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MARCH MADNESS / NCAA TOURNAMENT

Point Of No Return?

Braswell's Devotion to Alma Mater Will Be Tested When Job Offers for Northridge Coach Come Rolling In

March 14, 2001|VINCE KOWALICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Long before star-69, 8-year-old Penny Johnson would call 8-year-old Bobby Braswell on the telephone.

Bobby would answer. Penny would hang up.

"She had a crush on me," Braswell, the Cal State Northridge basketball coach, says fondly of his wife of 16 years. "I can't blame her."

A romance finally blossomed in high school. They rode the bus together from their homes in Los Angeles to Reseda's Cleveland High. Penny's mother had recently died and Braswell offered comfort.

"He was kind," Penny recalled. "He'd call me and we'd talk. He was always very focused, very spiritual. Always very concerned with doing things right."

Anyone who has drawn Braswell's ire--on or off the court--might not use the word "kind." But anyone who knows Braswell understands his deep-running devotion to God, family, basketball and discipline.

As for his devotion to Northridge, the alma mater he has guided to its first NCAA tournament, it soon figures to be tested by other college job offers.

Braswell, 38, reportedly is a candidate for the vacancy at Nevada Las Vegas and probably will be pursued by other schools after the season. Right now, he just wants to focus on business at hand.

"It's flattering when people are interested in you, but you have to keep that in perspective," Braswell said. "I can't stop the phone calls. I've had people call and I've had people ask. There's a lot of money [to be earned] out there in different places. But my family is happy here, and being happy is the most important thing to me."

A joyous season continues Friday, when Northridge (22-9) plays Kansas (24-6) in a Midwest Regional game at Dayton, Ohio.

It has been a breakthrough season for Northridge. The long-unheralded program has blossomed in its fifth season under Braswell, the son of an Army sergeant whose spit-and-polish approach and up-tempo attack have molded the Matadors into a tough opponent for anyone.

Northridge's 78-74 victory over UCLA on Nov. 21 at Pauley Pavilion rocked college basketball. And the Matadors didn't fare badly in a 99-90 loss to USC on Dec. 5.

But the Matadors at the Big Dance? Against Kansas? Surely, they don't stand a chance.

"That's what you think," Braswell said.

Braswell led another alma mater, Cleveland High, to two City Section finals and a 79-16 record in four seasons from 1985-89. He became a head coach and a husband the same year, taking on both responsibilities at 23.

The first of his three children, Jeffrey, now 14, was born while he was at Cleveland. Braswell has another son, Christopher, and a daughter, Kyndal.

"He's always seemed older than he is," said Penny, who admits initially being intimidated by Bobby's confidence. "He knew that he wanted to go into coaching."

Just as the Matadors have become too big for the 1,600-seat Matadome, their coach appears to have outgrown his role. Many potential employers appear to have a crush on Braswell, who is considered a shooting star.

Will he stay or will he go?

Mike Johnson, Braswell's top assistant, says Braswell is happy at Northridge and probably will be back next year.

"But if somebody makes you an offer you can't refuse, you can't refuse it," Johnson said.

Braswell insists he isn't looking for a job, but that won't stop schools from pursuing him.

A former assistant at Oregon and Long Beach State, Braswell has been a candidate for other jobs the last two seasons. He was a finalist at Oregon State last year, losing out to former Colorado State coach Ritchie McKay. He has also been a candidate at Washington State and Long Beach State, where he was an assistant from 1989-91.

Last season, Cal State Fullerton contacted Northridge about Braswell.

"After the NCAA tournament, there will be a lot of coaching vacancies across the country," said Dick Dull, Northridge athletic director. "I imagine Bobby Braswell will be on a lot of people's short list.

"He is an extraordinary basketball coach. We're going to be out to keep him. But I realize if Duke, North Carolina or UCLA come calling, we wouldn't be able to match that kind of financial package."

It is conceivable Braswell will leave. Surely, he can aim only so high at financially strapped Northridge. There are greater challenges.

Some might say his task at Northridge is finished, or soon will be. Braswell believes it has just begun.

"The best is yet to come," has been Braswell's catch phrase this season.

He also consistently mentions God.

Braswell begins postgame interviews with a brief expression of his faith. The night Northridge defeated Eastern Washington and clinched the Big Sky regular-season title, Braswell read a piece of Scripture tucked in his pocket.

Braswell won't turn a deaf ear to job offers. But any decision to leave Northridge would be a difficult one.

"Understand this," he said. "Right now, my heart and soul is 100% committed to Cal State Northridge. I don't have my mind on checking out other jobs. I've always felt, because of my faith and my belief, that this is where God wants me to be and that this is going to work out."

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