CAL STATE NORTHRIDGE'S GRADUATION DAY : School Seeks Added Prestige in Division I

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The basic requirements have been met and the paper work is in order. Confirmation was received six weeks ago. Cal State Northridge athletics, 30 years old and tops in its class, finally is set to graduate.

On Aug. 31, when its women's volleyball team takes part in a tournament at Arizona State, Northridge officially will join the high-rent district of college sports--National Collegiate Athletic Assn. Division I.

Big-name opponents, expansive arenas, raucous crowds and major media exposure presumably lie ahead for a school that won 20 Division II championships in the 1980s.

Success at the Division II level is one of several key factors that enhance Northridge's resume as the university attempts to climb through the ranks of major colleges. This fall, enrollment likely will surpass 31,000, making CSUN the fourth largest among the 19 Cal State branches.

However, past glory and the masses won't help Northridge on the playing fields a week from Friday. In the business of major college sports, money talks. At this point, the Northridge coffers are barely whispering.

Although Northridge is holding expenses down by keeping football in Division II, substantially more money is needed for scholarships, modern athletic facilities and recruiting.

So the question becomes: At what price fame?

The cost of a major college athletic program will be $3.7 million during the next school year, according to CSUN's five-year budget projection. A little less than $500,000 of that will go toward athletic grants. By 1993-94, the scholarship figure is expected to approach $620,000 and the total budget to exceed $4.4 million.

Just two years ago, CSUN spent less than $2 million on one of the nation's most successful Division II programs.

School officials contend the investment will be well worth its imposing price tag. The Division I label, they say, carries prestige beyond the boundaries of an athletic field.

"Advertising is the name of the game in many fields," said Bob Hiegert, Northridge's athletic director. "You have to have that name recognition. As comfortable as Division II has been, it hasn't done that for us. Division I athletics is a constant reminder of where an institution is and what it's doing."

Hiegert and other CSUN decision-makers believe that all students will benefit from the school's new classification in athletics.

"The clout a degree brings with it is something I think has been missing," Hiegert said. "You walk into L. A. and mention Cal State Northridge and most people have heard of it, but they don't know exactly where it is or what it stands for. Good or bad, Division I athletics puts a university's name up a lot more often than it does at Division II."

James W. Cleary, CSUN's president, cites several well-known universities as examples of schools whose scholastic reputations have advanced according to the leaps and bounds of their athletic teams.

"It's a fairly common feeling in a number of circles that Notre Dame ascended to its international place among academic institutions through its athletic program," Cleary said. "I've heard people say the same thing about USC and UCLA in terms of having a successful (athletic) program there, that the beneficial impact was felt in other areas as well--in research support, the development of a very fine medical school and the like."

Therefore, the thinking goes, if Northridge is going to stand tall in the business and academic communities, shouldn't its basketball team be prepared to do the same?

To illustrate why CSUN belongs in major college sports, Cleary, the university's president since 1969, recalls overhearing a conversation among some fans from another college as they entered the Northridge gym for a playoff game a few years ago.

The visitors spoke of the expansiveness of the campus and wondered aloud what the school's enrollment might be. "Thirty thousand!" one exclaimed when he was told. "What are they doing in Division II?"

Cleary found it a difficult question to answer.

If Northridge was a major college in every other way, he concluded, then why not in athletics?

In terms of academic programs, work in specialized fields such as music and facilities such as the National Center on Deafness and the Cancer Research Institute, Northridge had, in Cleary's words, "grown to a point of national and even international reputation."

"I began to sense a great inequity here," he said. "We had grown in great reputation in certain academic programs, but yet were still living within the constraints of Division II in athletics."

None felt the pinch more than Northridge's coaches, who voted unanimously in November, 1986, to recommend that the school apply for Division I status.

Coaches felt that they simply were requesting to keep up with the Joneses.

"When you looked at the course outlines, the prospectus of what was happening in the '60s and '70s, there was no department offering the same level of education," Hiegert said. "They had all expanded and taken it to the next level. Our logical progression was to do the same thing."

