Jim Bartko wasn’t in his usual seat at the Josephine Theater for Jeff Tedford’s 11 a.m. Monday news conference. By that afternoon I understood why: Bartko was out as Fresno State athletics director.
Bartko was in that seat the last time we saw each other, two days after the Bulldogs pulverized San Diego State and two days before I left on vacation. It was the happiest I’d seen him in a while. I congratulated Bartko and asked if we could meet for lunch (probably at Triangle Drive In, a place I introduced him to) when I returned this week.
“Let’s do it!” Bartko said.
Personable and snappy, a typical Bartko reply.
We never got to have that lunch. I never got the chance to ask Bartko the questions I’d been wanting to ask. And since Monday’s surprising announcement, he isn’t returning my texts.
The university-issued press release states Bartko resigned for “personal reasons.” Bee readers don’t have to surmise about some of those reasons because Bartko himself was so open about them – startlingly open. But there are other reasons, namely his excessive drinking and an impending divorce, that have more recently come to light.
In January, Bartko revealed he had been sexually molested as a boy during the early 1970s by his Catholic priest and basketball coach. He did so after keeping the truth bottled up for more than 40 years, even from his immediate family.
Bartko said he came forward, in such public fashion, because he didn’t want other victims of sexual abuse to bury the guilt and shame like he had.
I certainly admired him for that.
Bartko underwent treatment last December at a rehabilitation facility in Tucson, Ariz., but that wasn’t the end of it. In June, he summoned me to his office. We talked about the upcoming football season, the progress (or lack thereof) on Bulldog Stadium renovations and the financial strain of adding wrestling and women’s water polo.
At the end of our talk, Bartko told me he would be spending the next month getting additional treatment at a facility in Malibu. He didn’t specify what kind of treatment but asked me to keep that information private. Since it was summer and he wouldn’t miss anything significant, I agreed.
Since then, however, it’s become clear Bartko has not fully escaped the clutches of his past.
Eileen Bartko, Jim’s wife, filed for divorce in July, citing irreconcilable differences. In her filing, she requested an emergency order to gain custody of their teenage daughter, saying Jim Bartko “is an alcoholic and has a history of drunk driving with me and/or my daughter in his vehicle.” She goes on to detail several instances of Jim Bartko allegedly driving drunk, including one less than two weeks following Jim Bartko’s return from the Tucson facility.
“Jim’s unwillingness to admit that he has a problem with alcohol places our daughter at significant risk of emotional and physical harm,” Eileen Bartko wrote.
Jim Bartko has no criminal record, including no convictions for drunken driving.
In recent weeks and months I’ve heard from people in the Fresno State community, both university employees and key donors, concerned about Bartko’s health and erratic behavior due to excessive drinking – to the point where these people believed it was affecting his job performance.
(Things had reached the point that Debbie Adishian-Astone, Fresno State’s vice president of administration and associate vice president of auxiliary services, had assumed stronger oversight of the athletics department, including the stadium renovation drive, according to my sources.)
I, too, personally witnessed some of this erratic behavior. Which is why I asked Bartko for a sit-down before leaving on vacation.
Now I can only hope he’s getting the help he needs.
Being AD at Fresno State is a brutally difficult job. That person has to sustain 21 varsity sports, third most in the Mountain West, on a $37.8 million budget that ranks in the lower half. And do it at a time of flat ticket sales for football (despite the recent on-field turnaround) and declining interest from an aging fan base.
It’s a job that requires 100 percent of someone’s effort and focus. There’s no time to be battling internal demons.
Bartko must’ve understood that, or have been persuaded to reach that conclusion. We’ll probably never know. Fresno State is keeping the lid tight on this one. How tight? No one will talk on the record and its primary athletics spokesman, Senior Associate AD Paul Ladwig, answered a question Monday afternoon about Bartko from the school’s flagship radio station by steering the conversation to the Fresno State Marching Band.
When he arrived at Fresno State in January 2015, Bartko was both a breath of fresh air and a bundle of energy. His upbeat, people-friendly personality was a vast departure from the dour, insular Thomas Boeh. He loved to talk and knew everyone by name. Fans and donors liked him immediately, and so did I.
Shortly after coming aboard, Bartko outlined his plan for bringing Bulldog Stadium into the 21st century. It was an exciting time for Fresno State fans, to finally have someone in that job with the vision to see beyond the next budget meeting or Title IX report.
But progress has been slow, and become more complicated with the eroding, crumbing east side. That baton will now have to be carried by Adishian-Astone, or whomever President Joseph Castro selects as Bartko’s replacement.
Make no mistake, this will be Castro’s decision. He’s the guy who brought back wrestling, perhaps without a full understanding of the financial and gender equity ramifications. He’s the one propping up the athletic department with $13.6 million in “university support,” according to the 2016-17 budget.
It is interesting, though, that the university’s press release made no mention of a “national search” to seek Bartko’s replacement.
Which indicates two things:
▪ The decision was sudden. Bartko was active on Twitter earlier Monday, engaging with fans.
▪ Fresno State won’t be pressed to conduct this job search. Castro will take his time finding the right fit.
Bartko lasted nearly three years at Fresno State. And though the list of his tangible accomplishments is short (the Tedford hire being A-No. 1), he still had a positive impact in making Bulldogs athletics more approachable and friendly. His successor will surely benefit from that.
But behind the fist-bumps, beneath the smile and easygoing demeanor, lie a few unresolved issues. For Bartko’s sake and for the sake of his family, I truly hope he conquers them. Just wish we had that talk.