You’ve got to be kidding me.
That was my initial reaction, edited for decency, after learning Fresno State has scrapped its much-publicized plans to modernize and update Bulldog Stadium.
Bulldogs fans should be even more miffed.
Fresno State administrators will undoubtedly disagree with that characterization. When they get around to massaging the message, they’ll tell us stadium renovations have merely been put off. Don’t let them pull the wool Bulldogs cap over your eyes. This can has been kicked down the road, on a foggy January morning, until completely out of sight.
Let’s get the obvious-but-unsaid out of the way first: The $60 million project Fresno State has been touting these last 2½ years was proposed and pushed by former athletics director Jim Bartko. The architects and engineers involved in the design were his friends and contacts.
But that’s only part of the palace intrigue.
Bartko was one of the key figures in Oregon’s rise from Pac-12 football weakling to national powerhouse. He was the liaison to Nike founder Phil Knight and spearheaded the effort to build the Ducks’ on-campus basketball arena.
In January 2015, Fresno State president Joseph Castro brought Bartko aboard essentially to work the same magic. It was a sign Castro was serious about Bulldogs athletics taking a step toward the big stage, by someone who has been there and helped do it. That “academics and athletics will rise together” wasn’t just a marketing slogan.
Shelving renovations to Bulldog Stadium, home of the athletics department’s primary revenue engine, signifies a retreat from that position.
“Be bold” seems to be on hold.
Instead of fixing and improving Bulldog Stadium, Fresno State will turn its attention to a 15,000-square foot expansion of the Duncan Building according to multiple sources with knowledge of the situation.
What happens to the $15 million in pledges Bartko raised for stadium renovations? The donors who made them are asking themselves the same question. While at the same time questioning the direction the Bulldogs are now headed.
I’m not saying Fresno State doesn’t need more space for offices, locker rooms, meeting rooms and everything else housed within the Duncan Building. They most certainly do, especially after adding two more sports. (Psst. I’m hearing another women’s program could be on the way.) It’s just that they need a modern, fan-friendly Bulldog Stadium a whole lot more, and for reasons that should be obvious.
Opened in 1980, expanded in 1991 and only superficially improved in the last quarter century, Bulldog Stadium is starting to crack, crumble and leak. The east side berm likely needs to be rebuilt. For a few days in late September, just before a home game, an irrigation pipe burst transforming one of the end zone ramps into a BMX course.
Doing nothing for the next five or six years, the minimum timeline it will take for Fresno State to revisit the stadium, doesn’t fix those issues. Nor does it address the absence of 21st century amenities, terrible ingress and egress and stinky restrooms – reasons more and more fans give for staying home.
This move makes absolutely zero sense, especially when you consider how these kinds of projects get more expensive by the year. By the time Fresno State gets around to this again, a $60 million redo could easily cost $90 million.
You also have to wonder what coach Jeff Tedford thinks of this new course, and how it might impact his long-term future.
For one thing Tedford and his staff have been selling the spiffy renderings of a new and improved Bulldog Stadium to its last two recruiting classes. Now Tedford has to be the one to break the “Sorry, it’s not happening” news.
Restoring the pride and winning tradition of Bulldogs football is the primary reason for Tedford being here. It just happened a lot quicker than anyone thought. And with so many key players returning next season, now’s the time to seize on that momentum by putting the stadium project into overdrive.
With so many key players returning next season, now’s the time to seize on that momentum by putting the stadium project into overdrive.
Instead, Castro and Vice President of Administration Debbie Adishian-Astone, who chairs the Athletic Corporation Board of Directors, are slamming the brakes.
Another reason for Tedford being here, articulated to me by Tedford himself as well as people close to him, is the opportunity to leave a legacy in the form of a renovated stadium and new football facilities. If he senses that can’t happen, even as the Bulldogs continue racking up 10-win seasons, it could make him more receptive to offers from larger, richer programs.
That’s human nature.
It’s no coincidence Fresno State decided to forgo fixing and improving its primary athletics department asset at a time when it doesn’t employ a permanent athletic director.
Because no athletic director worth that title would ever sign off on such a move.