This might take some getting used to, Bulldogs fans, but the guy in charge cares what you think.
No, really. He does.
“Ask my wife,” Fresno State athletic director Jim Bartko says. “At night I’m lying in bed thinking about what our fans are saying.”
Is this a new era, or what?
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Last week Fresno State released the results of an extensive fan survey that Bartko commissioned in March after unveiling his blueprint for the future of Bulldogs sports.
More than 2,500 people responded online over a three-week period, 1,830 of whom completed every question. Of the respondents, 85% ranked their loyalty to Fresno State athletics as either “extremely high” (50%) or “high” (35%). Sixty-two percent indicated they’ve been fans for at least 20 years, 59% are season-ticket holders and 44% are Bulldog Foundation donors.
So for the most part, these folks represent the reddest of the Red Wave. But that didn’t seem to color their perspective.
For example, did you know 30% of the fan base thinks Bulldogs sports has a less-than-favorable public image?
Or 29% believes Fresno State athletics aren’t being properly managed?
Or 63% have little interest in donating money toward student-athlete scholarships?
Or that 88% have no inclination to support women’s teams?
Now you do.
Really, though, this is about more than how 2,500 people answered. It’s about Fresno State’s willingness to be questioned. How the new boss volunteered to stand naked in a shower, without a curtain, and put his department’s shortcomings on display.
“We need to hear what people say, and we need to listen and make certain changes,” Bartko says.
“When you hear something one time, it’s one time. But when you hear the same thing 10 times or more, it’s time to do something about it.”
What I’m hearing from the new guy in charge on Bulldog Lane is a humbleness and willingness to engage and seek input, qualities that have been sorely missing.
Thinking back to how things used to operate, the word that comes to mind is arrogance.
Through the 1980s and ’90s, Fresno State was the only show in town, a town without the Internet or a million TV channels, and the people in charge knew and took advantage of it. They were about as pliant as cast iron.
Really, there was no need. The Bulldog Foundation kept churning out money for scholarships. The stands were always packed.
Things began to shift during the regime of Thomas Boeh, who inherited a Title IX mess and presided during a time of budget tightening. The arrogance went away and was replaced by corporate callousness.
Boeh’s sole concern (and he told me this more than once) was for the welfare of student-athletes. When it came to the concerns of fans and boosters, he was as indifferent as a statue.
During Barkto’s first four months on the job, a different tone has sounded. The guy listens to everyone, and not with deaf ears.
“He gives you the feeling that he’s interested in what you have to say,” says Nick Dvorak, a past Bulldog Foundation president. “I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to have an AD who wants to grow the program and is looking for help to do it.”
A survey question having to do with public engagement is a good example of what I’m talking about.
By and large, Bulldogs fans said they were satisfied with the emails, phone calls and mailings they get from the university. The athletic department Web site ( www.gobulldogs.com) received mostly favorable marks, as well.
But when it came to face-to-face interaction with athletic department representatives, 41% of those surveyed indicated there was too little.
“I’ve been hearing that for three months,” Bartko says. “That’s been the one constant.”
Bartko responded by revamping the development staff and adding two new assistant directors: Taylor Tedford and James Sewell.
Tedford, the Fresno-raised son of former Bulldogs quarterback Jeff Tedford, will team with associate director of major gifts Adam Brooks to cover the South Valley. Sewell, who has been on the BDF staff for five years, will work with director of major gifts Jared Coy in spanning Fresno and points north.
“Each one of those guys is going to have specific cities assigned to them, and it’s going to be their responsibly to engage the community on a daily basis,” Bartko says. “We want those face-to-face connections.”
In addition, Fresno State will soon begin a nationwide search for a new senior director of development, a person that will report directly to the AD and oversee all athletics fundraising. Bartko hopes to have the position filled by July 1.
No question this is still Bartko’s honeymoon period. He hasn’t had to fire any coaches, cut any sports or punish any knuckleheaded behavior by a football or basketball player.
But there’s no question things are different. The new boss wants every Bulldogs fan to feel connected to the program, to feel like their voice is being heard. Bartko does so much listening it keeps him awake at night.
Just ask his wife.