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THE COLLEGES / FERNANDO DOMINGUEZ

Cleaning House Is Dirty Job

March 06, 1997|FERNANDO DOMINGUEZ

Friends, Valleyites, countrymen. I come to bury Abraham, not to praise him. . . .

OK, so I'm not Mark Antony, or even Marlon Brando portraying Cleopatra's hubby, but my initial intentions today were similar to those of the Roman general during his hasta la vista to Julius Caesar, according to Shakespeare.

My target was Michael Abraham, the Cal State Northridge women's basketball coach, who last week said he would not renew the scholarships of at least two players and possibly as many as four for next season because they were not Division I material.

On the surface, the comments sounded callous, cruel, almost unethical.

How could Abraham take that cutthroat approach? How could he discard those women like worn-out uniforms? How could he tell them they no longer fit in his plans?

Perhaps the better question is, how could he not?

To understand Abraham's position one must comprehend first the harsh realities of college athletics, where winning means revenues, prestige, popularity.

The Matadors haven't grabbed much of that lately.

Under Abraham the past two seasons, the Matadors finished 4-23 and 5-22, mostly with a crew he inherited and that was in way over its head.

When he took over the program, Abraham says, there wasn't one player on the roster who was seriously recruited by another college. The previous four seasons, first under Janet Martin and later Kim Chandler, the Matadors were a combined 12-93.

But the Northridge administration didn't seem concerned, despite the teasing or cutting criticism directed at the team. The Matadors weren't even in a conference for a while, playing a freelance schedule and sometimes losing to foreign junior teams during exhibitions.

Then came the move this season to the Big Sky Conference, a legitimate league, and alarm bells resonated at Northridge. Abraham, who is negotiating a three-year contract extension, was told to put a winner on the floor.

"I'm not thrilled with my performance," Abraham said. "I will accept a great deal of responsibility for how the team has played but I don't have a core of athletes who have Division I mentality, who have given the commitment to become Division I players."

Others have noticed, too. No Northridge player received a vote for even honorable mention on the All-Big Sky team this season.

That, in essence, reinforces Abraham's point.

For him to turn the Matadors into something more than a glorified intramural squad, to build and secure his job past the next three seasons, there's no choice but to take unpopular and seemingly unfair measures.

In this case, that means releasing some players he did not sign from their scholarships to make room for top recruits.

Abraham said he has talked to the players, explained to them that athletic scholarships are one-year deals that can be renewed or rescinded at the discretion of the school, and that they understand. They are not happy, but they understand.

At least one player, junior guard Sarah Hagman, already has decided to transfer and Abraham is working with her on finding another school. He said he'll help others do the same.

"This is probably the toughest situation I've faced," said Abraham, a former assistant at Oregon State and Long Beach State. "I wish I could be more patient, but every year we lose in the recruiting process we dig ourselves into a bigger hole."

The changes Abraham wants to make could pay dividends right away. He has contacts in Europe and last year recruited two top junior players from Serbia: 6-foot-4 center Maya Muzurovic and 6-1 forward Neda Milic. But both suffered season-ending knee injuries, Milic before the season and Muzurovic in December.

With Muzurovic in the lineup, the Matadors defeated Oregon State, 62-53, in a nonconference game at Portland in November. It gave Abraham a glimpse of what next season could be like with a healthy Muzurovic supported by skilled teammates.

But to reach those heights, to return the Matadors to the respectability that will produce victories and larger home crowds, Abraham first has to be the heavy. It's not an enviable position.

"My kids and I get along great," Abraham said. "The hardest part for me is that we are very close. This is one of the most unpleasant sides of college recruiting."

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