Northridge was helped along that route by a number of factors, especially the changing scope of Division II athletics.

Division II, by definition, is for broad-based athletic programs that have moderate funding and that primarily serve the immediate area in which the university is located.

No problem there, except that fewer and fewer schools were staying within those guidelines.

Hiegert uses Cal State Bakersfield's athletic program as an example. Bakersfield, with an enrollment of 5,000, doesn't compete in football, women's basketball or baseball. Instead, it concentrates on providing full funding for its swimming and men's basketball programs. The result: Bakersfield advanced to the Division II title game in basketball last season and was Division II champion in men's swimming for the fifth consecutive year.

Such activity, Hiegert says, "tipped the balance abruptly and quickly within the conference."

Also considered by Northridge coaches in their recommendation were NCAA rules, adopted in the past decade, that prohibited Division II and Division III champions from competing in Division I sports such as swimming. Previously, if lower-division athletes met qualifying standards for the Division I meet, they had been allowed to participate.

Division I coaches said such lower-division athletes occasionally were affecting the outcome of Division I team championships.

"That stuff starts coming back pretty quickly to a (Division II) coach," Hiegert said. "That's his bread-and-butter kid--the one that is potentially Division I caliber, but not quite there yet. When that chance to compete against Division I got taken away, coaches started to lose some recruiting battles."

In addition, the advent of power ratings at the Division I level put the squeeze on Northridge from a scheduling standpoint.

The NCAA now selects playoff fields in many sports by using formulas based on strength of schedule. In softball, for example, Division I teams were credited with the same "power points" for a loss against a Division I team as for a victory against a Division II opponent.

A loss to a Division II or Division III team, therefore, was disastrous. "In other parts of the country, you say you lost to a Division II and it's a ridiculous situation," Hiegert said. Never mind that Northridge was good enough to win 19 softball games against Division I teams last season. By the formula, a loss to CSUN was equal to a loss against tiny Humboldt State.

Having shed its Division II tag, Northridge now is intent on losing its image as a commuter campus incapable of developing loyalties.

"It is important for an institution to have within it institutional pride," Cleary said. "Not only among students, but faculty and staff as well. This is one way to develop it, and I think an important way. My doctors and dentists are all very proud of the fact that they graduated either from USC or UCLA and (they) have season tickets. They live and breathe it."

Cleary tells of the frustration he felt when students asked why, outside the Valley itself, results of their school's games could be found only in small type in newspapers, if at all.

"How is it that our women's volleyball team is in contention for a national championship and when I visit my mother and dad, I pick up the newspaper and can't even find a score?" one student asked.

Hiegert, a Northridge graduate and former baseball coach, has faced similar questions for years.

"As an alumnus, you would like to see your university get the respect and have the worth that you really think the education has given you," he said. "I have a difficult time as an alumnus looking back and saying that this institution is not on par with the public's perception of a Long Beach State, Fresno State, San Diego State or San Jose State. We're on par with those people."

Staying in Division II, Hiegert says, "would not be serving the needs of our students. Our students watch UCLA and (USC) games on television and go nuts. They're playing Cal or Fresno or Long Beach State and there's a feeling of, 'That's where I think I am.' "

Northridge students have been rather apathetic about supporting their own teams, but school officials insist that will change when Matador teams begin playing opponents with greater marquee value. "They have the opportunity to go to Hollywood, Universal Studios, theaters all over the place, stay in their rooms and watch cable television, have a party, go to the beach or go skiing or whatever," Hiegert said. "The outlet we're providing for them right now is not going to be top on their list."

The move to Division I coincides with on-campus housing construction that will push the number of students living at CSUN to 3,400 by the fall of 1991.

"These people are around 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Hiegert said. "We need to take care of them outside of the classroom as well as inside of the classroom."

