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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS

Matadors Fall Out of Formation in Big Sky

College football: Season-finale at Portland State today is the last game for Northridge in the conference.

November 18, 2000|VINCE KOWALICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PORTLAND, Ore. — And so this is good-bye.

After four years of scrambling to compete on and off the field, Cal State Northridge's football team will part ways with the Big Sky Conference today with a meaningless season finale at Portland State.

Meaningless in terms of its impact on the Big Sky race. Yet, significant because it signals a crossroads for Northridge.

Northridge (4-6, 2-5 in the Big Sky) long ago was eliminated from title contention and has fallen short of its grandiose goal of winning a Big Sky title before moving to independent status in football next season.

Portland State (7-3, 4-3), a preseason pick to challenge for the conference title, has lost three of its last four and clings to hopes of earning a Division I-AA playoff berth. The Vikings can finish no better than tied for second with three teams behind perennial champion Montana.

For Northridge, which has won three of its last four, motivation comes in the form of closing a subpar season with a victory that would bring the Matadors' four-year Big Sky record to 22-18.

Northridge's offense, among the Big Sky's most potent the last three seasons under multithreat quarterback Marcus Brady, has steadily improved. Enthusiasm among players has grown rather than waned.

The Matadors began the season ineligible for postseason play because of NCAA rules violations, shifting the focus from the start to winning for the sake of winning. That goes double for their Big Sky swan song.

"We want to end it on a good note," said Brady, a junior expected to return next season. "We want people to still be thinking about us next year, like we'll be a pretty good team to deal with."

But for how long?

Northridge's football future--despite steadfast claims by administrators to maintain the status quo--is uncertain, given the school's impending move, lack of a quality playing facility and ongoing struggle by the athletic department to comply with gender-equity requirements.

Severing ties with the Big Sky was for the best. It alleviated Northridge from meeting several Big Sky mandates, including constructing an on-campus stadium and roughly tripling its number of football scholarships.

Ultimately, Northridge couldn't find its place in the Big Sky.

"We were demanding more structure from Northridge than they were used to," Big Sky Commissioner Doug Fullerton said. "But we were also offering them more structure than they had had before. We will miss them. There is a concern because they brought a lot of good athletes to the conference and a lot of exposure in a major market. But we will move on."

Doing business as an independent will make matters difficult on several fronts.

Northridge will play one more season at antiquated North Campus Stadium before it is demolished. The Matadors are tentatively scheduled to begin playing at Pierce College the following year.

"I really have dealt with it as, 'That's just the way it is,' ' Northridge Coach Jeff Kearin said. "For the university and the department, it's probably the best thing. For me--that is, the program--it's the worst thing. It was easy for me to recruit [for] the Big Sky Conference."

Still, Kearin is optimistic Northridge will continue to field a quality program.

"If the commitment from this athletic department is still to compete at the same level as we did when were a conference member, to me, nothing has changed much," Kearin said. "We're still going to try to compete with those schools. The only thing changing is, we won't have 'Big Sky' tagged to it."

Northridge plans to continue playing nonconference games against a handful of Big Sky teams and the school is close to finalizing arrangements for next season. However, Athletic Director Dick Dull said he has not completed next season's schedule.

Scheduling opponents will be among the most difficult chores for Northridge. Moreover, recruiting might suffer.

"One reason to be in a conference is the ease of scheduling," Dull said. "And automatic [playoff] bids. As an independent, we will have to work harder to project our football stature and that won't be easy."

Northridge, along with Cal State Sacramento and Portland State, accepted an invitation to join the Big Sky in 1995 along with a three-year deadline to meet a number of conference mandates.

They included building a stadium, upgrading existing facilities, increasing football scholarships from 20 to 63 and adding men's tennis and women's golf to its athletic program.

Plans to build a stadium have stalled amid budgetary constraints and the protests of local residents. Football scholarships have increased to the mid-40s, but Dull said there are no plans to add more because of gender-equity concerns.

A 1993 consent decree between the California National Organization for Women and the California State University system required each campus to increase the percentage of women athletes, as well as funding for women's sports.

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