A Wichita State University football program, last seriously discussed in 1998, is an official topic once again, its potential and pitfalls under investigation by president John Bardo.
So are all aspects of his athletic department, which underlines the preliminary and all-encompassing nature of WSU’s look into football, conference affiliation, other sports and facilities.
Bardo and deputy athletic director Darron Boatright are in the early stages of a fact-finding mission that may dramatically alter the course of Shocker athletics as part of a wider plan to shape the university and community.
Or, the information gathered may dictate that the current path — one of tremendous success over the past 15 years — is proper for athletics.
So, Shocker fans who dream about soccer teams, membership in a higher-profile conference, a boathouse for NCAA crew on the Arkansas River, luxury boxes in Koch Arena or football, this is your time. Bardo is dreaming with you — while gathering information — and wants to know what people want, what they will pay to support and what makes sense for the future.
“Everything is on the table,” Bardo said Tuesday. “The sports we offer, facilities, conferences. This is about the university, and its ability to support the community and support our students.”
Boatright will play a lead role in researching and planning the next moves. Those steps, Bardo said, could take a year.
Everything is on the table. The sports we offer, facilities, conferences. This is about the university, and its ability to support the community and support our students.
WSU president John Bardo
Bardo, who became WSU’s president in 2012, views athletics as a tool that can help his priorities of improving student life and aiding Wichita’s growth and prosperity. He tackled other areas — highlighted by the Innovation Campus growing on the southeast side of the campus — before turning to athletics.
Most important, he views the fall months as a crucial time for student enrollment and retention and wants to invigorate the campus with activity. The first impression matters to students, he said, and he wants to see how athletics can help.
Maybe football’s an answer, maybe soccer’s an answer. This is not about football. This is about who we are and what we can do.
WSU president John Bardo
“Maybe football’s an answer, maybe soccer’s an answer,” he said. “This is not about football. This is about who we are and what we can do.
“I want to make sure we are addressing the interests of the people of Wichita, that includes our students and that includes the broader community. You have to actually actively explore.”
While football may nor may not be part of the plan, Bardo recognizes its significance and the emotions stirred by even the mildest talk of reviving the sport.
WSU dropped football after the 1986 season, citing budget problems, community apathy and poor attendance. In 1998, a 17-person committee gave then-president Gene Hughes a report recommending the return of football. WSU approached six large corporations and major donors to gauge their interest in supporting football and were told to work on basketball and baseball instead.
Since then, football’s return never advanced past a few petitions, campaigns and letters to the editor by fans.
Over the past 15 years, the desire for football’s return seemed to fade as the athletic department began a period of unprecedented success in sports ranging from basketball to track and field. Fans connected WSU’s ability to pay competitive salaries for coaches such as basketball’s Gregg Marshall and Jody Adams and volleyball’s Chris Lamb to the absence of football.
WSU focused on those sports and it worked, in part because football didn’t drain resources and attention.
1897 First football season
3-8 WSU’s record in 1986, its final season
$839,000 Football’s budget deficit in 1986
Bardo and Boatright want to find out whether WSU’s athletic department should continue to operate that way, or whether change is appropriate.
Football presents change of the biggest order in college athletics. It would demand millions of dollars in support and facilities, including a new stadium, either on the site of Cessna Stadium or elsewhere. It also may require adding women’s sports to meet Title IX mandates.
“One way or another, we need to answer the question about football,” Bardo said. “It’s been lingering way too long.
“We need to be very straight on, ‘Here’s what it takes to do it, here’s what it means, here’s what others are doing.’ And if people say, ‘Yeah, that’s what we want to do,’ that’s great. If people say ‘We have no interest in that, we’re not willing to support it,’ then we know the answer.”
$13 million Annual cost of playing football at the Football Bowl Subdivision level
WSU’s athletic budget is around $18 million and Bardo estimates adding football — he wants to play at the highest level, the Football Bowl Subdivision — costs around $13 million more. Playing in the Championship Subdivision — which many Missouri Valley Conference members do — is likely only a transitional option in Bardo’s mind.
“And not just FBS to get your head pounded in,” he said. “It means that you’re going to be competitive.
“I don’t think there’s any value in offering sports where people say, ‘I don’t have anything else to do today, so I’ll go out there.’ It’s got to be something people want.”
Bardo and Boatright are talking to people at other schools, other conferences and around college athletics for advice and direction. Bardo envisions hiring consultants and forming committees.
“Now is when you draw on those relationships for information,” Boatright said. “I’m visiting with people that have done similar things and finding direction. I’ve been on the phone, I’ve been to various conferences.
“You talk about these things, and you do a lot more listening than talking.”