Marek Warszawski

Warszawski: Return of wrestling leaves Fresno State grappling with finances

It’s been over a decade since Fresno State has hosted the likes of former Bulldog Casey Olson, at bottom shown in 2004, for a wrestling meet. While the sport is on its way back after it was cut in 2006 and women’s water polo is being added, the athletic department is already a facing financial strain with their additions.
It’s been over a decade since Fresno State has hosted the likes of former Bulldog Casey Olson, at bottom shown in 2004, for a wrestling meet. While the sport is on its way back after it was cut in 2006 and women’s water polo is being added, the athletic department is already a facing financial strain with their additions. Fresno Bee file

The question isn’t whether Fresno State can hire a top-notch wrestling coach. By all indications, the line of quality applicants will be longer than opening night at “Star Wars.”

Nor is there any doubt the Bulldogs will be nationally competitive right away. Wrestling is so underserved at Division I – particularly in California – the new coach won’t be recruiting talent so much as gathering it.

But can Fresno State afford to become a 21-sport family, at least without hurting the other 19 members?

That’s the question few are asking.

Fresno State was not wrong to bring back wrestling. Wrestling should’ve never gone away in the first place. That decision was made by a former athletic director so tone deaf he couldn’t tell the difference between Mozart and Metallica.

What I’m saying is Fresno State cannot add wrestling (and women’s water polo, to balance the Title IX scales) without those programs further straining the athletic department’s already precarious finances.

The pie is only so big, and now each slice is about to get smaller. Someone’s going to go hungry.

Even before Fresno State launched its coaching search last week, the candidates began lining up. Among those who have expressed interest are Stanford associate head coach Jamill Kelly, an Atwater native and 2004 Olympic silver medalist, as well as Oklahoma State associate head coach Eric Guerrero, a three-time California state champion from San Jose.

“Finding a spectacular coach will be the least of their challenges,” said Mike Moyer, executive director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association.

Tirapelle, the biggest name in local wrestling circles, will not be represented on the new coaching staff. Steve, Troy and Adam Tirapelle all told me they would not apply and gave a strong indication that family member Alex Tirapelle, in his second year as Penn’s head coach, would remain at the Ivy League school.

Gerry Abas, the former Bulldogs All-American who served 10 years as Dennis DeLiddo’s assistant, expressed a desire to regain his old position.

“I’m definitely interested,” said Abas, whose son Jaden, a freshman at Frontier High, reached the 120-pound CIF state final this weekend. “I’ve even got a Bulldog tattoo on my leg.”

What Fresno State is doing – bringing back wrestling after a decade in mothballs – is almost unprecedented.

The only example I could turn up is Bucknell, which did away with wrestling in 2001 only to resuscitate it five years later thanks to an $8 million donation. (Programs at Cal State Bakersfield and Cleveland State were threatened but kept alive.)

Another comparison is Cal baseball, a model Fresno State should’ve chosen to follow with wrestling.

In 2011 Cal threatened to cancel baseball unless alumni and supporters raised $10 million in pledges. They did, over two months, and today the program is sustained by the Cal Baseball Foundation – we’re talking coaching salaries, scholarships, travel, facilities, equipment, you name it – at a cost exceeding $1 million annually.

“We even pay to mow the grass,” said Dan Deaver, the group’s treasurer. “We don’t get anything from (the university). We get to wear Cal on our chests.”

Fresno State is getting help with wrestling from the Zinkin family, but the arrangement still leaves the university footing most of the bill.

My understanding, as explained by athletic director Jim Bartko and affirmed by Nick Zinkin, is that the Zinkins have agreed to fund a third of the wrestling program for five years.

What happens after that?

“We have a real good comfort level the first five-year period is where the bulk of the funding is necessary and after that the school in large measure can sustain the program,” Zinkin said.

Another third of wrestling’s projected $976,000 start-up costs (for years one through three) will be provided by the university through President Joseph Castro. (Makes sense, considering he got this ball rolling.) The other third must be finagled by Bartko.

And what about women’s water polo, projected to cost $693,000 during the first three years? There the athletic department is on its own.

“We have enough money the next two years to fund everything,” Bartko said. “In year three we’re still a little short for water polo, but we have two years to get there.”

Bartko might want to invest in a taffy machine while he’s at it, because things are about to stretch to the snapping point.

Fresno State’s $36 million athletic budget remains the eighth largest in the Mountain West Conference, according to the same USA Today database Bartko uses for his presentations.

Yet when the Bulldogs offer 21 sports starting in 2017-18, they’ll rank behind only Air Force (25) and New Mexico (22) whose budgets are the largest and third-largest in the MW, respectively. In addition, San Diego State, Boise State, UNLV, Hawaii and Colorado State all have fewer sports and more money to spend.

You don’t have to be a math major to figure out how this goes. Fresno State’s stated goal of competing for championships just got steeper.

Bartko mentioned guarantees for future football games as a way to raise the overall budget. That should raise a few eyebrows.

Does this mean the Bulldogs will have to play two big-money road games every season against Power Five teams, like they are in 2017 against Alabama and Washington, so the athletic department can pay for wrestling and women’s water polo?

Try selling that to your football coach.

“We’re not going to hurt other programs,” Bartko said. “We have two years to get our donations and fundraising back in line.”

Don’t forget the athletic department is already fundraising for things it never had to do before (cost-of-attendance stipends, training table), not to mention the tens of millions needed to turn those gleaming conceptual drawings of Bulldog Stadium into reality.

Wrestling belongs at Fresno State, the largest university in California’s wrestling hotbed, and the program’s return salves a decade-old wound. However, the financial pain of funding two new sports, sports that don’t generate revenue, has only just begun.