Fresno State president has bold vision for athletics, academics

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Fresno State President Joseph Castro is the top dog on campus, but many people probably don't know he's one of the biggest Bulldog sports fans in the Central Valley.

Joseph Castro is a man on a mission at Fresno State, to turn the Bulldogs into one of the premiere programs in the country. The university president is creating a buzz the campus hasn't seen in more than a decade. And he's accomplished this in just 18 months.

His latest slam dunk came last November, when he hired Jim Bartko from Oregon. Yes, the same Oregon with those crazy uniform combinations and first-class facilities. Thanks in large part to financial backing from a knight and shining armor whose crest is a swoosh known to everyone around the world.

Bartko replaced long-time Athletic Director Thomas Boeh. Boeh helped clean up the Bulldog program mired in controversy before his nine-year tenure.

"I felt like I needed to have a different kind of athletic director going forward. And so that was a judgment I made after talking with him and so we honored his contract, and he's got a new assignment and we've searched for Jim Bartko," said Castro.

Bartko has the daunting task of bringing Bulldog athletics to the same level of his former employer.

"He has seen Oregon ascend. And he's even said to me before, when he started with Oregon, they weren't anywhere near where we are now," added Castro.

I told Castro, "I asked Jim, do you subscribe to the fact that if football and men's basketball does exceptionally well, that it takes care of everything else. And he laughed and he said..."

"Well, I'm not sure if it takes care of everything else. But it's a must. I mean at Oregon, there are two sports that raise money. I'd say 60-some percent of our revenue comes from those two sports in donations and ticket sales. So we've got to focus our energy on all of our programs. It's all important. But those two programs need to lead us and we have good coaches in place. And now it's just a matter of getting them the resources and get a few breaks here and there to do it," said Bartko.

"I've heard some of our coaches of other sports say that exactly the same way, which is 'please take care of football and men's basketball and we'll ride that wave, essentially,'" said Castro.

Dr. Castro wants each Bulldog sport to have a chance at winning a conference title. And the 'Dogs are working to provide those opportunities.

In the past year and a half, Fresno State has renovated the weight room and football locker room. You can add the Women's Soccer and Lacrosse field to that list. The multi-million dollar Meyers Family Sports Medicine Center completed in the fall of 2013, provides treatment to student athletes. And the nutritional training table is up and running on campus.

But there is one important thing Castro would like to take down.

"We're going to reinstate wrestling," said Castro.

Five words every local fan has been waiting to hear since 2006.

"Why did you feel like it was such an important thing to have the idea of bringing wrestling back?" I asked Castro.

"Of any issue that I heard about during my first year as president, this one was by far, the most important to people. And it would come in unexpected places. Like it might be on a farm, talking about agriculture. Some farm, Ag leaders come up to me and say, 'I hope you bring back wrestling,'" said Castro.

Bringing wrestling back is easier said than done. Title IX compliance will require the Bulldogs incorporate another women's sport. And the recent NCAA ruling on cost of attendance will skyrocket Fresno State's budget by $1.3 Million.

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Dr. Joseph Castro and his new Athletic Director Jim Bartko are making a big push to get fans into the Save Mart Center. 8,000 would end up watching the 'Dogs lose to Wyoming in a triple-overtime thriller on a Saturday in January. That's a good crowd, when you consider on most nights, the SMC is curtained-off at the top. And pretty bare at the bottom.

Castro grew up a Red Waver and especially became a fan of all Bulldog sports after watching Boyd Grant's men's team win the NIT in 1983. The Hanford native played sports in school and became a lifelong fan despite graduating from Cal and getting his Ph.D from Stanford. But it's something else that has the 48-year-old coming back.

"As a university professional, I've come to appreciate the important role that athletics plays in a university setting. And the development of leadership skills. And I think that's what resonates with me the most, is it's another way in which a university develops the leadership skills of their students," said Castro.

Think of Dr. Castro as the CEO of a company. And that company's name happens to be Fresno State.

A slogan Castro often uses since becoming university president is "Be Bold." It's a phrase he's applied to both sports and in the classroom when the nation went into recession a few years ago.

Castro says the economic uncertainty created an atmosphere of doubt at places like Fresno State. And where there's doubt -- there's less innovation and creativity for students and faculty alike. That's where "Be Bold" comes in.

"So, I wanted there to be a simple way to say, hey, think out of the box. Take some risks. We know some of them aren't going to pan out. But that's OK. Let's be as creative as we can," added Castro.

And he's taken to Twitter as one of the primary sources of communication between his students, faculty and even critics. Dr. Castro tells me he's always been tech savvy, but it wasn't until he became an administrator did he see the true value of social media.

"It's just another way to engage with a wide variety of people. We have 23,000 students. 1,000 faculty or so. A lot of staff. 200,000 alumni. It doesn't replace the face-to-face, but it supplements it," he said.

Fresno State's university president is a man who's soft spoken, but is as ambitious and aggressive an educator you'll find in the country. His bold words and actions may prove to be too risky. And that's just the way Joseph Castro likes it.

"I don't want a president in 40 years to say, gosh, what was that guy doing 40 years ago? Why am I inheriting this?" said Castro.

Related Topics:
sportsfresno statefresno state bulldogs
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