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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS

Football Takes Shots, Survives

Special Report: Although Fenwick left because of the backlash, future looks bright under Ponciano.

June 11, 1998|FERNANDO DOMINGUEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NORTHRIDGE — No sooner had the ax fallen on four men's sports programs at Cal State Northridge last year than the school's football team came under fire.

The cuts, made a year ago today by the Northridge administration for budgetary reasons and to help the school move toward compliance with gender-equity regulations, angered many in the community who believed there was another clear alternative:

Drop football, keep the other sports.

The resulting turmoil was partly responsible for the departure of former football coach Jim Fenwick after last season to become offensive coordinator at New Mexico.

"I didn't think football should take all the hits," Fenwick said.

Jeff Kearin, a Matador assistant the last three seasons and now second in command to Coach Ron Ponciano, said the climate has improved greatly the last 12 months.

"It's probably the most upbeat atmosphere since I've been here," Kearin said. "That whole thing got people blaming everything on football. But that was the vast minority."

It wasn't, however, a silent minority. The dissenters made enough noise to pierce the ears of administrators, who later reinstated baseball, soccer, swimming and volleyball.

For Fenwick, who was preparing for his first season with the Matadors, the instability of the Northridge athletic program became too burdensome, too much of an unwanted load.

Fenwick attended weekly meetings of the Northridge Task Force on Intercollegiate Athletics and grew increasingly uneasy. The task force was formed at the insistence of state Sen. Cathie Wright (R-Simi Valley), who persuaded the legislature to give Northridge a one-time $586,000 bailout.

"The one thing that bothered me most were the questions of whether we should have football or not," Fenwick said. "It had an impact on me. . . . Athletics is just one vehicle of the entire university. If they could drop four men's sports, who's to say football wouldn't be dropped."

Moreover, Fenwick's fears his program could become a scapegoat were compounded by the reality that Northridge coaches would have to significantly supplement their programs through expanded fund-raising campaigns.

"They decided to stay broad-based and diluted all the budget money," Fenwick said. "They decided that fund-raising money would make up the difference, which would put pressure on each coach."

The football program, Fenwick said, already was targeted for dramatic fund-raising after exceeding its 1997 travel budget. He blamed runover costs on trips to places where flights home were not available until the day after the game, forcing the team to stay an extra night.

"The job description as a football coach at Northridge is football coach/fund-raiser," Fenwick said. "In the year I was there, the pendulum swung more to being an ambassador for the football program in the community than coach of the team."

Fenwick said he didn't mind raising funds, but he expected tangible results and pointed to the 6,000-seat North Campus Stadium, where the Matadors play home games. The stadium is among the most antiquated in the Big Sky Conference.

"If a sponsor is going to give us $10,000, I want them to feel good about our product," Fenwick said. "I wanted to see new lights for the stadium. I wanted to see progress in our program. The school is in no position to make that progress because they're worried about funding all the sports."

Despite the drawbacks, and an underachieving 6-6 record that was recently modified to 4-8 because of forfeits caused by the use of an ineligible player, Fenwick said he was prepared to return next season. Until the New Mexico job fell in his lap.

"I thought football could generate money [at Northridge] in time, given the proper facilities and support," Fenwick said. "That would have been fine with me. But I was presented with an opportunity that I think a lot of guys, if presented with an opportunity to just coach football or coach football and be a fund-raiser, would take."

Ponciano, defensive coordinator at Northridge in 1996 and at San Jose State last year, said there has been a backlash from the community in the football team's fund-raising efforts, but he feels contributions eventually will pick up.

"[The fund-raising] won't get better until we show some continuity and people trust us," Ponciano said. "A lot of the players tell me we need community support. I ask them, 'Are you ready to do more community service?' "

Kearin, working under his third Matador coach in three seasons, praises the administration for not dumping football.

"I think everyone has bought into the Big Sky commitment," Kearin said. "I'm glad Northridge didn't take the easy way out. . . . I feel very good a year later because they've made a commitment to football."

Kearin said school neighbors who opposed the proposed stadium on the main campus, prompting Northridge officials to temporarily scratch those plans, are beginning to come around.

"I've talked to several of them and their concerns have to do more with how often the stadium would be used for other things than for football games," Kearin said.

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