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FOR WILDCATS, OPPONENTS AREN'T GREATEST THREAT

You could hardly blame Weber State opponents if they take the field against the Wildcats with little more than a yawn. Who wouldn't?

After all, the Wildcats have spent as much time worrying about ticket sales and filling the stands as they have about tackles and touchdowns. Would you take a team seriously that lost 19 starters during the off-season to graduation and defections? A team whose off-season conditioning program included hanging out in malls to sell T-shirts and ticket pledges? A team whose coaches have become part ticket salesmen and part public relations firm?Would you take seriously a team that wasn't even supposed to play this season?

Last winter the Weber State administration, weary of subsidizing the football team with $500,000 a year, dropped the program. Six weeks later, AFTER the Wildcats' top two players had fled elsewhere because there might not be a next season, and AFTER the threat had scared away who knows how many recruits, administrators changed their minds and gave the Wildcats one more year.

Now go win some games and fill the stands, or else, they said.

Very funny guys, these administrators.

You could see the rest of the Big Sky drooling. Hey, a homecoming date.

But hold everything. After three home games, the Wildcats not only are filling the stands, they're winning. They beat a couple of cupcakes to open the season (30-12 over Western Montana and 47-7 over Montana Tech), and then last Saturday they routed 13th-ranked Montana State 41-13.

"They may have been taking us a little lightly," said Weber coach Dave Arslanian.

Now the Wildcats face another daunting task of four straight road games, starting with Eastern Washington, whose coach promised "a few surprises." Right. How does a fake punt rate with an opponent who has stared down extinction?

The fight goes on at Weber, and the Wildcats probably are underdogs. As Randy Hollis of the Ogden Standard Examiner noted dryly, "They were set up to fail." That's on and off the field.

In giving the Wildcats another year, Weber's Strategic Planning Committee recommended to their administration that the team must average 14,000 fans per game (and take in $350,000 in ticket revenue) to maintain its current funding. That is more than double last year's average attendance and 4,000 more than the school record. If the Wildcats average less than 10,000 fans (and take in less than $220,000 in tickets sales), the program will be dropped.

When the Wildcats sold 12,063 tickets for their opener against a poor draw like Western Montana, they were elated, but then the strategic planning committee said they couldn't count no-shows (as the NCAA does), even if the no-shows had bought tickets. The committee had drawn a line in the sand, and then when the Wildcats got too close to it, they drew another one. Last week Weber put 14,746 fans in the stands and sold more than 15,000 tickets.

Arslanian would prefer to ignore such matters and concentrate solely on football - at least until he sits down to write the book he's hinting about. Off to a 3-0 start, the Wildcats are thinking big and wondering why last week's win didn't propel them higher than their No. 27 ranking, although Arslanian is not among them.

"So much happened to us in the off-season," he says. "Why would anyone think we would be representative?"

Among other things, the 1993 winter of discontent saw running back Markeith Ross and quarterback Brad Otton flee for San Diego State and USC, respectively. Other players also left Weber after the administration cut the program. Arslanian himself considered leaving. He made job inquiries to other schools and lined up an interview, which he eventually canceled.

"This is my home," he says. "I care about Weber. I decided to stay and fight."

No one who knows him would have expected less. Some 25 years ago Arslanian wanted to play football at Weber State, but the head coach said he was too small and needed work. The following spring, he transferred from Dixie College and tried out for the team, but again the coach told him he needed more time. A year later, he reported for spring practice and this time made the team.

The coach was his father, Sark. Dave became a starting defensive back at Weber.

Such persistence paid off again last winter. Hoping to avert more defections when the future of the program was still undecided, Arslanian and his assistants promised their players that Weber State would play football this fall. They're doing that and more three weeks into the season that almost wasn't.