|« Jax State's Crowe Thinks ex-LSU QB a Chance Worth Taking||NC A&T Aggies Pull Together at First Practice »|
Former Cal State-Northridge Coach Continues To Wait
Ponciano, fired nine years ago amid NCAA infractions, bides time at JC level while waiting for big shot.
GLENDORA - Football practice at Citrus College was over, but Ron Ponciano had plenty of candle left to burn. Breaking down film would have to wait, and calling recruits wasn’t on the agenda.
Ponciano had to grade papers, and it had to be done at night because the health class he teaches was going to meet the next morning. After that, he was covering for a professor in another class, and he also had to counsel some football players in the afternoon.
“I used to never fill out a time card, now I fill out three of them,” he said with a chuckle.
Since seeing his once-promising football coaching career thrown into turmoil by NCAA violations and his personal belief in the truth, Ponciano has done exactly what he asks of his defense every Saturday - he grinds through each day.
The former Cal State Northridge head coach is a teacher by morning, a recruiter for the junior college by afternoon and the football team’s defensive coordinator by evening and on weekends.
It is not the path Ponciano imagined after he led the Matadors to one of the best seasons in school history. Nine years after his career turned crazy, he said a day does not go by in which he doesn’t think about what transpired.
Less than a month before the 1999 season, Ponciano was fired by CSUN for NCAA rules violations. He moved to Kansas, then back to Southern California. He lost his house and lived with his in-laws, fought depression and questioned his beliefs.
“I was in a state of depression for I don’t know how many years,” Ponciano said. “It just destroyed me. It was unbelievable. I was in a very dark state.”
Ten years ago, Ponciano was preparing for his only season as Matadors coach. He was bright and hard-nosed, affable yet sometimes ornery. He was a great motivator and strong coach, and his biggest problem was a penchant for swearing a little too much.
Above all, though, he believed in his principles - a quality that endeared him to players but could be the reason the allegations still eat away at him and might keep him from coaching in big-time college athletics.
In July 1999, after the Matadors went 7-4 and missed the NCAA Division I-AA playoffs by one game, Ponciano was fired, even as the school conducted an internal investigation into NCAA rules violations. A report from the NCAA pinned 15 violations on the program, and pointed to Ponciano as the lynchpin for them.
At the time, Ponciano said he was responsible for two or three of them, which he still insists.
“One (violation) was we signed DeAndre Hackett, and he was playing in a basketball game, and it was a violation to go and watch him play,” said Ponciano, a former USC graduate assistant. “An assistant, Keith Borges, said it was a violation to go and watch him play, and then Rob Phenicie said, `Ron, who’s going to know? We’re Northridge.’ I said, `You’re right. Let’s go and watch it.’ Now, it’s just a letter of reprimand. We didn’t even talk to them.”
Two other violations Ponciano admits to committing were a booster club paying for and cooking chicken and burgers and hot dogs for players after Wednesday practices. There was also a falsified expense report from Ponciano’s days as an assistant coach at CSUN, and he said that money was used to buy a VCR for the football office so coaches could watch tape.
“Ron got himself into trouble, but I think the chancellor was looking for a way to drop the program. And the administration was looking for it,” said Sam Jankovich, CSUN’s interim athletic director during the school’s investigation.
“They brought a financial guy in who was doing the investigation, and he didn’t know whether the ball was pumped or stuffed. They had a lot of the wrong people making the decisions.”
Ponciano wasn’t out of work long, but he was certainly out of sorts.
A few weeks after being fired, he was hired as an assistant at McPherson College, a tiny NAIA school 60 miles north of Wichita.
The Ponciano family - Ron, Lisa and their son, Chad (now 11) - sold the house in Northridge and moved to Kansas.
Ponciano spent a few months at McPherson before moving back to Southern California and joined the staff at Los Angeles Valley College. But Ponciano remained bitter and finances were tight, so the family lived with Lisa’s parents in Alta Loma. And it battered Ponciano’s ego.
“Our stuff was in storage for two years,” Ponciano said.
“Ego? I don’t know if I have an ego anymore. Our rules of thumb here, and they’ve worked, are stay humble, stay hungry.”
Los Angeles commutes are hellish already, and Ponciano’s own inferno lasted for 126miles round-trip. He spent five seasons at Valley College, including the last four as the head coach, but was fired after the 2004 season. His record was 11-29.
“It was a major issue, and still is,” Ponciano said. “I went two years through personal counseling with anger management, depression. It was tough. I never thought it was real. I wouldn’t go fishing. I wouldn’t do anything. Nothing.”
Already living in Alta Loma, when an opportunity to work at Citrus College came along, he moved on it.
The campus, situated at the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, is quaint, but with a spectacular view. On a recent afternoon, as the coaching staff conducted non-uniformed conditioning and passing drills, Ponciano’s distinct voice - a unique, deliberate way of speaking - is heard above all others on the practice field.
