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Bartko’s piecing together the puzzle with DeRuyter, stadium

Fresno State

Bartko’s piecing together the puzzle with DeRuyter, stadium

Fresno State’s football history gives AD Jim Bartko a clear path forward, even amid clamor for heads to roll.

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I see no reason to expect the firing this December of coach Tim DeRuyter, regardless of the Fresno State football team’s record.

I suggest you dive into reporter Daniel Gligich’s latest stories in The Collegian (the student-run Fresno State newspaper) to understand my thinking. What follows is my analysis.

Certainly the “DeRuyter Must Go!” talk is out there in Red Wave Land. The 2016 Bulldogs are 1-5, their only victory coming against lowly Sacramento State. Each of the Bulldogs’ remaining six games has its particular challenges. Fresno State might finish the regular season 7-5 … or 1-11.

No need to dig into recent attendance woes at Bulldog Stadium or the team’s losing records over the past two years. We all know the score.

But what is Fresno State athletic director Jim Bartko – and, by extension, university President Dr. Joseph Castro – thinking when it comes to DeRuyter’s future? I can’t say with any certainty. However, Bartko’s comments in a recent sit-down interview with Gligich clearly reveal an athletic department chief executive moved by institutional strategy, not emotion.

With the help of Collegian sports editor David Chavez and assistant sports editor Jenna Wilson, Gligich turned the interview into a fascinating three-part series. The first part ran in Monday’s Collegian, the second in Wednesday’s. The concluding part is slated for the Oct. 17 edition.

I give you three key Bartko quotes from this week’s stories:

1.) “Tim’s done a great job since he’s been here. Obviously last year he had a rocky road a little bit and started off (2016) a little shaky. I have full confidence in the staff that they’re going to turn it around this year and get it going. We always tell our coaches that we look at everybody at the end of the year. We’ll see what happens….”

2.) “Our student fees are probably one of the lowest in the conference…. I’m always a big fan of students not paying for tickets and just building it into your fees and getting free tickets. Right now, students pay for tickets so I’d almost prefer to charge every student $20 in their fees and get free tickets to every event they go to than have them paying $15 to go to the game.”

3.) (Gligich asked about Bartko’s philosophy for scheduling non-conference games.) “It’s a balancing act. Next year’s schedule is tough. We play Alabama, Washington and BYU. It’s a tough three games. We’ll net close to $2 million next year, and this year we net $200,000. Last year, we had a negative $10,000. So you go from $2 million to negative $10,000. You don’t want to over schedule either, because if you get too many tough games you’ll get beaten up. So, you have to balance it.”

Bartko in part three discusses athletic department finances. The pivotal piece of the Bulldogs’ strategic plan is the $60 million renovation of an aging Bulldog Stadium. Fundraising is in full swing. The architectural team in in place. The inaugural kickoff in a venue fit for the 21st century is slated for 2019.

The fate of so many other parts of the sports program – ticket sales, donations, university support, Bulldog Foundation, conference realignment – are tied to success of the project and the public’s enthusiastic embrace of the finished product.

How does the firing of DeRuyter in two or three months help Bartko fulfill this complex mission?

It doesn’t, in my opinion.

For starters, I understand DeRuyter’s contract is guaranteed for the next two years. I understand that’s a bill totaling $3 million or so. Bulldog finances are tight. The Bulldog Foundation isn’t swimming in money. Fresno State isn’t in a position to spend an amount equal to nearly 10% of its annual athletics budget just to get rid of a coaching regime that not too long ago was viewed with high regard.

Besides, two years isn’t all that long.

We’ve also got to keep in mind the community mindset – the spirit of the age, the zeitgeist – during past coaching changes in Fresno State football.

There was the departure of Darryl Rogers after the 1972 season. We couldn’t believe Rogers would leave us for San Jose State, then our hated rival. Then we couldn’t believe Fresno State officials would hire JR Boone for the top spot. Boone was much admired locally – but he was a JC coach (Reedley College), for crying out loud.

We had a cautious “wait and see” attitude.

After the 1975 season, when Boone was fired with a 10-25 record in three forlorn years, there came the force of nature named Jim Sweeney. The Bulldogs in 1977 went 9-2 and won a conference title. Those Bulldogs are forever dubbed the “stadium builders” because they sparked the final community push to build an on-campus football stadium, a dream 30 years in the making.

We had the “awakened giant” attitude.

Sweeney left for the NFL after the 1977 season. Bob Padilla, a former standout Bulldogs tackle, took over the top spot. The Bulldogs struggled in 1978 and 1979. Padilla was fired.

We’d had a “bring back the Irishman” attitude ever since Sweeney left.

Sweeney returned in 1980 and, after a couple of mediocre seasons, led the Bulldogs to an 11-1 record in 1982 and a thrilling 29-28 victory over Bowling Green in the California Bowl. In case you’ve forgotten, Bulldogs quarterback Jeff Tedford was the bowl’s MVP.

Sweeney for the next decade delivered as promised. Bulldog Stadium seating capacity was expanded from 30,000 to more than 41,000. There was talk of yet another expansion to well past 50,000 once the Bulldogs had moved up to the Western Athletic Conference and the likes of BYU and Utah.

But by the mid-1990s, as the reality of parity in mid-level Division I football set in, Bulldog fans were tiring of Sweeney. Three mediocre seasons from 1994 to 1996, combined with a head coach heading toward his late 60s in age, convinced fans that Sweeney must be shoved into retirement. We wanted younger blood to lead the Bulldogs into a new century.

