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Bakersfield hopes Division I sports lift the city

Athletics are viewed as a way to gain resources, drive enrollment and build toward a county of more college graduates.

August 13, 2007|Ken Fowler | Times Staff Writer

BAKERSFIELD -- Around here, people tend to focus more on what they have rather than what they're missing.

It's just the way it is in the dusty Central Valley, a locale that has been the target of jokes from the big city to the southwest.

Now Bakersfield has a plan to step up.

It starts with the sports teams at the local Cal State -- a relatively tiny school with barely 5,000 undergraduates.

As the thinking goes, boosting Cal State Bakersfield's athletic programs to NCAA Division I status should trigger a chain reaction that results in the school -- and eventually the community -- attaining new heights.

A pipe dream? While nobody is flatly predicting failure, the plan has been tried before -- most recently in the state by UC Davis, UC Riverside and Cal State Northridge -- and what has seemed like a good idea on paper hasn't always ended up being practical.

But the students, alumni and school administrators from Bakersfield say they believe in the plan, and so do the mayor and other civic leaders.

Why might this domino game be different?

Well, because in many ways it has to be.

University President Horace Mitchell is looking for the move in athletics -- Bakersfield teams competed at the Division II level through the spring of 2006 -- to lay the foundation and "jump-start" a drive to increase enrollment by bettering the quality of campus life.

In the end, it is hoped, Kern County will become home to a higher percentage of college graduates. Right now, the county rate, 13.5%, is about half the state average of 26.6%.

The carrot at the end of the equation was enough to persuade David Murdock, chief executive officer of Dole Food, to recently pledge a $1-million donation to the athletics program.

"When we were talking with Mr. Murdock he wasn't that interested in the athletics part," Mitchell said. "But it was because we showed him the tie-in and the connection between the move to Division I and getting the resources to develop our campus and to add new academic programs -- it was that part he identified with."

In January, less than two years after starting the drive, the school met its goal of raising $6 million for athletics. Using momentum from that effort, a campaign to raise more than $30 million for general use is expected to begin within a year.

Bakersfield water polo and wrestling teams already have been competing at the Division I level, but this past school year marked the first of four transition years the school has before its other sports must meet all NCAA Division I standards -- requirements that range from playing a minimum number of games against Division I teams to providing a designated amount of money in scholarships.

Experts have estimated that Bakersfield will need to generate an extra $2.7 million annually to play sports at the major college level. Of the extra $6 million Bakersfield has raised, about $2.5 million is slated for starting up a baseball program.

Why take on the additional expense?

Because Bakersfield fancies itself a future member of the Big West Conference and is operating under the impression that the conference will give preference to schools with baseball programs when considering expansion.

But Big West Commissioner Dennis Farrell said that the conference's presidents and chancellors "have not made further expansion a hot-button topic at this point." Which means Bakersfield will play without a conference affiliation for at least the next year. Because conference affiliation allows for greater scheduling convenience and geographic proximity to opponents, continuing as an independent or joining a conference more geographically diverse than the all-California Big West are far less desirable options for Bakersfield than entering the Big West.

And schools moving to Division I have had mixed success, even after joining a conference.

The coach of Bakersfield's new baseball program is Bill Kernen, who guided Northridge's program during its transition and -- while playing as an independent, without conference affiliation -- brought the Matadors within three outs of a berth in the College World Series during their first Division I season. However, since becoming a Big West member in 2001, Northridge has won just five conference titles outside of track and field, where it has won seven.

At least one coach thinks Bakersfield has advantages over Northridge. Bakersfield volleyball Coach John Price, who used to coach at Northridge, says support from the students, school administration and the local community is far greater in the Central Valley.

"At Northridge, there's going to be pride in Northridge, but the neighborhood has gone to Long Beach State or Irvine or Santa Barbara or Pepperdine or UCLA or USC," Price said. "Well, here we don't have a Division I university -- we don't have any university -- within 100 miles of us."

Mayor Harvey Hall, a longtime financial supporter of Bakersfield's athletics program, says he believes the step up in competition will enhance the image of the city. He also expects enrollment growth to result in additional jobs to bolster the area economy.

"It's just like starting a new business," Hall said. "You've got to work at it and continually work at it, make it better and better and better, and you'll be successful.

"It's all about enthusiasm. Just be supportive and let's look at the future as one of being positive, and we'll be successful at it."

ken.fowler@latimes.com

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