FOLLOWING THROUGH IS CSUN'S NEXT STEP.
Keith Richman remembers.
It was a Thursday morning. He and his wife were scanning newspapers when a story jumped off the page. Cal State Northridge had dropped four men's sports.
``I sure wish I could do something,'' he said.
He headed a group of 14 others - students, faculty, alumni and community members - charged by the state legislature to review Northridge athletics. It accomplished what administrators could not when money problems and stringent gender-equity requirements led them to cut teams.
They gave the public a voice.
Perhaps more upsetting than canceling baseball, men's soccer, men's swimming and men's volleyball last summer was the process.
Administrators didn't conduct a public forum. Athletic director Paul Bubb said last year it would only pit neighbors, coaches and athletes against each other.
What's more, officials finalized the decision in early June, when most student-athletes had left for the summer. Many who stayed learned of their fate through the newspapers.
Even worse, university president Blenda Wilson left for Newport Beach on school business when Bubb and student affairs vice president Ronald Kopita announced the cuts. She was unavailable until the following day.
As a result, the community believed officials didn't care, the sports were cut haphazardly and that no alternatives were explored.
So in September - three months after canceling the sports and a month after a one-time state grant of $586,000 brought them back for a year - Wilson asked Richman to chair the Task Force on Intercollegiate Athletics. Friends told him to stay away.
``A number of people advised me not do it,'' Richman said. ``They thought it was a no-win situation. Obviously, I'm a reasonably optimistic person.''
Richman took the job and made it clear that he wanted to find a way to retain all of the sports. After three months of public meetings and a community-wide forum, the task force submitted a 200-page report that emphatically urged one thing: Keep all 20 teams.
Days after receiving the report, Wilson announced that CSUN is committed to maintaining a broad-based program - as long as resources allow that.
The longterm fate of CSUN sports remains in doubt.
But for now, the state of California is wealthier by billions, and the economic windfall likely will stretch over the next century. For the 1998-99 fiscal year, the Cal State University system expects to receive $2.3 billion from the state, $293.2 million more than 1996-97. That financial surge has prompted Bubb to ask Northridge for double the $1.5 million general fund allocation it received last year.
Wilson has yet to approve the university's overall budget, but Bubb is optimistic.
``I feel very good about the budget process,'' Bubb said. ``Enrollment may also go up, so we may get more money from (student fees). Our spring fund drive went well, and with some of the contests we have scheduled, our gate receipts should be good next year.
``Whether we get $3 million or (the task force-recommended) $2.6 from the general fund, we'll work with what we have and move forward.''
And moving forward means something.
For the first time since 1994, Northridge has drafted plans for the long term. Early this year, Bubb assembled a five-year budget forecast to be updated annually, so the athletic department is always looking five years ahead. The plan includes hiring a women's water polo coach by this year and the addition of that sport plus men's tennis by fall 1999.
Another women's sport - likely to be lacrosse, for which the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation sponsors - will compete by 2000. The forecast also shows, beginning this fall, each women's team will receive the NCAA-maximum number of scholarships.
But the plan only works if the general fund keeps giving CSUN sports $3 million, if the school's Instructional Related Activities fund and University Corporation continue to award them $600,000 each, student fees generate at least $1.6 million per year and athletic revenues - estimated at $1.1 million for the coming school year - make a steady rise.
These figures must remain constant or improve until Northridge develops the kind of private support needed to maintain a viable Division I athletic program - the kind that gave Fresno State $7.1 million to spend in 1998-99.
Northridge is nearly $7 million away from that.
Fund-raising results vary
At last count, CSUN's annual fund drive raised $200,000, with a potential to grow by $50,000 by the end of the fiscal year. A spring fund drive has raked in at least $78,000. But booster support was nonexistent in four sports - men's golf, men's volleyball, women's tennis and women's volleyball.
Not counting the money raised this past weekend, administrators, coaches and development staff this spring raised nearly $15,000 for the football team, yet volunteers brought in just $50. For women's soccer and the track and field/cross country program, boosters raised $100 per team.
