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Northridge Preparing to Leave Shabby Home

College football: Matadors open 30th season at North Campus Stadium knowing facility's days are numbered.

September 16, 2000|VINCE KOWALICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cal State Northridge soon will say goodbye to the Big Sky Conference and the ground beneath North Campus Stadium.

Perhaps its football program, too. One never knows when trying to predict the future of Northridge athletics.

Two things are certain as Northridge (1-1) kicks off its 30th season at North Campus Stadium today with a Big Sky Conference opener against Northern Arizona (1-0):

* The Matadors' days on their home field are numbered.

* And the dream of Northridge building an on-campus stadium--a trumpeted yet ultimately ill-advised agenda item only a few years ago--likely will remain just that.

Northridge administrators steadfastly deny the school plans to drop football. Still, these are pivotal and unpredictable times for Northridge, which will leave the Big Sky after five seasons and join the Big West Conference in most sports.

Northridge will compete as an independent in football beginning next season, forced to search for opponents with the added chore of having to search for a new playing field.

North Campus Stadium, the antiquated, uncomfortable, poorly lighted 7,000-seat, half-century-old eyesore the Matadors have called home since 1971, is scheduled for the wrecking ball. The land will become part of the expansion of the $70-million headquarters of MiniMed, a biotechnology center that has claim to 40 acres of the 65-acre parcel formerly known as Devonshire Downs.

Demolition could begin within a year, although Northridge is trying to amend its agreement with MiniMed to allow the Matadors to play the 2001 season at North Campus.

Northridge has a preliminary agreement with Pierce College and probably will make the Woodland Hills stadium its interim home. No longer faced with a mandate from the Big Sky to build a spacious on-campus stadium, Northridge administrators clearly have de-emphasized the issue.

Simply stated, there are no plans to build a stadium.

"It's on the back burner," Athletic Director Dick Dull said. "Certainly not off the stove, but it's not something we need to concern ourselves with now. We have other areas fund-raising is vitally important to."

Jolene Koester, Northridge president since July, said any athletic expansion will take place only after lengthy consideration. A multimillion-dollar stadium, she said, is far from a priority for the financially strapped institution.

"The move from the Big Sky to the Big West gives us some breathing room," Koester said. "We need to look carefully at what we need to do [regarding a stadium]. We need to be sure the path we are going down is the path we want to be going down."

Fund-raising by Northridge, although improving, is far from what is needed to fund such lofty projects, and administrators have shifted their focus to upgrading existing facilities, including the Matadome and Matador Field.

In terms of fan support, Northridge doesn't need a new football stadium. The Matadors, whose home attendance record is 7,127 against Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 1990, routinely draw between 4,000-5,000 for home games.

"We're not turning 10,000 people away every week," Northridge Coach Jeff Kearin said. "If we were, they'd build it. I guarantee you they'd find a way to build it if we had that kind of fan base. But we don't."

Kearin said the importance of a stadium is overrated.

"It is always nice to play in a comfortable, well-lit venue," he said. "But I don't think it is the definitive part of any program because I don't think the kids we're trying to recruit care as much about those types of things. They want an opportunity to play at the highest level they can play and that's what we provide."

Recruiting likely will suffer as Northridge lowers its football profile. Northridge intends to continue playing nonconference games against Big Sky teams, but most of the Matador schedule will include games against teams closer to home and lower in stature.

As for North Campus Stadium, good riddance, say most.

"It is a little embarrassing when the high school stadium down the street has bigger bleachers than your field," defensive end Eric Gardner said. "Other teams' coaches and fans rag on it."

The place has its history and charm. Devonshire Downs was the site of weekly harness racing before 20,000 fans during the 1940s and '50s, attracting a throng of celebrities. Jimi Hendrix headlined a three-day rock concert in 1969 that drew 200,000.

Northridge has fared well, competitively, at North Campus, posting a 90-55-3 record.

"I've always taken pride in the fact that we are the only Division I school in Los Angeles that walks across the parking lot to play its home games," Kearin said.

Yet to most observers--particularly visiting teams--the place is an embarrassment.

Quarterback Marcus Brady recalls inadvertently driving past North Campus Stadium on his first visit to Northridge.

"I'm not going to lie, I thought it was a high school stadium," Brady said. "I had to turn around and go back."

Gil Rodriguez, a senior receiver, serves as a team representative during recruiting, providing would-be Matadors with campus tours.

"It is a big turnoff," Rodriguez said. "Guys come in here and say, 'Nice practice field, now where's the stadium?' "

Rodriguez felt likewise when he first laid eyes on North Campus Stadium. But his feelings have changed.

"I've learned to appreciate this place," he said. "It's like our own little 'Dawg Pound.' I've mapped out all the bumps and gopher holes. I know where to run the DBs and everything. When you come through this program, you learn to live with what we have. It's home."

Cal State Northridge vs. Northern Arizona

Today, 3:05 p.m.

North Campus Stadium

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