What was stripped to bare bones, nearly axed, saved, and then expected to compete against Heisman Trophy candidate Marshall Faulk and his San Diego State teammates?
Those who answer “Cal State Northridge football” are correct, but there is no prize available from its shoestring budget.
Simply being around is reward these days. Since Cal State Long Beach and Cal State Fullerton dropped football, Northridge is the only Division I program in the Southland other than USC and UCLA.
“It’s a relief just to get to this point,” eighth-year Coach Bob Burt said on the first day of fall drills.
The program’s future was in jeopardy last spring when university President Blenda J. Wilson dropped a bombshell, saying she might drop football despite the recommendations of a blue-ribbon panel.
Linebacker O.J. Ojomoh was among the players tossed into an emotional tailspin.
“I was scared,” he said. “I was thinking, ‘Where can I go to play my last year?’ But I didn’t want to leave CSUN. I had so much on my mind that I couldn’t concentrate. It was hard to work out.”
Wilson’s decision to retain the program sent Ojomoh and his elated teammates straight to the weight room. The program itself, however, jumped from Wilson’s frying pan into the fire--escalating from the Division II ranks to the Division I-AA level in accordance with NCAA rules that require universities to field all athletic teams in the same division.
By July, 18 months of planning came to fruition with the establishment of the American West Conference, a league with provisions for cost containment.
Athletic Director Bob Hiegert got Northridge in on the ground floor, joining charter members Cal State Sacramento, UC Davis, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Southern Utah.
The Matadors need to avoid injuries in the first four road games--all nonconference--if they hope to win the conference title.
In the toughest stretch of schedule in school history, Northridge opens Sept. 4 at San Diego State, travels Sept. 11 to Division I-AA Weber State, visits I-AA Northern Arizona on Sept. 18, and then plays Oct. 9 at Nevada Las Vegas after a Sept. 25 home game against Division II Sonoma State.
Guarantees for those games total $122,000, a boon to the financially strapped athletic program. Last season, Northridge earned just $47,000 in guarantees.
If the Matadors, who went 5-5 last season and 2-2 in the Western Football Conference, are not decimated by injuries after that grueling stretch, they could be competitive in conference play.
“There’s a fine line for us coaches between preparing our players for a team with all the bullets in its gun like San Diego State, and not getting beat up with injuries,” said Burt, who is determined not to limit his team’s focus to the opener against Faulk and the Aztecs.
“We play 10 games. We’re excited to play San Diego State with its great tailback (Faulk) and its great wide receiver (Darnay Scott). Our kids never get a chance to play in a stadium (San Diego Jack Murphy) like that.
“But if we win that game, the elation lasts two days and then we still have to play nine more games. If we go 9-1, do I care if we lost to San Diego State? I think not. What if we win and go 1-9? It’s a game, not a big game. A big game is when you’re 4-0 in conference and you’re playing for the conference title.”
Except for a rare trick play, Burt is known for conservative offenses and dominating defenses. That could change this season as he attempts to meet the challenges of the toughest schedule in school history.
“We’ll throw the ball a little more and try to cause some adjustments for the defense,” Burt said.
The primary change is the insertion of the run-and-shoot offense as an alternative to the Matadors’ traditional I-formation set.
Offensive coordinator Rich Lopez and quarterbacks coach Dale Bunn devised the scheme during spring drills.
“We needed more in our arsenal,” Bunn said. “Against I-A opponents, we don’t think we can pound the ball at them and rely on our defense.”
Bunn and Lopez could not implement the system last spring because returning backup quarterback Coley Kyman was playing for the Matador volleyball team and the other potential starting quarterback, Clayton Millis, had not yet transferred from Oregon.
Although Kyman and Millis, traditional drop-back quarterbacks, are not suited for the run-and-shoot, Bunn said, they can make it work.
“They’re not fleet of foot,” he said. “It is not like having Rodney Peete back there, but they will run. We have to let the defense know they’ll run.”
Bunn is a former run-and-shoot quarterback at Cal State Fullerton and the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League. Lopez familiarized himself with the scheme in 1985 when Denver Gold Coach Mouse Davis, a run-and-shoot pioneer, held training camp at Northridge and gave Lopez videotape of his then-radical scheme.
While Bunn hopes that the Matadors will pass as often as they run, both coaches agree that the opposition will probably determine the play calling.
“It’s a game-to-game situation,” Lopez said. “If we go to San Diego State and we’re in the I-formation and they are physically beating us, we’ll have to use the four-wideout scheme. We know we can’t line up with teams that have 95 scholarship players or 65 scholarship players and run the ball, so we’ll have to do a lot of different things.”
Given the program’s status only six months ago, trying to score on the Aztecs is a desirable dilemma. And with revitalized players such as Ojomoh in abundance, there is no shortage of optimism.
“I look forward to playing the bigger schools,” he said. “As long as you believe you can play, it’s not about the name of the school. There’s a lot of talent on this team, talent that can play anywhere.”