Cleary fears that continued population growth will further strain already crowded freeways and make attending a professional baseball or basketball game in Los Angeles an all-day affair. He says that CSUN needs to provide an outlet for its students first, but that the school's responsibility to provide entertainment extends beyond its property line.

"I sense out there a growing concern about the Valley's being without facilities and opportunities to participate as a spectator in sporting events," Cleary said. "We need to be able to attract high-interest programs here to compete on the campus. Once we get to that point, given what I see to be a growing and rather intense community camaraderie, I think we can shed the image of being nothing more than a bedroom community or segment or part and component of Los Angeles."

If plans for a new 30,000-seat outdoor stadium and talk of an additional 8,000- to 12,000-seat indoor arena develop, CSUN will "become a rallying point for the whole area," Hiegert said. Northridge currently plays football and soccer in rustic North Campus Stadium, capacity 6,000. Northridge Gym seats 3,000.

Of course, the Valley is likely to support Northridge teams only if the school provides a product worth getting excited about.

"If (people) don't like what they see after the first couple of years," said Hiegert, "then we could be in major trouble down the road."

Hiegert, whose CSUN baseball teams won 609 games and two Division II championships from 1967 through '84, said he expects Northridge will quickly be competitive in all sports except men's and women's basketball.

"Immediate success is not expected," Cleary said, "but the exciting thing about it is that it is on the horizon."

In the meantime, Cleary says he will keep an eye on attendance and fund-raising efforts in order to gauge the success of the classification change.

"The win-loss doesn't bother me except to see that there is some progress made over a period of time," Cleary said. "We're probably going to have to go through the same experience we did when we went into Division II as a neophyte institution."

Northridge's facilities and funding base were considered similarly lacking when Northridge joined what was then known as the College Division in 1968.

Back then, had anyone dared to suggest that CSUN would win five national championships in the next three years, Hiegert said, "they would have been given a saliva test."

In Northridge's favor are its location, the growth rate of its campus and an academic curriculum that offers bachelor's degrees in 47 fields and master's degrees in 40.

The Valley region--from Antelope Valley to Sherman Oaks, Glendale to Ventura--has a population of more than two million. And, school officials are quick to point out, CSUN has little competition from other large universities within the area.

Demographics could come in handy in raising additional funds. Corporate America, studies suggest, loves funding a winner. Especially one in need.

Northridge figures it has both sides covered.

CSUN not only has a full trophy case, but Hiegert also credits the school with "raising the quality of life in and around the San Fernando Valley more than any industry."

And the need side of the equation? That's the easy part, he says. Just compare Northridge's athletic budget to another school of its size and stature.

In January, 1988, just prior to Cleary's announcement that the school would seek Division I status, a questionnaire was mailed out to 860 business and community groups in an attempt to gauge community support for the move.

Of 101 respondents, 82 said they backed the plan, but only 36 said they were ready to do so financially.

Hiegert was not surprised. "It's one thing to be talking about the move, but it's another when you're actually there," he said. "When we're into it, I think we're going to have people come forward."

Northridge is banking on it. According to CSUN's five-year plan, income from athletic events and donations is projected to grow from $728,400 this year to $973,500 in 1993-94.

"So much depends on the nature of the community," Cleary said. "Fresno has a very well-supported program community-wise. But as Harold Haak, the president, says, they don't have much else to do with their time in the San Joaquin Valley but to attend a football game or a basketball game.

"We have a different kind of setting here, but I think there's a growing and greater sense of community pride in the San Fernando Valley today."

Nowhere is growth more evident than at CSUN, which already is among the 26 largest universities in the nation in enrollment. By the turn of the century, the school is expected to be the largest Cal State institution with an enrollment approaching 40,000.

"Schools in other areas of the country recruit students to survive," Hiegert said. "We don't have that problem. Growth is here."

So, too, are major media outlets, a factor Northridge is counting on to spread word of its newfound major college image.

"We're not the only show in town, but if things do hit a very up scale, we have the ability to reach more people more quickly than you will any other place," Hiegert said. "We need to find a way to get into that mainstream."

