kasser that would seem unlikely. Horn once said: "I've never heard a bad word about John Kasser. That's unusual for an administrator."

Kasser, an Inglewood native who once sold cars in Long Beach, won the respect of coaches and staff members from the beginning.

"He's just been a great leader," said Robin Kahn, the women's tennis coach. "He's been real accessible, real positive. He understands Long Beach."

Shayne Schroeder, assistant athletic director for media relations, said, "I've never seen the guy slow down. He worked hard, but he made everything we did fun."

Kasser's style was to take advantage of his enthusiasm and suaveness. He played golf and drank beer with the boosters. As a result, they enjoyed working hard for him.

'Pleased' With Record

"I'm pleased with what we've accomplished," Kasser said last week, a few days after raising $27,000 at a golf tournament. Among the accomplishments were the building of a weight room and getting more financial support from the community than in the years before Kasser's arrival.

"I regret that I didn't have at least another year to continue this," he said.

Although football and men's basketball failed to flourish during Kasser's tenure, other sports did. Last year the 49ers were represented in NCAA postseason competition in women's basketball, water polo, volleyball and softball, and had individual representatives from men's tennis, women's swimming and track and field.

What does the loss of Kasser, Sheppard and Palmer mean?

Ridgeway, a longtime booster, said, "We're not totally down and out. I feel positive that if we have some luck and get some attitude adjustment from the university administration, we're going to do well. The administration is going to have to get involved more on a personal basis other than writing checks. If there had been more support from the community and the university, hypothetically, people would have stayed."

'My Strongest Support'

Horn, though, has always said of 49er athletics: "They have my strongest support."

But Sheppard gave this perspective: "It's a shame because there's such great, great people in the Long Beach community and the university who understand the visibility of athletics and who understand what the commitment to athletics should be. These people deserves a better commitment from the university."

Everyone agrees that CSULB must quickly replace Kasser and Palmer.

"It's hard to recruit money when you don't have an athletic director or a basketball coach," Ridgeway said. "People ask why should they give money to a sinking ship."

To keep the ship afloat, the new athletic director's first task is clear: Raise $500,000.

"If Kasser was here, we'd have it done by December," Ridgeway said.

Ridgeway said that it will not be enough for the new athletic director to be merely an efficient manager, but that he must have charisma and the ability to go into the trenches.

It seems he is going to have to be a lot like John Kasser.

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