New athletics director unveils vision to renovate Bulldog Stadium, add two new sports
by Eddie Hughes
Jim Bartko started his new job as Fresno State athletics director in January, developed a five-point vision for the rise of the Bulldogs’ 19 current sports, met with architects to explore the future of Bulldog Stadium, announced a desire to reinstate wrestling and add women’s water polo and met hundreds of excited fans — all while living out of a hotel and waiting for his family to arrive this summer from Eugene, Oregon.
To say Bartko has hit the ground running is cliché. So let’s say his hands have hit the Valley shaking — shaking the hands of Red Wave faithful past and present, making connections and working to engage the community.
Part of that includes providing insight for FresnoState Magazine readers, and Bartko sat down to discuss his road map for empowering excellence in Fresno State athletics.
You developed a five-year-plan for the department. What priorities are being addressed?
We want to make sure we take care of the programs we have. The tennis, track and field and lacrosse locker rooms need to be up to speed. If we’re going to have a sport and honor our student-athletes, they’ve got to be taken care of at the top level. Then we’ve got to take a hard look at Bulldog Stadium. We had architects visit, and they’re going to give us a vision of what that stadium needs to look like. It needs some work. Revenue from football helps everybody. And that place is falling apart a little bit. We’ve got to look at the long-term budget, staffing issues, reengagement of fans, and then we’ll look at sport expansion. That’s our vision. We’ve got to go step by step and, hopefully, in the next five years, we can achieve everything. We need to lay out a plan that our donors can look at, our fans can look at and our coaches can look at.
1.0 Achieve highest standards
2.0 Strengthen the pack
3.0 Build our home field advantage
4.0 Expand competitive opportunity
5.0 Swell the RED WAVE
Fresno State has done a lot of work in regard to Title IX, as I’m sure you’re familiar. What’s next? What’s the key to achieving gender equity in our athletics programs?
There has been a lot of work by a lot of people here the last 10 years. We need to show a commitment to all of our programs to fund them in comparable levels within our conference. Every coach I’ve spoken to is a team player and wants to do well, and we’re going to take care of them.
How does athletics fit into the University on a larger scale?
We’re a small part of the University, but we’ve got to do our share. Athletics isn’t the most important part of the University, but it’s the first thing you see, whether it’s on TV or in a stadium or arena — it’s the front porch. We’ve got to make sure we represent the University well and bring the fans in on game days.
How important is the academic component of that with student-athletes?
They’re student-athletes first. And we’ve got to make sure they graduate and earn degrees. Very few are going to go pro, 1 or 2 percent. The other 98 percent are going to have a career somewhere. Our student-athletes had a record-high 3.13 GPA in fall 2014. We’ve got to keep that up and keep up the tutoring, medical services, training and nutrition. They’re great ambassadors, and we’ll keep them involved in the community.
What’s the timeline on reinstating wrestling, which was cut in 2006, and adding women’s water polo at Fresno State?
Sport additions were a big topic well before I got here. It’s about a yearlong process to fundraise, find a conference and practice facilities, evaluate and hire coaches and then start recruiting. The annual budget for wrestling will be about $689,000 and women’s water polo will be about $456,000. We’re going to need some help with funding. Our goal is for these sports to start competing within the next three years.
Wrestling and women’s water polo timeline
Feb. 26 – June 1
June 1 – Dec. 1
- Conference Evaluation
- Practice Facilities and Offices
- Evaluating Coaching Prospects
Dec. 1 – Feb. 28
- Hire Coaches
It’s a critical time for Fresno State to remain relevant in a changing NCAA landscape. What’s your vision for what Fresno State athletics can become?
New legislation on providing full cost of attendance for all student-athletes on scholarship is going to be about $1.25 million a year, and we’re going to fund it at the upper level of our conference. If we don’t we’re going to be hurting long term. It’s going to differentiate the top 60 or 70 programs in the country from the rest. Some people are going to drop football, some people are going to drop other sports, some people won’t pay it, some people can’t afford to pay it. We’ve got to prove we can do it and put ourselves in position to be in the top 60 in the country, and let’s see where everything falls out. The Mountain West is a great conference — we’re happy here — but you never know in the next three to five years what the landscape is, and we’ve got to position ourselves not for tomorrow but for the next three to five years. We either have to say, “We’re all in and we’re going to go for it,” or be content and see what happens.