That's not the case with every sport.
Men's soccer, whose booster club actively participated in task-force meetings, raised the most money with $6,455; women's basketball came in second with $5,825. Baseball raised $2,250, but the figure comes from only two gifts.
``This year, many of the coaches didn't have solid ideas of who could lead their booster clubs,'' said Michael Rehm, first-year development director and former assistant at Montana. ``A lot of them are still learning how to be Division I coaches, learning that the public relations and fund-raising aspects are part of their jobs.''
Students, faculty, staff, community members and alumni scraped and clawed to revive their teams, yet after the fight many disappeared.
Attendance for men's volleyball improved by just 17, attracting an average 433 fans at home this past season. In 1996, men's soccer pulled a crowd of 605 per game; in 1997, the number climbed to 659. The most surprising, however, is baseball, whose cancellation sent many Valley residents reeling. The 1997 season attracted 273 per home game. This year, an average of 216 showed up.
``Attendance was average,'' said men's volleyball coach Jeff Campbell, ``but we definitely have more financial support than before.''
Keeping it afloat
Institutional dollars can't keep feeding athletics. Somewhere down the line, if Northridge wants to graduate from affordable to healthy, the teams must move toward self-sufficiency. Community outrage was not solely responsible for keeping CSUN at 20 sports. Wilson admitted budget problems have dissipated for the 1998-99 school year mainly because the state could spare Northridge extra money.
``I believe we can be OK, but (the goal is) for athletics funding not to rely on additional state funds,'' Wilson said. ``If we did not have the generosity of the state budget, clearly there would be a problem. The (state's) $4.2 billion blip this year is a first. Frankly, I'm nervous about what the next year will bring.
``People want sports,'' Wilson said. ``But do they understand that sports cost money that could be used for our primary mission, which is academics? My regret is that beyond the outcry, we have not achieved increased public support (in game attendance and monetary donations).''
So how does Northridge survive in the long run?
Rehm's hiring is one step. Previously, Northridge athletics lacked a development officer for two years.
As for football's lack of volunteer support, first-year head coach Ron Ponciano looks to erase that problem by next year. In May, he began a search for Northridge football alumni dating back to 1962. He found 1,210 names, including nine who coach at local high schools. He hopes to entice them into joining the athletic association.
But no matter how hard fund-raisers work, private support ultimately depends on the university's commitment - as a whole - to its athletic program. Dropping four sports wounded Northridge's development capacities in 1997; the scars haven't disappeared.
This year has raised some new doubts. When Wilson decided to temporarily delete a new football stadium from the university's master plan, saying the university has not yet approved a site or design, proponents were angered while opponents balked at the word ``temporarily.''
``I always get the question, `What's going on with this football stadium? How can you ask for my money if you keep going back and forth?' '' Rehm said.
The answer, for now, is a committee Wilson plans to appoint. The group will analyze CSUN's options for a stadium and look at how existing facilities could improve. Until then, until the money begins to roll in - or at least becomes easier to bait - Northridge will have to rely on the efforts of coaches and players.
Or positive thinking like that of soccer player Mike Preis, who said his team will bring home a conference championship. Or desire and perseverance like that of baseball player Mike McNeely, one of just five returners on the 1998 squad.
``We just wanted to play. We didn't care where, who against and how we did it. We just wanted to play.''
NORTHRIDGE SPRING FUND DRIVE RESULTS
Figures reflect money raised through volunteer effort from April 15 through May 29.
Men's Soccer $6,455
Women's Basketball $5,825
Men's Basketball $4,475
Women's Golf $500
Women's Soccer $100
Track/Cross Country $100
Men's Golf $0
Men's Volleyball $0
Women's Tennis $0
Women's Volleyball $0
Unrestricted funds raised by Keith Richman, chair of the spring drive $5,900
Box: NORTHRIDGE SPRING FUND DRIVE RESULTS (See Text)