David White

With no athletic director, Fresno State missed the chance for bold basketball hire

Fresno State coach Justin Hutson is all smiles following his victorious debut: a 91-63 victory over Alaska-Anchorage at the Save Mart Center on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018.
Fresno State coach Justin Hutson is all smiles following his victorious debut: a 91-63 victory over Alaska-Anchorage at the Save Mart Center on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. Fresno Bee file

This wasn’t bold, Fresno State.

What we saw the past week was the predictable backwash that chases down the decision that leadership isn’t that important, after all. That, my fellow former Fresno Staters, is exactly what President Joseph Castro declared when he kicked the athletic director hire down the canned road five months ago.

Castro chose the no-hurry, no-worry path to nowhere any time soon. What did those short-term salary savings buy him?

This past week, it got him a men’s basketball coach — in this case, the likeable-enough Justin Hutson — who can say he was the best candidate in a field that better candidates found utterly disinteresting.

If Hutson was indeed the best option, it’s only because Castro eliminated better options when he decided they could go from November 2017 to June 2018 without anyone in charge of its $37.6 million athletic department.

It’s been five months since Jim Bartko left the athletic director’s suite. Castro should have seen his imminent exit well before that, and his response was to give it a budget year?

This isn’t some well-lubed machine that prints money on its own with no regard to the director’s chair. This department is taking on more red than it can black out. They need a visionary to see their way out of the hole, and that starts with fixing the money pit that is the Save Mart Center.

The men’s basketball program has been rendered must-miss viewing for all but a remnant of Red Wavers for years now. It’s gotten so bad, boosters wish out loud to go back to Selland Arena. When they’re sober, no less.

Fresno State president Joseph Castro speaks at a 2016 press conference announcing the hire of Jeff Tedford as Bulldogs football coach. SILVIA FLORES Fresno Bee file

Castro needed a bold basketball hire, and he needed a bold athletic department leader to make that call for him.

Nothing about this — the hire of a men’s basketball coach, and the non-hire of an athletic director — touches the rim of Castro’s #bebold govern-by-hashtag. No one else on his short list of basketball wishfuls would have been any different.

Bold would have been to interview Clovis West High coach Vance Walberg, who was guaranteed a home-and-home from Kentucky coach John Calipari if he got the job. Imagine that, the Kentucky Wildcats in the Save Mart Center.

Audacious would have been running down Fresno State great Rod Higgins, and forcing the former NBA star and general manager to get a cease-and-desist letter to make you go away.

Those are two names that would have put seats in the seats at the Save Mart Center. Taking the safe assistant coach route guarantees you nothing but all the elbow room you’ll ever need at the local arena.

Maybe Castro thinks he couldn’t afford to start paying another athletic director. He’s about to see that he couldn’t afford not to pay another one.

Fresno State was never going to get a rising star or a name-brand coach when it didn’t even have a firm athletic director in place. People with options don’t take jobs where the boss is TBA. Coaches with a future don’t go to places where the future is uncertain.

How rudderless is this Fresno State pontoon? The last men’s basketball coach, Rodney Terry, left for a job in El Paso. Let that marinate in your Bulldog-bred soul for a moment …

Castro thinks an assistant coach from a big conference is going to sell tickets in these parts? Tell that to the last assistant coach who came here from a big conference and won 20 games a year in front of a sea of red cushions (that would be Terry, by the way).

When football needed salvaging last year, Castro went bold. He hired an aging alumni who hadn’t been a head coach in years, and was ran off from his last head gig because of academic problems.

Jeff Tedford was more than worth the risk. He won games, he sold tickets, and he convinced your fans to be fans again.

Tedford came home because he was friends with the athletic director, Jim Bartko, from their shared days in Oregon. The athletic director mattered. Bartko always was going to bring Tedford here at some point. All the interim athletic directors in the world couldn’t make that deal go down.

Which brings us to the interim athletic director, Steve Robertello. This is his second tour as filler. How’s the poor guy supposed to make a strong hire when every candidate knew this wasn’t his hire to make?

Everyone knows you’re the one making this call, Castro. It’s always been your call.

You’re the one who extended former football coach Tim DeRuyter’s contract before he proved he could win without Derek Carr at quarterback. You’re the one who hired Bartko without digging deep enough to discover why you’d one day agree he should leave in the middle of football season.

When hiring a big-conference assistant coach in this day of FBI probes, please tell us you’re digging deeper than that.

You are great at what you do, when you do what university presidents are paid to do. You need someone else to make these athletic department decisions for you. And, so you know, it’s a whole lot easier to land a quality athletic director when they can make a major hire. Say, a men’s basketball coach.

Best of wishes with that athletic director search, whenever you get around to it.

David White: bydw@sbcglobal.net