How do we say we’re all in? What does that mean?
Commitment to our facilities, student-athletes and donors. We have good attendance for our conference, but we can grow. Our donor base is in the middle of annual giving and fundraising. Bulldog Stadium would have to be updated. We have no chance without that stadium being updated to be part of that top 60. We’ve got to be prepared.
It sounds like you’re saying it’s not just people on campus changing that mindset, it’s also the community at large?
Exactly. We have to ask the community. And we have to be out there seeing people. There’s been a generation of fans that we have not fully engaged the way that we should, and we’ve got to go out and shake hands, thank people, get the young families involved, the $100 donors who are season ticket holders.
Oregon experienced a meteoric rise during your tenure. Is Fresno State a place where something similar can happen?
You’ve got to have a vision, you’ve got to have some donor backing, you’ve got to have some great coaches and you’ve got to get lucky. I learned this at Oregon — don’t accept mediocrity. Nobody wants to be average. If you’re content to be sixth place, anybody can do that. You want to strive to be the best. You may not get there every year, but people will support you and understand that they can invest in something they can be proud of.
I think you used that word “dominate” in your introductory press conference. Talk about that.
I don’t think you go into it saying we’ll be happy to be sixth in the league. We want to compete for conference championships in all 19 of our sports. It takes our department and our University to commit to giving all the resources that we can to be competitive. It takes our coaches to have the vision to be competitive. And our athletes need to take pride in winning.
Looking at what has to happen at Bulldog Stadium in the coming years, what renovations are needed?
I think our number of seats is fine. Most schools are going backwards on numbers to make it intense and intimate and make it a hard ticket. I think intimacy and scarcity is a good thing. The consultants visited, and they’re putting together a plan to show me the options, the costs, how to fund it and some designs. There are probably three phases of it. There’s accessibility, a foundation, restrooms, concessions. There is probably a suite level and a club room. There are probably some better seating opportunities, better signage on the scoreboards.
Bulldog Stadium proposed project timeline
- Sound System
- Sky Boxes
- Press Box
- Training Center
How important is it for the Red Wave to be good ambassadors for visiting fans?
We need to make sure it’s a good experience because you won’t get big schools coming in here if it’s a bad experience. We want it to be a bad experience for them because we played hard and won, not because of the way they were treated by fans. We’ve got to win with class and lose with class.
There was a lot of buzz about your relationship with Nike’s Phil Knight when your hiring was announced. Is there some room to leverage that?
Yeah, I think so. Nike has always been very supportive of our program. We’ve got to show them our vision, and I’ll use the resources and friendships that I have to get some advice and do some tweaking with uniforms and things.
Are we going to be looking at naming rights deals to accomplish some of the things we need to?
We haven’t gotten that far yet. It depends on the cost. I need to get a design first and then look at the cost and figure out the financing. A massive donor helps, but you need to have 20 or 30 donors who step up and provide lead gifts.
What can the community do to help? How can the community get involved?
Have faith, keep passionate, trust and be patient. If you’ve been disengaged, I want to hear from you. I want to prove that we’re here to be a big part of this community, and let’s build this together because it can’t be done alone.
Looking at it from the flip side, what is it that Fresno State athletics provides to the community?
Oh gosh, I’ll give Oregon as an example. If it wasn’t for the University of Oregon in Eugene, the community would be kind of empty. Fresno State is this community in a lot of ways. It’s the only show in town athletically. We can help the community by bringing in big games and fans that help restaurants and tourism. We need to be owned by this community.
The Bulldog Foundation fundraising model has undergone a lot of changes in the past decade or so. Are there new engagement strategies that you want to bring?
You’ve got to make change sometimes, but there are people who have to have ownership in your change. We’ve got people in this community with a lot of good ideas, opinions and history, and we need to understand that. And we also need to move forward and work together with our community.
You’ve got a tough job. A lot of eyeballs watching and fans hoping for great things. You have to create a vision, but how do you jump in and attack it? Where do you start?
Small steps at a time. If you look at everything we have to do, it can be a daunting list. We just need to choose a few things short term that can make an impact and then look long term. You can’t do it all at one time. We’re already winning. Two years ago we were on the verge of a top 10 finish. We’ve got to keep our programs strong, and we’ve got to get the football stadium up to par to generate revenue for everybody. No question.