Oh, such fun it was to be alive when Pat Hill’s “anybody, anywhere, anytime” attitude swept the Valley in the late 1990s.

Courage, though, has its limits as a business plan. Hill’s Bulldogs won some big games against some of the Big Boys. They also lost more than a few to the Big Boys (more than once in heartbreaking fashion). Higher education politics involving another part of campus (i.e. men’s basketball under Jerry Tarkanian) made a mess of Fresno State’s conference affiliation.

Fans got tired of Hill’s 8-5 records, third-place conference finishes and lackluster efforts in obscure bowl games. It took only a single losing season – 4-9 in 2011 – for the ennui to reach critical mass. It didn’t matter that four of the nine losses in 2011 had been by seven points or less, games that could have gone the other way. It didn’t matter that the Bulldogs had played Nebraska tough before losing 42-29 in Lincoln (the Cornhuskers went 9-4 that year, beating a Michigan State team that finished 11-3 and a Penn State team that went 9-4). It didn’t matter that the Bulldogs fell by only 10 (38-28) to an Ole Miss team a year away from excellence. Hill, for some reason, had to go.

We all had a “what the heck, let’s try something different” attitude.

I was in Fresno during those times. Bartko wasn’t. But I suspect Bartko understands the dynamic at play: A new coach has the best chance if the switch marks the end of one identifiable era and the start of a new one.

DeRuyter’s inability to replace Derek Carr with Derek Carr 2.0 has clearly been the biggest hurdle in his five-year Fresno State career. But the university’s failure to succinctly explain why DeRuyter had to succeed Hill really hurt the new coach. DeRuyter didn’t arrive with a distinctive brand. He’s just another guy sitting in the head coach’s office. Therefore, he doesn’t have much of a PR margin when things turn sour.

Go ahead, the fans tell Bartko, part with $3 million so we can get just another guy to deal with the Colorado States and Nevadas in 2017.

We’ve fallen into a “it’s only money” attitude.

Maybe Bartko would do it if he didn’t have that $60 million stadium project on his hands. But that challenge gives him good reason not to take the “pink slip” plunge, at least not yet.

There’s no reason to bring in, say, Tedford (82-57 in 11 seasons at Cal) in 2017 and hand him a schedule that features Alabama, Washington and BYU. The 2018 non-conference schedule figures to be formidable, too. How would two seasons of mediocre records in the old Bulldog Stadium help Tedford get off to a good start and generate lots of buzz when the remodeled stadium opens in 2019?

It wouldn’t. And the university during that time would be shelling out $1.5 million a year to an idled DeRuyter.

Sure, we’d all like to see 41,000-plus fannies in the stands. But attendance has been a struggle for years, not just the past two seasons. The announced attendance on Nov. 26, 2011, a 27-24 loss to San Jose in Hill’s last home game, was a 25,492. The announced attendance of 23,272 on Sept. 24 for Tulsa was simply part of a troubling trend that perhaps has hit bottom.

Better to keep DeRuyter where he is. That leaves all options open. If he turns things around in dramatic fashion, well, so much the better. If not, then he and the university part ways after the 2018 season. A new era with a new coach and a new stadium begin in 2019 – a marketing dream.

That brings us back to Bartko’s quote to The Collegian’s Gligich about building a modest but mandatory ticket fee into student fees.

It’s a compelling idea for many reasons. It’s sufficient here to note that a good case can be made that Fresno State athletics doesn’t get its fair share of guaranteed financial support from students.

According to statistics posted on USA Today’s website, Fresno State athletics in the 2014-2015 school year received $4,328,466 in student support. That works out to $179.34 per student per year, based on an enrollment of 24,136.

By way of comparison, San Jose State athletics in the same school year received $8,118,530 from students, USA Today reported. That is $247.72 per student per year, based on an enrollment of 32,773.

San Diego State athletics in 2014-2015 received $10,156,727 from students, USA Today reported. That is $296.51 per student per year, based on an enrollment of 34,254.

San Jose State and San Diego State, like Fresno State, are members of the Mountain West Conference.

Even the athletic department at Sacramento State, which plays in a lower division than the Bulldogs, gets more money from its student body than Fresno State. According to USA Today, Sacramento State athletics gets $7,586,505 from students. That is $250.51 per student per year, based on an enrollment of 30,284.

If these numbers are accurate, perhaps there’s room for Fresno State students to chip in more money for their athletic program.

As history proves, turning that possibility into reality at Fresno State can be politically challenging. Yet, Bartko clearly signaled to Gligich that the athletic department’s top brass is thinking along these lines.

Keeping DeRuyter around past this season, thereby publicly demonstrating prudence with scarce dollars, would give Bartko a solid foundation if (when) he formally pitches his ticket-buying idea to students.

Let’s say the pitch works.

The Bulldogs go 12-2 in 2018, and Tim DeRuyter in September 2019 leads his team into a modernized Bulldog Stadium with its beautiful Jim Sweeney Field.

Or it’s someone new who leads the Bulldogs into the renovated stadium 35 months from now – and the Valley in all its excitement can’t remember the name of the previous coach.

Either way, the patient, prudent, persistent Jim Bartko smiles. Bulldog finances are sound.

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George Hostetter

George Hostetter is a contributor to CVObserver.

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