A hearty welcome to Fresno, Jim Bartko.
Time to get acquainted with your enormous headache.
It’s probably unfair of me to dump all this stuff in your lap. You just got here, fresh off Oregon’s triumph in the Rose Bowl. Officially, it’s only your fourth day as Fresno State athletic director.
Rather than let you ease into things, I’m going to get you up to speed on your new job’s biggest challenge: making Bulldogs men’s basketball matter again.
Saturday night was as good an indoctrination as any. Fresno State hosted San Diego State, the Mountain West Conference’s marquee program, and perhaps 3,000 people turned out at Save Mart Center. Not sure where the announced crowd of 5,910 spent their evening. Half weren’t at the arena, and missed the Bulldogs’ 59-57 upset win.
Even watching on TV, you probably saw the lower bowl and all the rows of empty seats and wondered, “Has it always been like this?”
The answer, Jim, is a definitive “No.”
My first-hand experience with Fresno State basketball goes back to the late 1990s, and what a time it was. Jerry Tarkanian’s Bulldogs were the No. 1 newsmakers in town, and often not for the best of reasons.
But not even the negative publicity, nor modest results — Tarkanian’s teams went to four straight NITs before reaching the NCAAs in Years 5 and 6 of his seven-year tenure — could dampen fan enthusiasm.
They packed Selland Arena, never mind the stigma that no one ventures to downtown Fresno, and provided a big chunk of the seed money that became Save Mart Center.
As I’ve learned, though, Fresno was a basketball town long before that. Boyd Grant’s arrival in 1977 stoked the fires, and by the time he left nine years later Selland was expanded to accommodate crowds in excess of 10,000. Funny thing is, even during the mediocre Ron Adams and Gary Colson years, attendance never plummeted.
There was a time when the Bulldogs could count on fan support, could count on having at least 7,000 in the building, whether they were winning or not.
Those days are long gone, Jim.
You’ve probably already looked at some of the figures, and the picture is as pretty as a 2-year-old’s finger paintings.
Attendance has fallen to its lowest level in nearly four decades, which is remarkable considering Fresno had a population of 217,491 in the 1980 census. That total has now eclipsed 500,000 (not to mention Clovis’ explosive growth) and yet fewer folks are actual ticket-buying Bulldogs fans.
You might be wondering how many of them are left. The answer is between 3,637 and 3,916.
How did I arrive at those numbers? They were the respective attendance counts for last March’s College Basketball Invitational games against Princeton and Old Dominion.
Since those games weren’t included in Fresno State’s season-ticket package, only fans who really, really wanted to be there bought tickets. Fewer than 4,000 of them. It’s bleak, but it’s a starting point.
Most Division I ADs can count on men’s basketball as one of their primary revenue generators. Not you, Jim.
Fresno State men’s basketball is a money-losing enterprise. To be precise, the Bulldogs lost $294,480 during the 2013-14 fiscal year, according to figures one of your subordinates reported to the U.S. Department of Education.
In case you’re wondering, Fresno State and Wyoming are the only men’s basketball programs in the Mountain West Conference to operate at a deficit — and the Cowboys were $64,683 in the red.
Meanwhile, five league members (New Mexico, UNLV, San Diego State, Boise State and Nevada) reported at least $1.4 million in men’s basketball revenues.
Your team, I repeat, lost nearly $300,000.
How did things reach this point? In short, the program has never recovered from what I’ll call the Triple Whammy: the litany of NCAA violations and sanctions under Tarkanian; the continued violations and sanctions under Tark’s successor, Ray Lopes; and the ignominity of having a former player (Terry Pettis) commit murder in Fresno.
Each of these things took place more than a decade ago. Yet it wasn’t until 2011 that Fresno State finally escaped NCAA probation.
While the Bulldogs’ off-the-court reputation has improved, both in terms of citizenship and academics, the results haven’t been there. The last four of Steve Cleveland’s six seasons were dismal. Rodney Terry, for all his positive energy, hasn’t produced much better.
This season’s pitfalls have become the new normal. A key starter (in this case Cezar Guerrero) watches games in street clothes, and a promising freshman (in this case Isaiah Bailey) gets booted for violating athletic department rules.
If I had to list all the names of Bulldogs basketball players who have been ineligible, suspended or dismissed over the years, even the dozen years since Tarkanian’s exit, they’d have to add extra pages to the Sports section.
Folks are tired of this stuff, Jim. Just like they’re tired of losing. At first they voiced their displeasure by staying home. Now they’ve found other ways to spend winter evenings.
It’s why Save Mart Center on most nights feels about as lively as a library after finals.
None of these things may be your fault, but they’re your problem now.
Best of luck in the new gig.