For nearly two decades, Jeff Kearin aspired to be a Division I head coach, twice coming close.
Kearin, 39, got his wish on Thursday when Cal State Northridge hired him to guide its troubled football program on a six-month interim basis.
The circumstances could have been better, Kearin said, but coaching the Matadors is an opportunity he couldn't pass up, even as the program tries to rebound from weeks of turmoil.
"We're behind the eight-ball a little bit," Kearin said.
Kearin, a Northridge assistant the last four years before leaving after last season to become an assistant to John Robinson at Nevada Las Vegas, replaces Ron Ponciano.
Ponciano was fired Friday for alleged NCAA rules violations, following the resignation of offensive coordinator Rob Phenicie. Their departures were a result of an ongoing internal investigation into the infractions, which were described in an anonymous letter received by Northridge on May 19.
"Two very good friends of mine are no longer here," Kearin said. "It's been bittersweet."
Kearin was chosen over Matador assistants Terrance Johnson and Foster Andersen.
"[Kearin] comes with a strong reputation as a football coach in terms of understanding the game and its complexities," said Dick Dull, athletic director. "He was the predominant choice of our team."
Dull met with about 40 players Tuesday night, partly to learn how they felt about the three finalists. Some of the players attended the announcement on Thursday and their approval of Kearin was unanimous.
"This is the best thing that could happen," said Sean Beard, a senior nose guard. "He was part of the team chemistry last year. Just to keep it in the family is a very big deal."
Kearin faces the task of helping the Matadors regain the credibility and national recognition they earned last year, after a long history of mediocrity.
The Matadors last season were 7-4, 5-3 in Big Sky Conference play, and finished ranked No. 24 in one Division I-AA poll. They would have won the conference title if not for an upset loss at Idaho State in the regular-season finale.
But perhaps because of the program's recent instability, coaches at the Big Sky football meetings in Park City, Utah, earlier this week tabbed the Matadors to finish eighth in the nine-team conference.
"I don't know how they come up with those projections," Kearin said. "The heart and soul of this team is back and they're still hurting from that painful last game last season."
While sophomore quarterback Marcus Brady and many other key players are returning, Kearin said Northridge needs to stabilize quickly after two months of uncertainty.
Kearin must assemble a staff that likely won't include returning running backs coach Keith Borges and defensive coordinator Craig Wall. A rift has developed between the two coaches and the remaining assistants, most likely prompting Borges' and Wall's reassignment to other posts at the school.
"I've indicated that I wanted everybody on the staff . . . to be interviewed and considered," Dull said. "This institution will honor [their contracts] whether they are on the staff or not."
Dull said Kearin will ultimately decide whether Borges and Wall remain with the team and in what capacity.
Kearin wasn't sure how his staff would fall into place, saying he'll probably coordinate the high-powered, run-and-shoot offense run by Phenicie the last two years. He planned to talk to Andersen, a former USC and UCLA assistant, about coordinating the defense.
Andersen was in Orange County and did not attend Kearin's news conference, but said he would listen to any proposals the new coach offered.
Johnson said he supported Kearin and wants the program to move forward. Johnson, the defensive line coach last season, was appointed administrator-in-charge of the program after Ponciano's firing.
"Like I said all along, I'm just glad they even considered me and paid me that much attention," Johnson said. "I'm just glad to have this thing settled."
The Matadors start fall practice on Aug. 10 and play a nonconference opener against Western Oregon on Sept. 4 at North Campus Stadium.
Kearin, a finalist for the position that went to Ponciano last year and on the Northridge short list the year before, when Jim Fenwick was hired, is the team's fourth coach in four years.
He was an assistant to Robinson at USC from 1991-95. Before that, Kearin was an assistant for 11 years at Loyola High, his alma mater and a Southern California powerhouse.
Now Kearin is in charge of a program, one close to his heart.
"This is my home," Kearin said. "I've followed Northridge football, my family is here, my friends are here."
BATESOLE GETS NEW CONTRACT: Cal State Northridge gave baseball Coach Mike Batesole, the 1998 national coach of the year, a four-year contract extension, Athletic Director Dick Dull said. The extension is worth $81,600 per year. Details, Page 14
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
FROM COACH TO COACH
MAY 19: Cal State Northridge receives an anonymous letter charging 20 violations of NCAA rules by the football program and Coach Ron Ponciano.
MAY 24: Northridge officials, led by an internal auditor and faculty athletic representative, launch an investigation into the allegations in consultation with the NCAA.
MAY 27: As the allegations become public, Ponciano emphatically denies any wrongdoing.
JUNE 15: The Times learns that Northridge self-reported nine secondary NCAA rules violations among six sports in the last year. Football had two infractions: offering too many scholarships and reimbursement of off-campus meals to recruits on unofficial visits.
JULY 7: Top assistant and offensive coordinator Rob Phenicie is forced to resign in the wake of the investigation.
JULY 9: Ponciano meets with investigators for several hours to discuss the allegations.
JULY 12: Bassco Sporting Goods in Van Nuys claims a $15,000 order for 110 new Northridge football uniforms will not be honored, though Ponciano says school officials approved placing the order in March. Officials say permission was never given to place the order, only to get a bid.
JULY 16: Louanne Kennedy, Northridge interim president, and Athletic Director Dick Dull announce the dismissal of Ponciano for probable major and secondary NCAA rules violations, as well as campus violations. The internal investigation is ongoing, with a reports on the findings due next week.
JULY 22: Northridge introduces Jeff Kearin, a former assistant who left after last season for Nevada Las Vegas, as the new head coach.