Obstacles such as lack of funding and inadequate facilities obstruct that path.

Northridge's projected $3.7-million athletic budget is dwarfed by that of UCLA, which will spend $21.6 million on athletics in 1990-91. Cal State Long Beach will spend $5.2 million, Cal State Fullerton $4.875 million.

CSUN athletic facilities are largely adequate for Division I except for the gymnasium and pool.

The gym, home to basketball and volleyball games, would be considered only slightly above average for a high school's home court. The pool has experienced heating and filter failures on several occasions the past few years--usually during the key training periods of winter and early spring.

Change in admission procedures, tutoring, housing and job bases for athletes also likely will take place. Historically, athletes have not received preferential treatment in such areas.

"Whatever is done for the normal student around here is the way we treated the athletes," Hiegert said. "In Division I, that is not the model."

Northridge students enroll in an average of 10.1 units a semester, Hiegert said, and take a little more than six years to graduate. Athletes must meet NCAA standards of "normal progress," which include passing a minimum of 24 units over a two-semester period and course work that keeps them on track for a degree. In addition, federal legislation now requires universities to publish the graduate rate of their athletes on scholarship.

Raising the priority of athletics at CSUN has not been greeted warmly by some of the school's faculty.

At the last meeting of the Faculty Senate in May, there was a motion to rescind that body's approval of the Division I move. The Faculty Senate, which consists of more than 100 elected members of the school's faculty and administration, overwhelmingly had passed a resolution adopting the plan in the spring of 1988.

The motion to rescind, brought by faculty member Eda Speilman, was based on the idea that $394,000 the Cal State Northridge Foundation had targeted for athletics this school year--growing to $500,000 in 1992-93--would be better spent elsewhere. No action was taken on the motion, but it will be among the first orders of business when the senate meets again in September.

The foundation is a nonprofit auxiliary organization of the university and draws revenue largely from the campus bookstore and food services. Its governing board consists of 15 members--six students, six faculty members, two administrators (including Cleary) and an elected president. Any university program or student can make a request to have projects funded by a grant from the foundation.

When Northridge administrators first considered making a proposal to join Division I, the CSUN faculty expressed concern that money previously spent on instructional programs would be funneled into athletics. When the athletic program received the foundation's support, the faculty's fears temporarily were allayed.

Cleary said he determined "the foundation was going to be making special efforts to make sure revenue flowed through different ventures and that it could not be argued . . . . that the money was originally intended for the instructional program."

"I sincerely believe and strongly assert that we have a financial plan in place that is not at the detriment of this university," Cleary said. "There is nothing coming to the athletic program in terms of state sources other than what is justified by virtue of the state formulae and policies."

Athletic cheating of scandalous proportions at other universities also has spawned some anxiety among the faculty. Cleary considers such concern a positive sign.

"You might even consider that a spinoff benefit," he said. "We're all going to be watching this."

A special faculty oversight committee already has been set up. Its first report included a recommendation to add an athletic admissions specialist and an assistant to the athletic representative. Eventually, there might be an athletic representative in each of the university's eight professional schools to serve as counselor, watchdog and guardian of CSUN's academic integrity.

"I'm hoping to see a good deal of attention to this and surveillance that will avert the sorts of things we found at other institutions," Cleary said. "A program that assists the university with its educational mission must be attended to, assisted and understood . . . I think the critics really come from a base of misunderstanding and not really knowing what a good intercollegiate athletic program is."

Northridge officials hope that they soon will find out firsthand.

"A change like this is always difficult," Hiegert said, "but it is in the best long-range interests of the university, the students and the San Fernando Valley.

"We don't fit any longer in Division II. Whether we're ready or not for Division I, well, I don't know whoever really is."

BACKGROUND After nearly four years of planning, Cal State Northridge is poised to jump from the NCAA Division II ranks of intercollegiate athletics to Division I. But is the school ready? In a five-part series beginning today, The Times examines the school's prospects for the immediate future.

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