Northridge Cuts Healing

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They are favorite activities at picnics and backyard barbecues throughout Southern California: Baseball, volleyball, soccer and swimming.

They also are the four men's sports considered most expendable a year ago by Cal State Northridge administrators faced with budget deficits and gender-equity concerns.

The cuts were made and the community howled.

So loudly, in fact, that administrators reversed field two months later and reinstated the sports for a year when state Sen. Cathie Wright (R--Simi Valley) provided a $586,000 bailout.

By January, Northridge President Blenda J. Wilson followed the recommendations of a state-mandated task force and made a long-term commitment to "a broad-based athletic program."

The sports were back for good.

"The cuts were the wrong decision and the task force showed [administrators] another route," said Dr. Keith Richman, a Valley physician and businessman who chaired the task force.

Credit Northridge with negotiating its U-turn rather smoothly. Admitting the mistake and setting course in the opposite direction provided the athletic department with significant momentum.

A year after the cuts, a successful fund-raising drive has been completed, budgets have increased, and new stadiums for football, baseball and softball are on the drawing board.

As for picnics, the experience certainly wasn't one for Wilson, who along with Vice President Ronald Kopita and Athletic Director Paul Bubb were raked over the coals for cutting the sports.

Wilson admits to being wiser for the wear. She bowed to the power of public opinion, even if the public still stays away from Matador athletic events in droves.

At the very least, she understands what the Valley community wants: A public university that offers the Southern California signature sports she tried to cut.

"For the very first time, in a vocal and visible way, the community expressed support and caring for the athletic program at the university," Wilson said. "While the means of expression weren't all that comfortable, the caring was sustained throughout the task force process.

"We were helped by the fact that the teams did well in spite of the adversity. The coaches did a wonderful job helping student-athletes feel excited by the opportunity."

The ability of the sports to escape the chopping block and field representative teams is perhaps the strongest proof the cuts should not have been made in the first place.

The four teams that refused to die are basking in their new-found stability. Recruiting is going well and coaches are guardedly optimistic.

* Baseball: Key players transferred after the cuts and the roster was slapped together in August, but the team became a national Cinderella story by winning 25 of its last 27 games to finish with a 37-19 record.

Mike Batesole was chosen co-coach of the year by Collegiate Baseball magazine.

"Keeping the program wasn't about winning games," Batesole said. "Every player on that team knows what it means to be prepared, to be loyal and to be accountable for their actions.

"If you believe having a baseball program is a good learning tool and an integral part of the education process, then, yes, the school is better off having baseball."

Batesole is bringing in at least a dozen recruits and believes the team will be strong for the next several years.

* Volleyball: The cuts caused the team to be drastically altered, beginning at the top. John Price, who guided the Matadors to an NCAA championship appearance in 1993, bolted to coach the women's team at Cal State Bakersfield, leaving assistant Jeff Campbell as interim coach.

Four players transferred, six last-minute replacements hopped aboard and the Matadors finished 10-14.

"[The cuts] were huge because we just didn't have the continuity," said Campbell, now the permanent coach. "[Even now], everyone's new, everyone's young. There's no experience on the team. We play in the toughest conference in the country. It makes it that much more difficult."

* The turmoil caused the swim team not only to lose eight men, but four women transferred or quit, too.

"The team is like a family culture and it includes the men and women," Coach Barry Schreifels said. "From that time until now, it is like a catharsis. For the first time, I can recruit knowing we have stability."

Schreifels has rebuilt the men's roster to 16 and the women's to 26. A team that did not win a single dual meet last season could create a splash in the near future.

"A year ago, that was the most difficult day of my coaching career," Schreifels said. "I'm excited now. This year it will be payback time."

* The soccer team was the first to be reinstated because boosters raised enough money to force the administration's hand. Players who assumed there wouldn't be a team, however, showed up in September out of shape. The Matadors got off to a slow start and finished 7-11-1.

"I like to remember November because we came on strong," Coach Marwan Ass'ad said. "Our goal now is for every soccer fan in the Valley to come out to our games. It's not their dollars we want, it's their presence."

The Matadors open against UCLA in August and the indomitable Ass'ad believes the game will mark the rebirth of his program.

"We will have great offense," he said. "We will score twice as many goals as we did last year."

Where enthusiasm dissolves into wishful thinking is difficult to determine. Certainly, hurdles remain, not only for the four sports in crisis, but for the entire athletic program.

The university's commitment to fielding eight men's teams means more women's sports must be added for Northridge to comply with federal and state gender-equity laws. In a nutshell, the laws require budget, participation and scholarship numbers to roughly mirror the ratio of male and female students enrolled in the university.

The result is that several men's sports must trim scholarships and rosters until women's water polo and lacrosse teams are added in the fall of 1999. Every women's sport offers the maximum number of scholarships allowed by the NCAA.

"We have made significant strides toward compliance with gender equity and we have a short-range plan to achieve full compliance," Bubb said.

Although the athletic budget will grow by as much as 25% primarily because Wilson is supporting the increase, dollars must be spread among 16 sports--more than any Cal State school or any other member of the Big Sky Conference.

"If the president hadn't addressed the budget concerns, we wouldn't be broad-based," Bubb said. "This is a commitment by the entire university."

The same vexing problem continues to confront all sports at Northridge: How to increase attendance. If every critic of the cuts bought a few tickets, budget problems would diminish, Wilson believes.

"I don't understand the phenomenon of intense interest and less-than-intense participation," she said.

Many believe upgraded facilities--along with winning teams--will attract crowds. But construction won't begin until sites are determined, neighbors are appeased, funding is secured.

Two committees are studying the issue, maddening to those who say Northridge would appoint a committee to determine the type of shovel needed for the ground-breaking ceremony.

A softball stadium is scheduled to be built first, possibly by the end of the year, thanks to the efforts of Steve Soboroff, senior assistant to Mayor Richard Riordan. Soboroff's interest in Northridge was triggered by the outcry over the cuts, and he originally wanted to raise funds to build a baseball stadium.

Wilson told him there would be no baseball team, so Soboroff turned his attention to constructing a softball stadium that will double as a venue for youth-league baseball and softball games.

A 15,000-seat football stadium that meets the requirements of the Big Sky Conference and a lighted baseball stadium on the main campus would be next. A multipurpose arena funded through an increase in student fees is being discussed.

Turning the renewed community interest into cash donations is the job of Michael Rehm, assistant athletic director for development. A fund-raising drive he began in March has netted about $100,000, and membership in the booster Matador Club has swelled from about 280 to 400.

The fund-raising effort was chaired by Richman, who believes sustaining community support requires effort on the part of coaches.

"There is the potential for a strong Division I athletic program that involves the community by providing instruction and leadership," Richman said. "It requires each of the coaches taking it upon themselves to extend the presence of the university into the community. That, in turn, will get the community involved in the university."

Nothing focused attention on Northridge like cutting four sports. The legacy of the cuts, oddly enough, might be a re-energized athletic department and greater community participation. Wilson hopes so.

"Psychologically, a year is a long time ago," she said. "We are all going forward and I don't think there is any lingering resentment.

"Until we have several years of successful teams and management that is represented in attendance and donations, there will be a concern in the university that budget deficits not reoccur.

"But cutting sports I don't think is an option. The community made that very clear."

Correspondent Mike Bresnahan contributed to this story.

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