I’ve been looking for signs of erosion in the relationship between Cal State University, Northridge and men’s basketball coach Reggie Theus. University officials brought in Theus to replace Bobby Braswell in 2013, loudly promoting the hire as one that would return Matadors basketball to a place of relevance in the Southland sports landscape.
The immediate results — at least on the surface — have not been elevating. And in our current sports world mindset, if you’re not an immediate success you quickly become an afterthought. “Next man up” doesn’t just apply to players.
So I, for one, was happy to see Athletic Director Brandon Martin provide more than “a vote of confidence.” He’s already given Theus a contract extension, through the 2019-20 season, meaning the coach has the time and opportunity to rebuild the program to prominence.
Theus is grateful for the legitimate show of support.
“I think what I’m most pleased with is that we all see the potential the program has,” Theus said. “And they all agree I’m the guy to do it. We all agree the program, the university — the area — has great potential. So in order for me to be comfortable, for me to really know I can do my job the right way under the strained circumstances, I needed some stability.
“I think [Northridge] is a sleeping giant. I look at this program and I think where San Diego State was, say 2005 or even five years ago. I think about where Gonzaga was. Both of those programs started off in worse shape than this program. This has a much better foundation, a much better base.”
Perhaps Martin and others — including fans — want to see what Theus can do with a full team.
In his first season, 2013-14, Theus had a total of eight scholarship players. He was also expecting transfers Amir Garrett and Kevin Johnson not only for depth but also to raise the the talent level. But they never got cleared by the NCAA.
“That was the year everyone was getting waivers from the NCAA,” Theus said, with a slight grimace. “We had legitimate waiver protocols, and they didn’t get the waivers. There’s a whole ‘nother story; but you deal with it.”
The Matadors finished 17-18. More impressively, they reached the Big West Conference tournament final and had an automatic NCAA Tournament bid within their grasp, but lost to Cal Poly in the final seconds, 61-59.
“Those two players (Garrett and Johnson) could have made a massive difference,” Theus said.
At least Johnson would eventually play for Northridge. Garrett who had been drafted by the Cincinnati Reds and signed a minor league deal, decided to concentrate solely on baseball.
Last season, 2014-15, was going to be better. Until it wasn’t. This time four players — Tavrion Dawson, Zacarry Douglas, Michael Warren and Jerron Wilbut — were forced to sit out. Theus was reduced to seven scholarship players. The Matadors staggered to a 9-24 record overall and lost their only conference postseason tournament game.
“Losing is something you never get used to — on any level, in life or sports. It’s something that always hurts,” Theus said.
“The one thing I’ll say: in the two years prior, they’ve been one of the hardest playing teams I’ve been around. I tell my guys all the time, ‘if you go down fighting, if you go down even if we outworked the other team, I’ll never be upset about losing the game. If we don’t have the numbers, if we’re not talented enough, if something don’t go right for us, I can accept that.
“The thing I cannot accept is not competing. To me, that’s how you judge a coach, a program. You judge partly by how many kids graduate, but you also judge in how hard they play. How do they represent the school on the floor. The last two years, I’ve had maybe four practices where I felt the guys didn’t play hard.”
Can 2015-16 end the streak of five consecutive losing seasons for Northridge? There are reasons to believe even though, once again, Theus and the Matadors must do battle with a diminished roster.
He still has only seven scholarship players so far, and its a unique configuration — three seniors and four freshmen. CSUN opened the season by winning one of three games this past weekend, defeating Wright State from Dayton, Ohio on Saturday, Nov. 14, in the Northern Illinois Showcase in DeKalb, Ill. They nearly made it two in a row on Sunday, but fell to South Dakota 76-72.
“You sit there and see how close the guys are in pulling a game out. We were a point up [against South Dakota] with three minutes to go in the game. But a series of things happened, and by the end of the game these guys are tired. They’re spent, running on fumes. Just the mere fact of their pride and me sitting back and yelling at them, pulling every little bit I can get out of them, I respect that,” Theus said.
“I see we have some of the same problems we’ve had in the past — short numbers. But if they continue (to play hard), they’re gonna be special. What happened to us last year threw me back to my first year. What you have now is a young team with guys sitting out. That’s what I had my first year. I had a team I inherited, and several guys sitting out. If I had been able to mix in the guys sitting out with the guys playing, then you would have something special. The fact I’m going into my third year and not had a full roster yet is amazing to me.”
The Matadors will add another player, Kendall Smith, in the spring. And there is a collection of transfers waiting in the wings. Dylan Johns, Darin Johnson, Rakim Lubin, Blair Orr, and Reggie Theus, Jr. the coach’s son. All have previously played at major universities like Connecticut, South Carolina, Texas A&M, and Washington. All become eligible next season.
This is what Theus and Northridge are banking on — a full team that gives him a realistic shot at winning the Big West Conference and getting the Northridge men back into the NCAA Tournament.
There are other changes, both immediate and pending.
Eight hundred seats in the upper level in the south side of the Matadome, that were lost because of the Northridge Earthquake in 1994, have been installed. Student tickets have been increased by 200 for this season.
And there are serious conversations going on about building a new arena on campus.
But you can’t fill an arena — new or used — if no one is interested in the the product.
Theus remains adamant that big-time men’s basketball can happen here. And that he is going to make it happen.
Right now, “it’s all about growth. I can’t worry about how many games we win or lose. I just tell our guys, and I’ve believed it my entire life on every level, if you do the work and play hard every night, you’re gonna win a share of basketball games. You may not win as many as you want, but you’re gonna compete and be proud of the job you’ve done. Because in the end that’s what it’s all about.”
But he completely understands that, at some point, results have to show on the plus side of the ledger.
“The dynamic is winning,” he said. “Listen, working hard and all that stuff is great for all the guys who understand what’s going on. But fans, they want to win. The students want to be proud of their team and they want to fly their colors with pride. That’s about winning.
“What I’m proud of, the core we have right now that are freshmen and playing, to be able to mix those young guys with the guys I have sitting out means we have a chance to be a pretty exciting basketball team next year. I don’t talk about next year too much, but the fact is you always have to look at what’s coming because you can sell the future.
“But winning is the dynamic that changes everything.”