After one botched play, Ponciano tells a cornerback, “That’ll get you off the field quicker than anything.” After the cornerback makes a nifty play to bat down a pass, he says, “That’s why you finish strong. Get beat like a drum but finish strong.”
Ponciano also surveys the field and chides the offensive coaches by saying, “There’s too many good receivers out there right now. That’s unethical.”
After practice, as a smiling Ponciano heads toward the cramped football offices (desks are placed next to each other in one small room), a handful of players line up to speak with him about gaining academic clearance to be eligible to play. As part guidance counselor, he shoehorns each player between his teaching schedule and the next day’s football activities.
“The one saving grace through this whole thing is I’ve been able to spend more time with my son,” Ponciano said. “I am the field-trip dad, no doubt about it. All the kids know me.”
In a climate in which coaches are given second and third chances - in December, UCLA hired Rick Neuheisel as its coach despite a history of rules violations - Ponciano has had scant chances to get back into the mainstream channels of coaching.
He said after his only season as CSUN’s coach, Southwest Missouri State and UNLV called, but he wasn’t ready to listen because he wanted to build the Matadors into a Division I-AA power. There was also a dalliance to become the Green Bay Packers’ defensive quality control coach a number of years back, but he said after being told the job was his, the club changed its mind the next day.
While chomping on chicken teriyaki and vegetables at one of Ponciano’s favorite spots adjacent to Citrus College, there was little question where he believed his career would be now.
“I thought I’d be back at Northridge putting together a I-AA power, or a Division I coordinator,” Ponciano said. “I knew I would be in one of those two places.”
Ron Barker, part of the NCAA’s investigative team that worked on Ponciano’s case, said one reason Division I schools might be hesitant to hire Ponciano is he knowingly skirted rules, no matter how minor the violation.
“When you’re intentionally stating, `Oh, that’s just a stupid rule, I’m going to go forward,’ then it becomes more serious,” said Barker, now the Pacific-10 Conference’s associate commissioner of governance and enforcement. “I think that became part of this. This was a coach that knew the rule, but said it was a stupid rule and was moving ahead and violated it.”
Ponciano never argued that point. In fact, he uses Barker as a reference for prospective employers.
“The stuff he did, on the scale of national attention, doesn’t even make a blip on the radar,” Barker said. “If you go to Indiana, nobody even remembers that Cal State Northridge had a football team and Ron Ponciano was the coach.
“But any administrator is going to look at a coach that had a violation more than a coach that did not, so he’s in that group. But he’s not above everyone else. He’s just part of that group.”
When UCLA offensive coordinator Norm Chow was being considered for Vanderbilt’s head coaching job a few years back, Ponciano was contacted about possibly joining the staff.
“He has a nice football coaching reputation,” Chow said. “I heard nothing but good things about him as a football coach.”
Texas-El Paso coach Mike Price, the former Washington State coach, said he considered Ponciano for jobs on several occasions, but the fit never was right.
“I think he would be a real good choice, particularly for a program in the West because he has so many connections,” Price said. “He’s a tireless worker, a good coach. He certainly should be at a Division I school, if that is what he desires. I’ve called him a number of times to speak with him about players, especially at the junior-college level.”
Ponciano said several coaches from other Division I programs with lower profiles contacted him about possible jobs, but none came to fruition. But Jankovich, the former CSUN interim athletic director, said a lack of networking, and not the NCAA sanctions, is a bigger reason Ponciano has not risen to a higher level.
“I don’t know how many people Ron knows out there,” Jankovich said. “I think it’s really important that you know people, and you network properly.
“Look at Neuheisel at UCLA, and other people around the country that get jobs. I think Ron knows the ground rules, and if he was hired by somebody and they said, `Look, these are the ground rules, and if you violate any one of them you’re out of there,’ he’d be a good soldier.”
Still looking for closure
Ponciano continually calls himself “stupid” for what transpired at CSUN. He is not angry about the violations, which he believes were brought to the administration’s attention by two of his then-assistants, Borges and Craig Wall, in a neatly detailed letter, but for his pie-in-the-sky outlook on the program.
In Ponciano’s only season as head coach, he came within a win of a Big Sky Conference championship and a berth in the Division I-AA playoffs. He now believes the school was looking to drop football, which it did after the 2001 season, but wouldn’t be able to do it if he was at the helm because of success on the field.
He said he could have received a $45,000 buyout and was told the school would “not smear you in the paper,” and was warned it could turn ugly, and public, if he fought it.
His pride and reputation was on the line, he said, so he fought it. And, nine years later, he continues to fight it.
“Even though it’s still tough and I think about it daily, I think I still did the right thing, and have nothing to be ashamed of, in my opinion,” Ponciano said. “But it’s something I don’t wish on anyone. I’m 49years old and I still don’t get it.
“I’ll probably be OK when I’m 80. Of course, I’ll probably remember conversations and allegations I can still do nothing about.”
Former CSUN football coach continues to carry that wait
By Brian Dohn, The Los Angeles Daily News
Photo Credit: Keith Birmingham/The Los Angeles Daily News