Marek Warszawski

Why is Fresno State dragging its heels over hiring an athletic director?

Fresno State president Joseph Castro, left, presents Jim Bartko with gifts during Bartko’s 2014 introduction as Bulldogs athletic director. Bartko resigned last November, and Castro is in no hurry to name a replacement.
Fresno State president Joseph Castro, left, presents Jim Bartko with gifts during Bartko’s 2014 introduction as Bulldogs athletic director. Bartko resigned last November, and Castro is in no hurry to name a replacement. ezamora@fresnobee.com

At most universities that compete in Division I sports and FBS-level football, the position of athletic director is vitally important.

At Fresno State, it’s starting to feel like an afterthought.

Four months have passed since Jim Bartko resigned for personal reasons after nearly three years on the job. (That’s the university’s version. The reality is he was forced out.) Here’s what’s being done to search for his successor:

Crickets

When will Fresno State finally get around to hiring someone to oversee its 21 varsity teams (third-most in the Mountain West and more than half the members of the Pac-12) and $37 million athletic department budget?

The answer is sorta vague. Back in November, university president Joseph Castro said a search would begin “sometime in 2018.” This week, Castro told 940 ESPN host Christopher Gabriel the search would begin “later this year” while giving the strong sense “later” likely meant summer or fall.

Following that timeline, the Bulldogs could go an entire year without a permanent boss.

Given all the challenges facing the athletic department, mainly budgetary but also in terms of tepid fan interest, it seems odd the university would drag its heels for so long.

Timing surely plays a role – most of the heavy lifting for 2017-18 had already been done – and so do finances. Bartko’s annual salary was $290,000, which may sound like a lot but actually made him the ninth-lowest paid AD in the conference. Bartko received three months’ salary upon his departure. So if Fresno State waits until November to hire a replacement, that’s more than $200K in savings.

With athletic department revenues struggling to meet expenses (a potential $2 million shortfall in 2017-18, according to one report), every little bit helps.

ASTONE
Debbie Astone, Fresno State vice president of administration, gives the welcome message during the grand opening of The Square at Campus Pointe on Friday, July 17, 2015. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

Another reason might be that Castro and Vice President for Administration Debbie Adishian-Astone, who more or less controls the purse strings in her role as Athletic Corporation board chair and assumed stronger oversight of the athletic department as Bartko dealt with his well-publicized personal demons, are simply in no rush.

Why? Because the person one or both of them want in that chair is already sitting in it.

That someone would be interim athletic director Steve Robertello, the deputy AD during Bartko’s tenure and associate AD in charge of compliance, student-athlete services, sports medicine and strength and conditioning in the two years before that.

ROBERTELLO
Fresno State Interim Director of Athletics Steve Robertello prepares to introduce Jonathan Winder as the Bulldogs’ new volleyball coach. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

This is Robertello’s second stint as interim AD. The first one bridged the tenures of Thomas Boeh and Bartko for four months in 2014. Back when Castro was expeditious about filling such an important job.

Is Robertello getting an extended audition to see if he can handle the role? That’s my sense, and the sense of many with ties to the university.

Robertello wants the promotion. He told me as much in December while we were both in Waikiki for the Hawaii Bowl.

Castro and Adishian-Astone are certainly taking him for an extended test drive. When I wrote about how and why Fresno State pushed Bulldog Stadium renovations to the back burner, Robertello issued the official rebuttal. (Which didn’t really refute anything in the column.)

It was Robertello who lowered the ax on volleyball coach Lauren Netherby-Sewell (long overdue, to be frank), and he was on hand to welcome new coach Jonathan Winder.

PRESSER
Fresno State interim athletics director Steve Robertello, right, introduces Jonathan Winder as the Bulldogs’ new volleyball coach during a January news conference. Robertello is one of five finalists to become the next athletics director at Fresno State. Interviews with the search committee will start on Thursday, June 14, 2018. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

But hiring and firing coaches is only part of an athletic director’s job. At Fresno State, it’s probably the easy part. Fundraising is the much deeper sand pit. It takes quite a pile of cash to cover athletic scholarships, cost of attendance stipends and, oh yeah, the Castro-mandated additions of wrestling and women’s water polo.

Lately, the pile raised by the Bulldog Scholarship Fund hasn’t been large enough to meet demand. Two weeks ago, Franklin Alegria resigned from his position as senior associate athletic director for external development. (Which shouldn’t be a surprise given Alegria’s close ties to Bartko.) Guess it’s up to me to break that news, since Fresno State deleted Alegria’s name and photo from its website’s senior athletics administration page without saying a peep.

I doubt Fresno State would simply remove the interim tag from Robertello’s title without conducting some sort of search. That would be the proper thing to do.

Until then, the Bulldogs are left in a state of limbo. Plus a growing sense the person already doing the job will be the one who gets it. Eventually.

Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee

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