My, how times have changed.
When Bob Burt took over as football coach at Cal State Northridge prior to the 1986 season, the Matadors had never put together as many as three consecutive winning seasons.
In fact, only once in 24 years of trying had they even come close. That was from 1976-78, when a man named Jack Elway--forever known as the quarterback's father--guided the team to 8-3, 7-3-1 and 5-5 records before heading north to coach at San Jose State and then Stanford.
Is it any wonder, then, that there were giggles galore when Burt brashly predicted that Northridge would not only win, but win consistently, under his tutelage?
No one's laughing now. Burt, who also has a son who plays--Kevin, a freshman, is the third-string center at CSUN--has gone 8-3, 7-4 and 6-5 in his first three seasons.
The stuff of legends, you say? Not quite. Would you believe they're complaining instead? How quickly Northridge football fans have become spoiled.
In 1986, Burt's first season, the Matadors came within seconds of winning a Western Football Conference championship. The following season produced another strong second-place finish. And then there was last season.
After starting 4-0 and earning a top-10 ranking in Division II, CSUN and its title hopes crashed in October. The Matadors lost five of their next six games, including four in a row at North Campus Stadium, and dropped into the conference's second division.
What went wrong? It's a long list.
After a start that saw him average more than 100 all-purpose yards in CSUN's first four games, tailback Lance Harper sustained a season-ending knee injury against Idaho State.
A slashing runner, Harper had been alternating in the backfield with Albert Fann, giving the Matadors a solid 1-2 punch. With Harper out, Fann couldn't carry the offensive load by himself. Some said that was because toting his own load--225 pounds--wore him down in the second half.
Harper, a senior, reportedly is healthy again and Fann, a 6-foot-2 junior, will play between 210 and 215 pounds this season.
"That's too bad. I liked him when he was a little bit chubbier," one WFC defensive coordinator said.
Northridge has needed to run successfully in recent seasons because its passing game has been rather, uh, unimaginative.
When CSUN quarterbacks weren't handing off to Fann last season, they were trying to throw to him. The Matadors simply didn't have enough speed at the receiver positions last season and quarterback Rob Huffman, through little fault of his own, was inconsistent.
Newcomers Cornell Ward and Mike Crowley are expected to open up the passing lanes for Sherdrick Bonner, CSUN's quarterback.
Bonner, Huffman's understudy the past two seasons, is a former CSUN basketball player who has also high-jumped 6-10. Burt likens him to a young Randall Cunningham and Matador coaches are confident Bonner's athletic ability will give the offense a new dimension.
"His time has come," Burt said of Bonner, a 6-4, 185-pound junior. "He's our quarterback. He probably should have been earlier, but I wanted to bring him along so that his frame of mind when he stepped on the field was one of confidence and experience, rather than just throwing him to the tigers."
Intangibles like poise and patience will determine Bonner's success because he unquestionably has the arm and other physical tools to be a top quarterback.
Another factor critical to Bonner's performance will be the play of his line, and to that end the Matadors have already sustained three serious setbacks. Rusty Kaualtikaua, who was expected to start at center, broke his ankle during the summer and is out for the season. Two other key players, Mark Fernandez and Tim Ayers, quit the team for personal reasons.
Tackles Jim Matthews (6-4, 275) and Scott Kain (6-5, 270), along with guard Barry Voorhees (6-5, 290) are expected to be the mainstays on the line.
On defense, Northridge has eight starters returning, but whether that's good news or bad is debatable. The Matadors allowed 360 yards a game and 5.3 yards a play last season.
Physically, CSUN's defense seems to have all the right ingredients.
"It's just a matter of molding together," said Willie James, a starter at cornerback. "We have so many athletes out here, it's crazy. But last year, except for two or three guys, we were new. We've been together for a year now and I think that's going to work to our benefit."
Whatever Burt thinks of his team's chances in the WFC, he has kept it a secret. Faced with the prospect of opening on the road against two Division I opponents, Cal State Long Beach (Sept. 2) and Cal State Fullerton (Sept. 9), Burt may figure that it is best to reserve any bold predictions.
"I think we'll have a decent football team," Burt told a gathering of reporters earlier this month.
GROUNDED--The return of a host of talented running backs should ensure that Western State Conference schools stick to the ground this season. Page 13