LUSTER ELUDES `MATADOME' NO UPGRADES FOR CSUN FACILITIES SINCE FOOTBALL WAS CUT.
Mike Batesole took a tour of the Fresno State campus last spring and hardly could fathom the vision before him.
On the day he was introduced as the Bulldogs' new baseball coach, he couldn't help but gawk at the school's facilities. He deemed the intramural softball fields more suitable than the baseball facility at which he had worked the past seven years: Cal State Northridge's.
``The field at Northridge, somebody needs to come in there and renovate the entire facility from top to bottom,'' Batesole said. ``The community deserves it. The kids deserve it.
``The program has come a long way. It's the last thing they need to get it to a higher level. There's not too much they couldn't do if they had a facility.''
And not much more they can do without one. Batesole might as well have been talking about the basketball gym. The softball field. The soccer field. Every CSUN facility is unbelievably inadequate for a modern, Division I program.
The CSUN administration has a vision for new arenas. Several of them. Just no plans for them, or money. The only visible changes the department has made since it eliminated the football program nearly one year ago is to write a report on what it visualizes. Yet as the Cal State system grapples with budgetary woes, there seems no urgency to make that vision a reality.
Eliminating the football program should have meant more resources for other sports. But just as many longtime CSUN watchers foresaw, everything remains the same.
``Facilities at Northridge will never change,'' said Mike Johnson, a former CSUN basketball assistant who's now at UC Irvine. ``I would be surprised. Northridge is what it is. They need to make it as good as it can be. In my opinion, it would take a Gonzaga-like run of six or seven years - that kind - to get the community fired up enough to change the facility.
``When I started 10 years ago, there was a blueprint of a new arena. That thing sat there for two years, and I've never seen anything since.''
President Jolene Koester asked athletic director Dick Dull to design a five-year plan - complete with future goals and prioritized facility needs - for the athletic department.
This is the perfect and perhaps only time for the department to distance itself from a sketchy history, one marred by almost comical blunders.
CSUN, which has 30 Division II national championships, moved to Division I status in the 1990-91 season. Not much has changed since then; the Matadors play in the same facilities.
Koester, while pledging her office to drum up fund-raising, doesn't want to fund-raise without a plan. The short-term plan doesn't call for a new arena, but to implement an arena in the long term, fund-raising needs to be formulated now. But it hasn't been.
``I know Dick Dull and President Koester are sensitive (to facilities),'' said Dennis Farrell, the Big West commissioner. ``You don't just wave a magic wand and build a state-of- the-art facility. You have to have a plan for that. They have to address that over the next five to 10 years. They'll be recruiting the same student athletes that Long Beach State and Irvine do.''
Dull has devised a plan that outlines the university's goals - from academic integrity to NCAA compliance - for the next five years. Now his duty is to execute it.
``We're at a very challenging time but also a very exciting time,'' one Cal State Northridge official said. ``The way I look at it, if any of those things get done, that's more than former administrations have accomplished.''
Credit Koester for displaying - and pledging - support to the athletic department. CSUN never had a written plan or outlined goals for the athletic department until now.
If a state bond passes, $1.65 billion will be allocated for higher-education facilities. Koester said she'd allot some of that toward athletic facility improvements, such as resurfacing the track. It's the first time a CSUN president has pledged general funds to athletics.
That's a start.
When Dull made the recommendation to eliminate football, the hope was more money would be available for other sports, and that there would be a vision to equip Northridge's teams with more resources, financial and otherwise.
``They can't keep talking about it,'' said former CSUN point guard Markus Carr, who's now playing in the NBA's developmental league. ``If they keep talking about it, nothing will change. If anything, it will probably get worse.
``Northridge is in a position where they need to begin working now - not later - on something to improve facilities. The past couple of years, we got a lot of exposure. We went to the NCAA Tournament and got new recruits. With schools like Northridge, that's only going to last so long. They need to devise a plan and work on it.''
Dull outlined nine priority sports in his plan, and basketball is the marquee sport at CSUN. Dull, the former Maryland athletic director, knows that's where the money is for the Matadors. Yet, there's no plan for a new facility.
``I think the Matadome will serve us for the next decade,'' Dull said.
The school has added new lights in the gym, but the ``Matadome'' - more accurately, the Kinesiology building with a basketball court inside - already is grossly outdated. CSUN plans to add more seats in the gym, although officials have talked about that on many occasions.
Fund-raising has been a constant struggle for the Northridge athletic department and the entire university - until Koester's arrival in the summer of 2000.
The athletic department, which has just one full-time fund-raiser, raised $573,210 - including sponsorship, cash in kind and donation of services - in 2000-2001. That's hardly enough for minor upgrades, let alone the beginnings of a new arena.
CSUN's overall fund-raising efforts have nearly doubled under Koester. In 1999-2000, the school raised $7.7 million. In 2000-2001, the total was $12.3 million - a 58.8 percent increase, which ranks fourth among Cal State campuses.
One Northridge official said databases - at least in the athletic department - are incomplete and inaccurate, making fund-raising efforts more difficult.
