The normally chirpy voice of Jim Bartko is more croaky than usual these days.
Fresno State’s affable athletic director, entering his second year as the person responsible for overseeing the Bulldogs’ 19 sports programs (soon to be 21) and $33 million department budget, has sinus surgery scheduled this week to relieve his allergies.
Another victim of the Valley’s poor air quality?
Nope. Just bad genetics.
“Second time,” Bartko replies when I text him following our initial interview. “Eugene (Oregon) was worse.”
Going in for surgery will be one of the few times Bartko has slowed down since taking the Bulldogs’ reins last January.
Bartko’s initial weeks and months focused on building relationships and improving facilities. If a group of Fresno State fans or potential donors assembled anywhere along the Highway 99 corridor, odds are he met with them.
“He’s friendly, approachable and great with people,” said Ed Dunkel Jr., a past Bulldog Foundation Board president. “That’s huge. We really needed that.”
During his first month on the job, Bartko enlisted global architecture and engineering firm AECOM to formulate renovation plans for Bulldog Stadium. Those details were unveiled in late June.
Bulldogs fans expect greatness. They expect us to win.
Fresno State athletic director Jim Bartko
The new AD ensured other sports felt included. The tennis courts were resurfaced. The soccer and lacrosse teams have a new locker room. There’s a new floor in the North Gym where the basketball and volleyball teams often practice. Warmerdam Field, the pretty much unusable home of Fresno State track, is undergoing a $2.6 million facelift.
Carrying out President Joseph Castro’s imperative, Bartko crafted a deal with the Zinkin family and other wrestling supporters to bring back wrestling and add women’s water polo by 2018. Coaches for both programs are scheduled to be hired in May.
The one element missing from Year 1 under Bartko was on-field success. Out of those 19 sports programs, only two (softball and equestrian) won conference championships.
At Fresno State, where football drives the revenue wagon, the Bulldogs’ 3-9 season soured fan enthusiasm and left an $800,000 budget hole that Bartko said has been patched up with private donations.
Fresno fans are fickle. The turnstile count depends on wins and losses most of the time.
Ed Dunkel Jr., past Bulldog Foundation Board president
So when I ask Bartko to reflect on the past 12 months, the answers are colored by the pressing need to get that program turned around.
“It’s been a fast year, but the people have been great,” Bartko said. “We’ve had ups and downs. Especially with the football season – I didn’t expect to go 3-9. But what stands out are the people here who have welcomed my family to town and the expectations of success.
“Bulldogs fans expect greatness,” he added. “They expect us to win, and that’s what we have to achieve. Finishing eighth and ninth in the league is not acceptable.”
Bartko’s handling of the football program since the curtain dropped on the Bulldogs’ worst season since disco typifies how he operates.
While many wanted Fresno State to jettison coach Tim DeRuyter (9-17 over the past two seasons after his 20-6 during the first two), Bartko instead doubled down by giving him a better, more experienced coaching staff.
9-17 Fresno State’s record in football the past two seasons
Never before have the Bulldogs been able to offer multiyear contracts to assistant coaches. Thanks to Bartko, they now can, which is the sole reason they’ve been able to attract coordinators with Power Five conference résumés.
It’s another sign the Bulldogs have a boss who understands what it takes to compete in the Mountain West Conference’s upper echelon.
Make no mistake: Despite how Fresno State words its news releases, the hiring of Eric Kiesau (offensive coordinator) and reported hirings of Lorenzo Ward (defensive coordinator), Mark Weber (offensive line) and Joe Bernardi (tight ends) have the AD’s fingerprints all over them.
“We have to win in football and men’s basketball, especially,” Bartko said. “I have high hopes for the second half of basketball season and for the football team next fall.
“Like I said in my introductory press conference, I’m not going to settle for mediocrity.”
Statements such as that – “We’re going to win, and we’re going to do it the right way,” is another – are typical of Bartko.
It’s one thing, though, to say you’re not going to settle, but quite another to do something about it once it becomes apparent that mediocrity is where you’re stuck.
I did not come here to be average.
That takes tough, hard-boiled leadership. We have yet to see Bartko take the podium for that sort of news conference.
Bartko made a few additions to his inner circle, none more crucial than Senior Associate Athletic Director for Development (i.e. fundraising) Franklin Alegria. His most significant coaching hire, however, came in women’s tennis with Luke Shields.
Football bears the closest watching – DeRuyter’s seat grows warmer by the minute. But Bartko also has to be concerned with a men’s basketball team that can’t seem to re-energize the fan base and a baseball team that has teetered around .500 for four consecutive years.
When those programs aren’t successful, Fresno State’s already considerable fundraising hurdles get armpit-high.
Toward the end of our interview, I asked Bartko what keeps him up at night.
“People need to know we’re not here to just be OK. I did not come here to be average.”
The next 12 months will prove the veracity of those words.