Fresno State called it an “Empowering Excellence Vision.” Not sure what that means, exactly.
Jim Bartko called it a “blueprint going forward,” which is much easier to wrap the ol’ noggin around.
I’m calling it a fresh start. Because that’s what it felt like. Because that’s essentially what this is.
Standing on a stage in the same room where Bulldogs athletes eat training table meals and backed by slides on a projected screen, Bartko spoke for 43 minutes Thursday in his first news conference since becoming Fresno State athletic director.
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The big news was a rough outline and some financial figures for the return of wrestling — a promise made by President Joseph Castro before Bartko arrived — and the addition of women’s water polo. Provided the money is there, the Bulldogs will be a 21-sport family in 2018-19.
We also got a three-phase plan for bringing Bulldog Stadium into the 21st century, a process Bartko has already launched, plus an update on much-needed facility improvements for track and field, tennis, soccer and lacrosse.
He also dropped this disturbing bit of info: Over the past five years, 1,600 donors have stopped giving to the annual scholarship fund.
“There’s a reason we’ve lost 1,600 people,” Bartko said.
Bartko didn’t specifically state that reason, so I will.
Many of those people stopped giving because Fresno State didn’t do a good enough job engaging them. It didn’t do a good enough job making its donors feel needed and appreciated, or reaching out to new ones.
Specifically, the previous athletic director didn’t do a good enough job.
In fact, Thomas Boeh often had the opposite effect.
More than any mission statement, multi-pronged plan or bits of news, what Bartko did during those 43 minutes (plus 10 minutes of questions) was give clear indication things will be be different under his watch.
Meet the new Bulldogs: more engaged and accessible; friendlier; more apt to smile and crack a joke; passionate to the core about college athletics; and totally committed to making Fresno State the best it can be.
“Athletics is just a small part of the university,” Bartko said at one point, “but it is the front door.”
Thursday’s news conference was actually the third time Bartko gave his presentation. The trial run was Wednesday night at Save Mart Center, before the women’s basketball game, to a group of the athletic department’s 50 largest contributors. (Bartko called them his “guinea pigs.” They laughed.)
This gesture, a small courtesy to big donors, is indicative of the new approach. It also illustrates Bartko’s strategic thinking.
Fresno State would not be in position to bring back wrestling (or add women’s water polo) if not for the support of the Zinkin family, one of the area’s wealthiest.
“He reached out to us almost immediately,” said Nick Zinkin, a former Bulldogs wrestler along with his brothers DeWayne and Harold.
Bartko called each brother individually, plus father DeWayne Sr., and arranged a meeting. He told them he recognizes the central San Joaquin Valley’s status as a wrestling hotbed, reaffirmed Castro’s pledge and asked for their help.
Contrast that to nine years ago, when Boeh cut wrestling without giving advance notice to any of the sport’s supporters or benefactors.
“We’re all very excited about this obvious change of direction,” Nick Zinkin said. “It’s been very refreshing to know he gets it.”
In the weeks since, they’ve met again to discuss the mechanics of bringing back wrestling and how much it will all cost with Bartko laying out the financial requirements in a way Zinkin termed “manageable.”
“Every conversation and every meeting we’ve felt this is for real. It’s being done with thought and care, and we’re going to have a good program here really soon,” Zinkin said.
Bartko will need a similar strategy to bring about the renovations and improvements he wants to do at Bulldog Stadium. (Either that or slap a corporate name on the place.)
There’s also a matter of shoring up the annual scholarship drive, the one that lost 1,600 donors.
Fresno State currently raises about $3.8 million annually for scholarships, well shy of the $5.8 million it’ll need next year to cover extras like cost-of-attendance stipends and training table. (University funds are expected to make up the rest.)
When wrestling and water polo come aboard, those annual scholarship costs will swell to $7.5 million.
Bartko said his goal is to for donations to fully cover the cost of scholarships. As the numbers show, there’s much work to do.
In the past, Fresno State packaged donations with tickets. Basically, the more you gave to the Bulldog Foundation, the better seats you got.
That strategy worked for a while, but it wasn’t sustainable. People start equating their donations with tickets instead of ... well, donations.
Instead of giving for the sake of giving, Bulldogs fans became conditioned to expect something in return.
Bartko intends to put an end to this practice. Tickets and donations will be completely separate.
“I want to make sure people know when they give money it’s going to scholarships,” he said. “It’s not give $100 to get better seats.”
Fresno State’s new AD spent his first few weeks on the job working mostly behind the scenes. Thursday, in essence, marked Bartko’s first public steps. It was impossible not to get the sense the Bulldogs are headed somewhere better.