Serious concerns about Jim Bartko’s leadership most likely were a major factor in his sudden departure from Fresno State.
That’s my takeaway from Thursday’s meeting of the Fresno State Athletic Corp. board.
Directors learned that the Bulldogs athletic program is looking at a $2 million budget deficit this year.
The Bulldog Foundation, the program’s key fundraising arm, is looking at a $1 million shortfall in donations for next year’s athletic scholarships.
Some of the boosters who promised last fall to help pay the bill for booting football coach Tim DeRuyter out of town are failing to uphold their end of the bargain.
Some of the boosters who promised to help pay the bill that got wrestling reinstated as an NCAA sport at Fresno State are failing to uphold their end of the bargain.
The university is hitting up the same universe of worn-out donors time after time to fund a seemingly ever-growing array of athletic, educational and capital projects.
These trends have been years in the making, yet only now is Fresno State inching toward the start of a strategic plan to address the survival of Bulldog athletics.
All of this happened, or came to a head, during Bartko’s nearly three-year reign as Fresno State athletic director.
Bartko surprised almost everyone when he resigned in November. He said it was for personal reasons. Bartko has publicly acknowledged some of his private challenges. People have alleged other Bartko demons; these have been reported in parts of the local media world.
But for some 34 months the buck of responsibility in Fresno State athletics stopped at Bartko’s desk. The course of discussion at Thursday’s Athletic Corp. board meeting was a strong signal that Bartko wasn’t up to the job.
Let’s be clear about two points.
First, I didn’t stay for the entire meeting. I was there for two hours, making it almost to the bottom of the agenda. No one at the conference table mentioned Bartko by name while I was there. This analysis is mine alone.
Second, I’ve sat through my share of Athletic Corp. board meetings. They’re open to the public. This one was like all the others in that audience members had no access to the documents discussed by board members and university officials. If this piece is long on mere snippets of information, it’s because that’s what the board wants the public to have.
The meeting got off to a promising start. Megan O’Quin, assistant athletic director for student-athlete services, said only 5% of Fresno State’s student-athletes have a grade point average below 2.0. She said both the men’s basketball team and the football team have group GPA’s just a shade below 3.0.
Regardless of the sport, O’Quin said, “they’re students before they’re athletes.”
Allison Thurner, director of marketing and fan engagement, said her staff is always looking for new ways to create “buzz and excitement.” She said she’s trying to convince former Bulldogs standout and current New York Yankees star Aaron Judge to attend one of the upcoming home basketball games.
The effort continues to boost student attendance at home games in every sport.
“We’re doing our best to listen to what the students want,” Thurner said.
The meeting’s tone got more somber when things turned to money.
Vinci Ricchiuti, a long-time board member and often the most effective advocate for the public’s dollar, asked about the status of fundraising for coaches’ salaries.
Ricchiuti didn’t mention DeRuyter by name. But it’s not farfetched to assume that’s who she had in mind.
DeRuyter was fired last year in mid-season as the Bulldogs’ football coach. Somebody had to come up with the money to pay what was left on his contract. It appears that boosters had promised to pick up at least some of the bill. It also appears that some of those promises have yet to lead to cash.
“It (the promises) all seem to quietly go into the thin air,” Ricchiuti said.
I wondered if the university paid off DeRuyter with its own funds, then counted on backfilling the account with the promised funds from those boosters desperate for DeRuyter’s scalp.
Fresno State for decades has counted on the Bulldog Foundation to raise the millions of dollars needed annually to fund athletic scholarships. The BDF is always working on the year ahead.
The BDF numbers kicked around by directors for 2018-2019 were squishy to an outside observer like me. If I heard correctly, the BDF’s target is $9.3 million (mostly for scholarships and BDF operations). Some money has already been raised. More is one the way.
But Fresno State officials say it’s not going to be enough.
“We’re down to a one-million (dollar) gap,” said Paula Castadio, Vice President for University Advancement.
The reborn wrestling program was next.
“We’re behind on the timeline for wrestling fundraising,” Interim Athletic Director Steve Robertello said.
Fresno State apparently launched the wresting program without enough money in the bank to fully fund it. The university apparently was promised the necessary money from boosters who claimed to love Bulldogs wrestling. A certain number of those boosters apparently are still sitting on their checkbooks.
University officials on Thursday said they’d be giving those bashful boosters another phone call.
Ricchiuti gave the board an overview of the budget committee’s meeting earlier in the day. She said the 2017-2018 budget included a modest amount of money for coaches’ performance bonuses. But, she added, some teams have done substantially better than expected.
The rejuvenated football under Head Coach Jeff Tedford is the most obvious example.
Ricchiuti said athletics would have to shell out about $800,000 in unbudgeted coaches’ bonuses.
“That is going to be an issue going forward,” Ricchiuti said.
Football expenses have come in about $400,000 higher than expected.
“We are looking at, on this date, a $2 million potential shortfall,” Ricchiuti said. “We have a big mountain to climb.”
How does Fresno State athletics reach that summit?
Everyone talked about reducing expenses across the board (except for that 2% raise promised to Athletic Corp. employees). Everyone hopes for better gate revenue. No one mentioned increased university support, but I suppose that’s always an option.
In the end, donors will be asked to give more.
But everyone around the table had to admit that Fresno State’s tried-and-true boosters are already bombarded with pleas for help. The Bulldog Stadium renovation project is just one of many expensive visions on the university’s dream sheet.
Directors and staff talked about getting together to discuss frankly the means/ends of Fresno State athletics.
“It would be a good opportunity,” said Board Chairwoman Deborah Adishian-Astone.
I thought to myself: You mean a strategic plan based on reality?
Robertello nodded his head in agreement when Adishian-Astone spoke. Robertello’s silence suggested to me that he didn’t already have a strategic plan in his back pocket.
An athletic director fond of initiative would have had one in the pipeline long before Thursday’s meeting.
Perhaps somebody wielding a big stick decided Bartko had to go sooner rather than later.