Warszawski: Castro's boldness at Fresno State more than just words

The Fresno BeeMay 17, 2014 

Joe Castro, left, has been a consistent presence at Bulldogs sporting events during his first year at Fresno State president, including Oct. 19, 2013, at Bulldog Stadium when he and Athletic Director Thomas Boeh honored former Fresno State men's basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian during a football game after he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass

MARK CROSSE/THE FRESNO BEE — Fresno Bee Staff Photo Buy Photo

Joseph Castro delivered his first commencement address Saturday as Fresno State president.

I wasn't in attendance, but it's a safe bet one of the themes was "Be bold."

"Be bold" is one of Castro's favorite catch phrases; he employs it in speeches and on social media. It's his way of imploring students and faculty to push themselves, take chances and not settle for the status quo. But with boldness also comes inherent risk. Shoot for the stars, and sometimes you end up grasping air.

What's interesting here is Castro seems perfectly willing to heed his own advice.

During his first year in office, Castro has committed to several bold measures that will either strain or overwhelm the university's resources. Not all of them pertain to athletics (such as his tablet initiative), but many do.

No Bulldogs fans have been more highly visible than Castro and his wife Mary. They've attended football and basketball games, and also swim meets, volleyball matches, equestrian events and anywhere else where Fresno State uniforms are worn.

It doesn't even have to be a game. Castro once turned up at 7 a.m. on a cold morning to watch the soccer team practice.

"I want to develop a relationship with all of my students," Castro said during this week from his office on the fourth floor of the Henry Madden Library. "That's a challenge, because there are 23,000 of them. But whenever I have the opportunity to do that, I take it."

Last fall, Castro rode the wave of national publicity that accompanied the football team's 10-0 start. He was also there, on the field at Spartan Stadium, when it crashed.

Fans may have been disappointed over how things ended. They were thrilled, however, when Tim DeRuyter signed a new five-year contract worth $7.5 million that made him the highest-paid football coach in the Mountain West Conference.

Last season, DeRuyter made $655,000 in base salary. This year, he'll make $1.4 million, plus an expected $500,000 to $750,000 in performance bonuses.

That kind of raise did not make Castro flinch. In fact, he was heavily involved in the negotiations.

"(Athletic director) Thomas Boeh and I did that together," Castro said. "He was on point, and I did my best to help. ...

"I wanted to make sure I understood what the situation was, so it was helpful to me. Same with (hiring) women's basketball coach (Jaime White). I played a role with the athletic director there as well."

DeRuyter also sought -- and received -- assurances the university would increase its salary pool for both assistant coaches and recruiting, plus a training table, additional weight-room staff and a summer-school program.

Except all these things cost money -- money Fresno State doesn't currently have.

Then there's the not-so-little matter of wrestling, a sport that was cut in 2006. It was an unpopular decision at the time and remains so today.

Castro certainly knows how to read the room. When he announced Fresno State would "explore" ways to bring back wrestling (and presided over the coin toss at a high school match), the news was met with universal praise.

Castro did not promise to resurrect wrestling and has hired a consultant to look into the feasibility. But once you've raised hopes, it's impossible to say "Whoops, sorry" without dashing them.

Of course, Fresno State can't just bring back wrestling without adding women's sports to balance Title IX -- a fact Castro said he knew all along.

So there's another $1 million, probably more, that must be scraped up. Not just once, but every year.

Where is that money going to come from?

I shouldn't have to remind you there were already significant financial challenges, even before these latest bold steps.

Fresno State athletics has been operating at a $1.5 million budget deficit, money the athletic department borrows from the university to make ends meet.

Meanwhile, fundraising has been stagnant. Over the past three years the Bulldog Foundation has mustered about $3.9 million annually, which doesn't nearly cover the $5.8 million price tag for scholarships. (The difference is made up through student fees and other university funds.)

Castro, however, remains confident the numbers will add up.

"As I've said, academics and athletics rise together, and part of that is we're going to invest more in both areas from a wide variety of sources," he said. "It's going to come from private contributions, and I anticipate we'll have more of those going forward. We're going to be as aggressive as we can, and we're going to invest more state funds than we have in the past as well as look for new funding sources."

No matter where the money comes from, it'll still be an uphill battle. Fresno State ranks eighth in the 12-member MW, including football-only Hawaii, in total revenues. And it isn't even close. UNLV, Air Force, Boise State and New Mexico generate $10 million or more annually.

Fresno State also operates under a different financial model than its brethren. No MW school spends a higher percentage of its budget on women's sports.

So not only do the Bulldogs have less money to spend than the competition, they spend more of what they do have on programs that are money losers.

Don't expect that gender-equity formula to change under Castro. Scheduled for construction this summer is the long-awaited stadium for women's soccer and lacrosse.

"I was raised by a single mother," the Hanford native said. "I spent a lot of hours in the beauty salon. I think I have a good sense of the reason for Title IX, and I think it's very important."

I asked Castro if Fresno State would consider implementing a training table just for football players, as is the case at Boise State and Hawaii.

The answer was a definitive "No."

"I realize that may not be the way other universities do it," he said, "but that's the way Fresno State has done it in the past and will continue to do it."

Besides its own finances, NCAA Division I schools may soon be asked to vote on a cost-of-attendance allowance designed to increase the value of scholarships.

If each scholarship is upped by $2,000, then add another $400,000 to $600,000 to the total annual bill.

Remember, the athletic department can't cover the current cost of scholarships without borrowing from the university.

Castro is fully aware of the desperate need for additional revenues. But rather than exercise caution, he chose boldness.

Whether Fresno State athletics can find secure financial footing, or is left grasping air, remains to be seen.

The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6218, marekw@fresnobee.com or @MarekTheBee on Twitter.

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