During the summer, CSUN rallied student volunteers to help with a phone fund-raiser. It turned into another blunder. Former football players and boosters were called to donate money not even a year after the program was eliminated.
Detroit Tigers All-Star Robert Fick, a CSUN product, used to be a supporter of the baseball program. Professional athletes are a logical target for fund-raising efforts, but Fick said he's never been contacted.
``They never call,'' Fick said. ``Never called. I may have donated a few bats and balls and (stuff) like that. Just stuff for Mike (Batesole). ... I'll send all my stuff up to Fresno now. There's going to be a lot of guys leaving home and going to Fresno.''
Fick said he no longer has loyalties to the school - just to Batesole.
Caleb Jones, a 1975 CSUN graduate who played on the club hockey team, said he's only received a few recent letters requesting donations.
``What do I hope for? It's probably different than what I would predict,'' Jones said. ``As much as I disagreed with the loss of football, I hope they avoid de-emphasizing sports and emphasizing basketball and baseball and volleyball to be highly competitive.
``My fear is they won't seize the opportunity and will continue the mediocrity of academic people in charge not taking sports seriously. Now is the time to take the bull by the horns and steer it in the right direction.''
Different CSUN administrations have toyed with the idea of new stadiums, arenas, upgrades and facelifts. Nothing ever materialized except for resentment and apathy among community members.
``It's small-time athletics, really,'' said Randy Merdler, who hadn't missed a home football game in 15 years and regularly attends basketball games. ``They'll have an occasional good season. But things won't change. I think it's sort of hopeless. There's no fan support.
``We'll have the same conversation in 30 years and nothing will have changed. I'm just being realistic.''
But will Dull and Koester be around in 10 to 15 years? CSUN presidents and athletic directors come and go at an alarming rate. And if history is an indicator, they'll be long gone.
``There are short-term and longer-term goals,'' Koester said. ``In the next five years, it is accurate that it's unlikely we'll be able to build all of those facilities. We have a comprehensive set of goals. If you set the window longer than five years, instead look at 10-15 years, it's not impossible for us to develop an ideal set of facilities.''
In his six years as men's basketball coach, Bobby Braswell has overhauled the program. CSUN beat UCLA at Pauley Pavilion - an ESPN ``SportsCenter'' lead story - and made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in the 2000-2001 season.
Braswell has made something out of nothing. But without facilities, he know's it's going to continue to get harder.
``I've kind of held my tongue on it over the years because we hadn't done anything, and I wanted to establish this program,'' Braswell said. ``I do think it's something people are talking about now. I think it's something that the university has to be prepared to step up and make the commitment to improve it.
``Not just basketball facilities but our softball and soccer - different things. We've got an empty lot down there. We've got some vacant land. We need to find a way to do the things we need to do to improve this athletic department. It's positive that we have these short-term goals of improving facilities, but I think we have to have more of a vision than that, and we have to be prepared to look to the future. If we don't, we're going to get left behind in this conference.''
CSUN has 20 sports programs, the most in the Cal State system.
``We are committed to the 20 sports in Division I, absolutely,'' Koester said. ``We are committed. There's not much I can say to someone who's worried about it. People who are worried about it are looking at the past. It's my firm resolve at this point and time.''
Before the football program was eliminated, CSUN hired independent consultants to study the athletic department. Not only did they agree to eliminate football, they saw major problems maintaining 20 sports.
``I don't know what's happened since I was there, but it seemed to me that they needed more financial support and more income coming in to take care of what they had, let alone have a drain with no interest,'' said Cincinnati athletic director Bob Goin, one of the consultants. ``The sports weren't being funded at the Division I level. How are you going to grow unless you give those other sports resources with revenue coming in? At that time, I didn't see how they could spread that revenue out.''
New facilities typically bring new enthusiasm. The University of San Diego has the Jenny Craig Pavilion, a $17.5 million building with a 5,100-seat capacity. Craig and her husband donated $10 million, and the university raised the other $7.5 million through a three-year capital campaign.
``Our ability to raise money has gone up so much since we built this facility - corporate sponsorship, interest, season-ticket interest,'' said Brian Fogerty, San Diego's assistant athletic director for development. ``Everything has changed since we built that building.''
CSUN has major decisions to make about what type of athletic program it wants, what it needs to get it and how to fund it.
The athletic department must recruit better athletes in order to be a force in the Big West. They need better facilities. A new arena is a must, and the time to act was yesterday.
``It is daunting,'' Koester said of CSUN's needs. ``We have major facility needs for a lot of sports, and we'll have to organize ourselves and decide exactly whether or not to target a facility or specific facilities.
``We have a lot of work cut out for us.''
(1 -- color) CSUN softball coach Barbara Jordan stands inside the storage container that is her team's locker room, an example of the serious facility woes facing the school's athletic program.
David Sprague/Staff Photographer
(2) CSUN is looking for more than an ``i'' for the Kinesiology building. The basketball facility inside, which school officials call the ``Matadome,'' requires major improvement to get up to Big West Conference standards.
Joe Binoya/Special to the Daily News