Fresno State athletics is at a turning point. History will praise or curse the current crop of leaders.
Even though the football team is 1-2, fans seem happy with new head coach Jeff Tedford and his vision for the program.
Men’s and women’s basketball are coming off successful seasons. Baseball and softball, too. Lacrosse had the first winning season in program history.
Athletic director Jim Bartko is working on the renovations to Bulldog Stadium. Even if the cracks in the cement on the east side end up delaying the project, it will be completed in the near future.
A cynic might suggest something’s missing – controversy. At one time, that was second nature at Fresno State.
Take a walk down memory lane: 1991 through 2014 – a revolutionary time at Fresno State. Lawsuits, Title IX problems, NCAA sanctions and even murder were some of the challenges and tragedies the university and athletic department faced.
The period starts with John Welty taking the president’s office in 1991. It ends in 2014 with the removal of Thomas Boeh from his position as athletic director.
Besides Welty and Boeh, the movers and shakers of this generation were former athletic directors Al Bohl and Scott Johnson; basketball coaches Jerry Tarkanian, Ray Lopes and Stacy Johnson-Klein; softball coach Margie Wright; and athletic administrator Diane Milutinovich.
Notably absent from this list are football coaches Pat Hill and Jim Sweeney, who, like Tarkanian and Wright, won many games and brought good attention to the university through his team’s on-field play.
Fresno State was able to join the Mountain West and escape the dying WAC, but was unable to make any progress in joining one of the premier conferences.
Whether from fame or infamy, Fresno State gained national notoriety.
The Milutinovich/Title IX trial, the Johnson-Klein fiasco, the Terry Pettis murder trial and the NCAA run-ins with Tarkanian and Lopes put the university in a particular national spotlight.
Hill, Tarkanian, Wright and head baseball coach Mike Batesole put the university in a different national spotlight for their success on the field, with the latter two winning a national championship in softball and baseball, respectively.
Boeh cut wrestling in 2006 amid financial struggles, which was a very unpopular decision within the Valley community.
Now, a second generation is in charge, led by Bartko and University President Dr. Joseph Castro. Castro was appointed in 2013, and Bartko started in 2015.
Castro came in and replaced Boeh with Bartko, bringing back wrestling along the way, which is set to start its first season in November. Bartko’s pushing full steam ahead with the Bulldog Stadium renovations.
There is excitement around athletics, as well as a stability (so far) that didn’t exist with the last group of leaders. This is arguably the best state that athletics has ever been in, which makes it the perfect time to start pushing for Fresno State to gain entry into a better conference.
There’s been talk in the past of the bigger conferences breaking away from Fresno State and its mid-level peers. If Fresno State wants a guaranteed successful future in athletics, the school needs parity with the schools in Power 5 conferences.
If Fresno State could choose, the most obvious selection given Fresno’s location would be to join the Pac-12. But any higher-tier conference will do.
Castro and Bartko have done a very good job in their few years at Fresno State, and their plan for the future is good. But their work isn’t anywhere close to being over.
Bartko won’t publicly talk about wanting to leave the Mountain West for greener pastures because he doesn’t want to strain relationships in the conference.
Former Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes liked to say, “You’re either getting better or you’re getting worse.
The foundational generation of big-time Bulldog athletics made the program better.
Bulldog fans now have to figure out how to help the second generation of leaders take Fresno State athletics to the next level.