The critics scoffed. The skeptics smirked. So the rookie coach from Cal State Disneyland was going to make Northridge a winner in football, huh? Got a decade?
Who was this guy? Didn't he know that "winning" and "football" were antonyms in the Northridge vocabulary? Or didn't 16 years of only five .500-plus seasons spell it out for him?
This wasn't Fantasyland, babe. It was more like Never-Never Land. Twenty-eight thousand students who didn't give a lick about football.
And why should they? Coach Tom Keele had been fired two weeks after going 4-7 last season, and then two weeks later it was revealed that he had held an illegal tryout for nine prospective kickers following the '84 season. There was some talk that Northridge might even be placed on probation by the NCAA.
All those top high school prospects who had Northridge at the top of their lists would surely go elsewhere. That was OK though, because with a conference-low 18 scholarships, Northridge couldn't make many offers anyway.
It was the worst of situations.
But it was also the best of situations.
The losing season and turmoil that followed had the returning players in desperate need of hope.
"We were a team crying for help," said quarterback Chris Parker. "We needed someone to come in and show us how to do things right--to give us some direction."
Therefore, while everyone else was winking and smirking every time first-year Coach Bob Burt talked about winning football games, the players listened.
They listened when he said he would show them how to win. And they did what they were told. What did they have to lose besides a few more football games?
That was nine months ago.
Today, Northridge will play Cal State Sacramento for the championship of the Western Football Conference. The Matadors are ranked ninth in Division II and are probably only one victory away from their first postseason appearance since playing in the 1967 Junior Rose Bowl.
And guess who is the toast of the athletic department? Yep, Bob Burt, former Cal State Fullerton defensive coordinator and Mouseketeer.
Burt professes to know no more than many other football coaches. The key to winning, he says, is hard work.
Sounds simple enough: Work hard in practice--win games. But it wasn't quite that easy.
"These guys didn't understand what the difference between winning and losing was," Burt said. "They didn't have a bad attitude. They were bewildered.
"They needed someone to show them what it took to become winners."
Beginning from square one.
Burt earned the confidence of the players during his first meeting with the team.
Specifics of Burt's introductory speech are sketchy, but senior co-captain Darrell McIntyre summed it up this way: "He basically told us, 'I'm the man. I'm a winner, and I'm going to make you winners.' By the time he was through, everyone was ready to get right out on the field and start practicing."
Burt and his coaching staff nurtured that confidence during the spring and summer by making several cosmetic changes to improve the football program.
Air conditioning was put in the locker room and the football stadium surface was re-sodded. Funds were raised so the team could have a first-class summer camp.
"The kids could see the coaches going out and doing things for them," said Rich Lopez, offensive coordinator. "A football camp may seem like a little thing, but it was the foundation for this season. That's where it all started. When you practice, eat, sleep and live together like that, you come together as a team."
Said senior running back Mike Kane: "All of a sudden we were doing things I pictured USC and UCLA doing. We had a great camp that brought us together as a team. We were going to restaurants together to eat. It made me wonder why we hadn't done all these things before."
And the commitment didn't stop with overnight stays and free meals.
Part of Burt's first speech, Kane said, dealt with Northridge's 61-24 loss to Portland State in their last game of 1985. "He told us that he never wanted to be associated with a team that would lose a game by that many points," Kane said.
Later, Burt found out that the game had been played in an icy rain and the Northridge players hadn't been given long underwear and coats to stay warm.
"He apologized to us," Kane said. "And the next thing we knew, he had bought us the equipment. Just like that. I think he made us all want to work hard for him because he was doing so much for us."
Just how much the players would be able to do for their coach was questionable.
After all, wasn't it basically the same team that had gone 1-4 and tied for last in the WFC the year before?
There was Kane, the school's career rushing leader, and Parker, who had set a record for passing yardage the year before. Most of the offensive line was coming back, and on defense Darrell McIntyre and Steve Dominic were back on the line, with Reggie Wauls at linebacker.
The same key players with drastically different results. The reason by unanimous decision: Burt.