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Valley / Ventura County Sports | ERIC SONDHEIMER

Injuries Self-Inflicted

Northridge needs more than a spin doctor to mend its somewhat tarnished reputation.

October 30, 1998|ERIC SONDHEIMER | Eric Sondheimer is the local columnist. He can be reached at (818) 772-3422

Cal State Northridge is in the process of hiring a public relations director, a job that will pay between $48,000 and $113,000 a year.

Whatever the salary, he or she will be underpaid.

Weekly therapy sessions should be a required benefit for the unfortunate person who accepts the position.

Dealing with crisis after crisis has become as much a part of campus life at Northridge as students going to class.

The athletic program, in particular, has been stung by a series of public relations nightmares.

"This is the last thing we need here," observed a Northridge student as he walked through the athletic department Wednesday after learning of the indictment of

Michael Abraham, women's basketball coach, on federal drug charges.

From the moment Northridge moved up to NCAA Division I in 1990, it has been trying to figure out how to run a big-time athletic program. Every misstep has been chronicled, every change in direction has been analyzed.

Each time the school is on the verge of gaining community support, something happens to serve as a distraction and derail momentum.

Growing pains can be expected when a university starts competing in the same division as USC and UCLA, but the controversies this decade keep popping up:

* Coach Walt Ker, who had a 401-144 record in women's volleyball, resigned in 1993 after two Northridge players filed a written complaint accusing him of sexual harassment.

* The football team boycotted a practice session in 1993 as a protest over what they said was the school's general lack of support.

* Jonathan Beauregard, a defensive tackle on the football team, was arrested and charged with two counts of attempted murder in 1994. Two trials ended in deadlocked juries.

* Bob Hiegert, longtime athletic director and a future member of the school Hall of Fame, was forced to resign in 1995 after a few ugly run-ins with his newly hired superiors.

* Football Coach Dave Baldwin was reprimanded and Athletic Director Paul Bubb was suspended for five days without pay in 1996 after Baldwin told reporters linebacker Shayne Blakey underwent an appendectomy when in reality, he was shot at a party.

* Pete Cassidy was fired as basketball coach in 1996, despite his public plea to coach just one more season.

* The baseball, men's soccer, men's volleyball and men's swimming teams were eliminated in 1997 because of budget and gender-equity concerns, then reinstated two months later after a public outcry.

* Nancy Ma, an All-American in women's volleyball, was accused by two former players of committing academic fraud, then cleared by a university investigation last spring.

* University neighbors threatened to go to court this year to prevent the school from building a new football stadium on campus.

And these are just a sampling of the athletic controversies.

Bubb, the athletic director since 1996, must feel as if he's starring in Bill Murray's "Groundhog Day" as he responds to crisis after crisis.

At some point, the program has to find its footing.

There are subtle signs of change. The hiring last March of Kathleen Heitzman to serve as the athletic department's NCAA compliance chief was a big step. She will be the person counted on to provide warnings when rules are broken or coaches with questionable backgrounds are considered for hiring.

The football team is on its way to becoming a perennial Big Sky Conference title contender under Coach Ron Ponciano, who isn't afraid to use discipline to influence his players in a positive manner.

New stadiums for football, softball and baseball are in the planning stages. Whether they are built, no one knows for sure considering Northridge's record.

This community is ready to rally around coaches, athletes and teams at Northridge. But it expects those in charge to stop repeating past mistakes and start making good judgments on the people they hire.

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