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Big Sky Encouraged by Northridge Visit : College sports: CSUN plays accommodating host and takes step closer to membership in new conference. However, numerous obstacles remain.

August 16, 1995|MIKE HISERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WOODLAND HILLS — Representatives of the Big Sky Conference concluded their visit to Cal State Northridge on Tuesday and from all indications Northridge officials made the perfect hosts.

They just couldn't say no.

At a press conference at the Warner Center Marriott, Mark Drummond, chairman of the conference's four-member visitation committee, said Northridge administrators have agreed to meet several key requirements for Big Sky membership, including raising the number of football scholarships to a minimum of 63.

Northridge also must add women's golf and men's tennis teams, which are among the conference's 13 core sports offerings, and expand seating capacity for basketball to at least 4,000.

"We've had very forthright conversations and there seems to be a commitment and willingness to step up and address these things," Drummond said.

Northridge President Blenda J. Wilson said Northridge formally delivered a letter to the committee on Tuesday requesting "immediate consideration for membership."

Drummond said Northridge will have an answer within three months. Expansion will be the topic of a conference call between Big Sky school presidents on Aug. 29.

The Big Sky Conference consists of Montana, Montana State, Idaho State, Northern Arizona, Weber State and Eastern Washington. Portland State is on schedule to join the alliance in 1996. The conference also is considering Cal State Sacramento as an expansion candidate.

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If Northridge is accepted, school officials face the daunting task of putting a square peg into a round hole. Northridge's athletic program is considerably more broad-based than that of current Big Sky members.

"We will not be offering all of the sports that we're doing now in the same way we are doing them," Wilson said. "That's a given from my point of view."

The Matadors compete in 19 sports, including men's and women's swimming and diving, baseball, softball, men's soccer and men's volleyball--teams which would not find a home under the Big Sky umbrella.

Softball, men's volleyball and baseball have been consistent winners since the fall of 1990, when Northridge began competing at the NCAA Division I level in sports other than football. The softball team is the three-time defending champion of the Western Athletic Conference.

The baseball team, which also is affiliated with the WAC, has advanced to NCAA regionals twice in four years. The men's volleyball team, which competes in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, played in the national championship match in 1993.

Northridge officials refused to speculate on which sports might be dropped, but Paul Bubb, the school's interim athletic director, said the program will "adjust based on the sports that are required by the Big Sky Conference."

Wilson said a task force will be formed to make recommendations for the school's transition into conference affiliation.

Some Northridge teams might begin playing a Big Sky schedule as early as next year, conference officials said, with the program being entirely integrated by the fall of 1997.

In football and basketball, Northridge is a member of the lightly regarded American West Conference, which will disband after next year when Cal Poly San Luis Obispo leaves to join the Big West Conference.

Expansion will protect Big Sky membership from dipping under the NCAA minimum of six for a Division I conference. Boise State and Idaho recently left the Big Sky to join the Big West.

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The Big Sky for several years has been rated as the nation's top Division I-AA football conference, and keeping that reputation, Drummond said, is of utmost importance to conference presidents.

"That's one of the situations we discussed thoroughly with the folks here, about the conference's expectations toward football, meaning it would get full attention and full scholarships and be equivalent with the other institutions," Drummond said. "That seems to be agreeable to our hosts."

In recent years, Northridge has funded approximately 20 full scholarships for football, an investment which must increase dramatically. At the same time, administrators have pledged that the athletic program will not be run at a deficit. Northridge last year was more than $500,000 in the red.

Northridge also must meet state-mandated gender-equity standards that require a balance of participation and scholarship budgets for men's and women's sports. Bubb said that with the addition of more than 40 full scholarships for football the school would need to "fine tune" and "adjust" its other offerings.

Big Sky Commissioner Doug Fullerton said the visitation committee was satisfied that Northridge has the financial resources to compete with the conference's already established programs.

"The dollars are there," he said. "Moving [the budget] and changing it is political, and you need to be careful about it, but it's something you can get done. That's an advantage."

The conference considered adding Northridge three years ago, but a committee that visited the campus then was not impressed.

Kathy Noble, the Big Sky's assistant commissioner, said she was considerably more optimistic after this week's tour.

"The attitude, the feel of the place . . . there's an optimism here that wasn't here three years ago," she said. "There is a real sense that this is something they want to do and they can do, and they'll work as hard as they can to get it done."

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