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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS: SPECIAL REPORT | THE
HIRE

Coach's Arrest Shakes CSUN : Questions Arrived With Abraham

October 29, 1998|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NORTHRIDGE — The news took Cal State Northridge by surprise on Wednesday. Athletes and administrators seemed shocked to learn Michael Abraham, the women's basketball coach, had been indicted on federal drug charges.

But it was not the first time Northridge flirted with trouble when it came to Abraham.

The university climbed out on a limb by hiring Abraham away from Oregon State three years ago.

It was spring 1995 when Northridge identified the dynamic young coach as a candidate for the head spot vacated by Kim Chandler, who resigned after the 1994-95 team finished with a 1-26 record.

Abraham was the top assistant and recruiting coordinator at Oregon State, where the team was coming off a 21-8 season and a second consecutive NCAA postseason appearance.

But allegations of NCAA violations were swirling around the Oregon State women's basketball program. In Corvallis, university administrators were investigating Coach Aki Hill, Abraham and other assistants.

With the probe stretching on for months, Dutch Baughman, then athletic director at Oregon State, received an unexpected telephone call. Northridge was interested in hiring Abraham.

"I was a little bit puzzled by that," said Baughman, now executive director of the Division I-A Athletic Directors Assn. "When they called me, they seemed to know what we were dealing with. They had full knowledge of the allegations."

Baughman recalled offering some friendly advice. He explained that, according to NCAA rules, if Abraham was found responsible for a major violation, Northridge might be sanctioned for hiring the coach while he was still under investigation.

"I remember mentioning that I would have some concern about that," Baughman said.

Northridge did not share his concern.

"I called some people in the area who knew him, and they indicated he was from a great family and should be a great hire," said Bob Hiegert, former Northridge athletic director.

"There were some questions on the staff at Oregon State. They had a lot of foreign athletes, primarily European athletes coming into the program. They were cleared. That was the only red flag."

Judith Brame, the Northridge administrator in charge of finding a new coach, added: "The search committee investigated thoroughly the allegations and innuendoes surrounding Michael Abraham. Given that . . . Abraham answered all questions the search committee posed, we felt it wasn't an issue."

As late as Wednesday, Brame insisted no recruiting violations had taken place in Corvallis. Oregon State says otherwise.

The university's investigation found the coaching staff committed violations that "spanned a large number of NCAA rules that included recruiting issues, extra-benefit issues and other issues," said Michael Beachley, associate athletics director.

Hill, the head coach, retired after reaching a $120,000 settlement with the university over a contract and salary dispute. Still a teacher at Oregon State, she was out of the country and could not be reached for comment.

The remainder of her coaching staff also left. Oregon State voluntarily suspended recruiting for a year and submitted a report, along with its self-imposed sanctions, to the Pacific 10 Conference and the NCAA.

Meanwhile, Northridge hired Abraham in May 1995. The new coach arrived on campus proclaiming: "All I can say about that is that there are rumors about alleged NCAA violations and I will say the contrary."

Even as he began putting the Matadors through their preseason workouts, the NCAA was reviewing the Oregon State case.

It wasn't until December 1995 that the NCAA announced no further action would be taken.

At Northridge, Abraham continued to bring in foreign players, a first for the Matadors. His 1996 recruiting class--which included two Serbian players--was ranked by a national-recruiting service behind only UCLA and Stanford on the West Coast.

Northridge never did have to explain its hiring to the NCAA. But some people at Oregon State remain puzzled as to why Northridge took a chance.

"I don't know how they could have hired him," said Hal Cowan, Oregon State sports information director. "To my knowledge, there's no way they could have asked anyone at Oregon State who would have given them a good recommendation."

Baughman declined to describe his conversations with Northridge regarding the coach, but said: "They went into this relationship with their eyes open."

Times staff writer Eric Sondheimer contributed to this story.

* MAIN STORY: A24

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