Theus slowly changing culture at Northridge

NORTHRIDGE, Calif. — First-year head basketball coach Reggie Theus needs to excuse himself to talk to a Cal State Northridge athletics assistant for a moment. It’s the first day of college basketball’s early signing period and he has recruits contacting him as he sits in his office adorned by memorabilia from his NBA days.

But it’s not basketball on his mind as he briefly walks out the door to talk to his assistant – it’s women’s volleyball.

“As soon as I’m done, remind me that I need to talk to Dr. (Brandon) Martin about a tailgating thing for the volleyball team,” Theus said. “I’m glad you reminded me about that.”

Theus has been working with the fraternities and sororities on campus to organize a tailgate for the upstart women’s volleyball team, which is in contention for its first-ever Big West title. But the event has been met by resistance from CSUN officials.
“My thought is, why are they resisting these guys wanting to tailgate to support the volleyball team?” Theus said. “That should be something that the university wants them to do… Those are the little things that we have to break through.”

Theus is the basketball coach, but he’s also part of a bigger picture of what the university is trying to accomplish. Cal State Northridge wants to shed its commuter school image and become one of the top mid-major athletic programs on the West Coast.

“The school used to be a DII school and there are still a lot people still here with that mindset,” Theus said. “It didn’t help that the administration really was not about sports for a long time so there was no reason for them to change. As for the administration, the mindset – it starts at the top.”

And that’s a fact that athletic director Martin agrees with as well. Martin, a local product out of the Valley, who played basketball at Cleveland High School in Reseda before going on to star at USC was hired in February. CSUN President Dr. Diane Harrison wanted to get serious about athletics and tasked Martin with bringing the Matadors up to speed.

“I have a phenomenal president who has provided me with unwavering support since arriving here on campus,” Martin said. “She has made athletics one of her top seven priorities and it’s already shown dividends in the campus community.”

One of Martin’s first moves was getting rid of his former high school coach Bobby Braswell. Braswell had coached the Matadors for 17 seasons and taken them to their first-ever NCAA Tournament but poor play and disciplinary issues had plagued the team in recent seasons. With the status quo no longer acceptable, Martin went in search of a coach that would serve as the face of the entire athletic program – not just the basketball team.

“Men’s basketball is our flashiest sport and it’s going to start there,” Martin said. “I knew that we had something special in Reggie when I hired him. I knew that he would elevate our basketball program, but I also knew that he would assist in elevating the department and our university.”

The NBA player-turned-actor-turned-coach knew that he was not going to come in turn things around overnight. But he would not have taken the job had the commitment to athletics not been there. His name and reputation have already brought an instant cache, attracting recruits and donors alike, two necessary building blocks.

But make no mistake — the blocks are only starting to be laid.

The 1,600-seat Matadome — a gymnasium inside the kinesiology building — where the basketball and volleyball teams play typically sees only sparse crowds and lacks a rowdy student section. Upgrades to the locker rooms were recently made and there is now VIP seating for the first time in the Matadome, but the facilities are still lacking. Theus joked that his Inglewood high school gym could hold more than the Matadome and it’s no joke, several high school gyms in the area seat the same or more.

No plans have been made for a new arena yet but exploratory committee has been formed by university administration.

“That’s something that we’re focused,” Martin said. “We’re going to make the necessary investments and we’re going to recruit the top athletes that we need to be successful and we’re going to make a full commitment to that goal.”

It’s going to be essential down the line, but for now, Theus’ focus is on changing the culture of the program.

“We’re going to run this program like the way I learned from (Louisville) coach (Rick) Pitino. Obviously, we don’t have that kind of budget but I know how that program is run, I know how things are supposed to be done,” Theus said. “It takes a year, it takes a little bit of time to get people to understand that these things are not compromising.”

It’s about more than basketball; it’s about building a successful basketball program to transform the athletic program into a centerpiece of a university.

“I think that the school spirit sucks and it’s something that we have to do better with,” Theus said. “It’s important for us to support everybody and I think as we break through some barriers, the trickle down will be very good for everyone else.”