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Northridge Narrows the Field

College football: Matadors will choose among three finalists to pick up the pieces of troubled program.

July 21, 1999|FERNANDO DOMINGUEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NORTHRIDGE — Three candidates have emerged as finalists to become the Cal State Northridge football coach on an interim basis, sources said.

Former Matador assistant Jeff Kearin and current assistants Terrance Johnson and Foster Andersen are the frontrunners from about eight hopefuls to replace Ron Ponciano, who was fired Friday amid controversy.

"I'm trying to find somebody with a connection to Northridge," said Dick Dull, new athletic director at Northridge. "I hope to have someone in place by the end of the week."

Dull met with Northridge coaches and about 40 players on Tuesday night to discuss the state of the program, reeling from a two-month internal investigation into alleged NCAA rules violations.

He plans to recommend two or three candidates to Louanne Kennedy, interim president, who will make the final decision.

Kearin, 39, is probably the favorite. He was a Northridge assistant the last four seasons before leaving after the 1998 season to become an assistant to John Robinson at Nevada Las Vegas.

Johnson, 31, was appointed administrator-in-charge of the program after Ponciano's firing. He was the defensive line coach last season, his second with the Matadors, and is a former Simi Valley High assistant.

Andersen, 59, was the Northridge defensive backs coach the last three seasons. He is a former NFL, USC and UCLA assistant.

None of the players at the meeting expressed a preference for any of the candidates, but a source said Kearin seemed to spark the most interest among players.

Whoever becomes the fourth coach in four years has a monumental task ahead.

The program was thrown into turmoil after Northridge's athletic department received an anonymous letter on May 19 alleging numerous NCAA infractions.

The ensuing inquiry, which is ongoing, resulted in Ponciano's firing after one season as coach and the resignation of offensive coordinator Rob Phenicie.

Ponciano, who refused a $43,000 buyout offered by Northridge, repeatedly has denied wrongdoing and said he is considering legal action.

Northridge administrators have discussed disbanding the program after the 1999 season, but Dull said the school is committed to football.

"The program marches ahead," Dull said. "I indicated to [the players] that there are no plans to drop football."

Those assurances seemed good enough for the players, including sophomore quarterback Marcus Brady and others who considered transferring if Ponciano was dismissed.

"I'm committed to this program," said Brady, the Big Sky Conference newcomer of the year last season. "I'm going nowhere."

Senior quarterback Josh Fiske, who has played for three coaches at Northridge, said he wasn't worried about the school eliminating football because similar rumors have circulated before.

Fiske said he was more concerned about who will replace Ponciano.

"We don't want anyone coming in from the outside, and we told that to [Dull]," Fiske said.

Kearin, a Northridge insider, pursued the head coaching position that went to Jim Fenwick in 1997 and to Ponciano in 1998. He was a finalist for the job last year.

Despite the problems at Northridge, Kearin said he's not apprehensive about taking over an unstable program. "[Dull] flat out told me they won't drop football," Kearin said.

The Matadors last season finished 7-4, 5-3 in Big Sky play, and were ranked in the Division I-AA top 25 for the first time.

The team returns the nucleus of the squad that came within one victory of winning the conference title and boasts several outstanding recruits.

"It's really up to us [to produce] regardless of who's coaching us," Brady said. "We are the ones on the field."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

JEFF KEARIN

* Current job: Nevada Las Vegas assistant.

* Former jobs: Assistant at Northridge from 1995-98, one year as assistant head coach; assistant at USC.

* College: Bachelor's degree from Loyola ('83), master's from USC ('95).

FOSTER ANDERSON

* Current job: Northridge assistant.

* Former jobs: Assistant at Valley College; assistant at USC and UCLA; assistant for Rams.

* College: Bachelor's degree from UCLA ('62), master's from Cal State L.A. ('68).

TERRANCE JOHNSON

* Current job: Northridge assistant.

* Former jobs: Part-time coach at Northridge, Simi Valley assistant.

* College: Bachelor's degree from Colorado ('91).

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