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Sudden-Death Defense : Volunteers, Community Rally to Save 49er Football Program

December 25, 1986|DAVID HALDANE | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — California State University, Long Beach, is almost deserted now.

Finals are over and classes are out until January. One night earlier this week, the campus was dark except for a girls volleyball tournament in the school gym.

In a lighted executive conference room on the third floor of the administration building, however, a tournament of a different sort was taking place. The players were eight students seated around a large circular table with their fingers on telephone dials. Their adversary was time. The goal of the game: raise enough money to save the university's 49er football team before it becomes history.

The rules were set by university President Stephen Horn on Nov. 25 when he gave the campus and the community until Dec. 31 to raise $300,000 in cash or see the football program dismantled. By June of 1988, he said, they would have to raise an additional $500,000, to be matched each year thereafter.

The result has been an outpouring of fund-raising efforts ranging from golf events, money donated by local businesses and an upcoming celebrity sports luncheon, to the ongoing telephone campaign in the administration building. As of Wednesday, according to the athletic department, which is coordinating the campaign, the efforts had raised $134,946 in cash, with another $56,250 pledged.

"I think we're going to make it," said John Kasser, athletic director.

Countered a skeptical John Beljan, vice president for academic affairs, "I feel that it will be difficult for the community to raise the $300,000 by Dec. 31 and very difficult . . . to support the athletic program at the half-million mark each year thereafter."

It was Beljan, who initially recommended that Horn suspend the football program, a recommendation that stands.

"I would personally like to see football preserved, but my first responsibilities are to the academic and fiscal integrity of the university," Beljan said. "I feel that suspending football would be in the institution's financial interest at this time."

The recommendation, he said, was made after a review of the athletic program revealed a $719,000 deficit over the last five years, in addition to a deficit of about $370,000 incurred this year alone.

Kasser blames the program's financial woes on a combination of poor attendance at football games (averaging 7,800 people this year in a 13,000-seat stadium) and general lack of community support, coupled with increasing operating costs, especially in the form of athletic scholarships.

(Long Beach football Coach Mike Sheppard, 34, quit Tuesday to accept a similar position at the University of New Mexico. Larry Reisbig, 47, a Long Beach administrative assistant and running back coach, was named to replace Sheppard.)

University officials say the athletic deficit is unrelated to a $1.6-million deficit discovered earlier this year in the university's overall budget, which necessitated a $900,000 loan from the chancellor's office and resulted in curtailment of Horn's fiscal authority. And participants in the phone drive routinely answer queries by telling would-be contributors that there is no connection between the two deficits and that once the initial $300,000 is raised the program will be self-sustaining.

But according to Kasser, the football crisis was created in part by the loss of more than $200,000 in university funds held back as a direct result of the institution's larger financial crunch. Like virtually every other non-academic department on campus, athletics--which in recent years has received about $300,000 annually in state-allocated money--suffered major cuts as a result of the university's attempt to balance its budget. And even if the $300,000 is raised in time, he said, it will be used only to relieve this year's athletic deficit and not the $719,000 deficit accrued over the past five years.

"We're trying to make each year have a balanced budget" through community fund raising, corporate endowments and increased gate receipts, Kasser said. The cumulative $719,000 deficit, he said, will be paid back "gradually" from sources as yet unknown.

The situation has renewed longstanding criticisms of Horn's management of campus fiscal affairs.

"Up to this point he has had fairly good support from the community," said LeRoy Hardy, a retired political science professor and one of Horn's harshest critics. "This (situation) brings it down to the community level and the civic leaders are beginning to see his incompetence."

Bob Livingstone, a 23-year-old finance major, went as far as pledging $30 to the Save-the-49ers campaign, contingent on Horn's removal as president. "I'm hoping other people will get the same idea," he said. But the president denies responsibility for the possible demise of 49er football, laying it instead at the feet of a non-supportive community. "I hope we make it," he said recently regarding the fund-raising campaign.

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