John Bardo started his job as Wichita State’s president this summer. Many things about his work are new, but he said he needed no introduction to the importance of Shocker athletics to the area.
He taught sociology at WSU from 1973-83 and met his wife, Deborah, during that time. From his years watching the Shockers and his frequent visits, Bardo knows all about the passion for sports. He remembers watching basketball games on the Shocker Sports Channel. He claims to still own a T-shirt celebrating WSU basketball and football wins over Kansas from the early 1980s.
He likes to observe coaches at work. When the time is right, he expects to entertain a “full and frank” conversation about the future of Shocker football, a program disbanded in 1986.
“My wife and I had a long tradition of showing up at practices,” he said. “I never try to tell a coach what to do. I’m just fascinated by the process of what it means to coach. People go out and watch a game, and it looks like it’s free-flowing. But the level of teaching that goes on is really quite special.”
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Bardo grew up in Cincinnati and attended the University of Cincinnati and those experiences shaped his sporting life. He fondly remembers games between the Bearcats and Missouri Valley Conference basketball rivals. He spent many fall afternoons at Nippert Stadium watching Cincinnati football. He earned advanced degrees from Ohio and Ohio State, where he experienced football during the Woody Hayes coaching era.
“I am a football guy,” he said. “I love the sport. I also really enjoy college basketball. The other sport I’ve learned to like in the last few years is volleyball. College volleyball is really fast, and fun to watch. We’re pretty good in basketball and volleyball, so that’s makes it pretty nifty.”
Bardo discusses those topics and more in a recent question-and-answer session:
Q: Did you play sports as a youngster?
Bardo: “I tried to play football as a high school student. Yet the harder I worked, the lighter I got and I wasn’t particularly fast. That’s always a football coaches dream — slow and light. I just wasn’t good enough at it to keep doing it, but I loved it. I played defensive end and a little bit of noseguard. I was the guy they put in at the end of the season who hadn’t been in a game. That didn’t dissuade me from enjoying it.”
Q: Did you have favorite teams growing up in Cincinnati?
Bardo: “Somewhat of a Reds fans. I actually went to the second (Cincinnati) Bengals game ever. The guys that I tried to play on the (high school) team with were ranked in Ohio, so I went to a lot of high school games. Then I went to the University of Cincinnati and went to as many games as I could. We had a really not very good team, so going was more a matter of penance than anything at that stage. One of my earliest memories of my father is when somebody had given him tickets to go to a University of Cincinnati football game and my mother wasn’t all that interested. So I was sitting in the front row of Nippert Stadium with a blanket all around me and dad feeding me hot chocolate and trying to explain the game to a 4-year-old. I grew up in the era of Oscar Robertson, the 1959 and 1960 national championship (basketball) teams. I went to a lot of basketball games in the old Missouri Valley, where Wichita State and Bradley were the two you really wanted to beat if you were a Cincinnati fan. That was a good brand of ball.”
Q: Do you play sports now?
Bardo: “I try to golf. I will only play golf with people whose religions have purgatory, because I’m such a bad golfer that I figure God will take pity on them for having played a round with me.”
Q: Describe your philosophy on athletics at a university.
Bardo: “We’re in an era of great flux in athletics, and you’re seeing that in many ways, from the Penn State situation to all the realignments of all the conferences. Athletics, and in Wichita this is really true, are very much the front porch of the university and it’s where most people who know us, and haven’t gone to school here, know about our athletics program. It is important to me that it be good and it is important to me that it be clean and that we understand that in the end we are trying to build lives here. The NCAA talks about 98 percent or so of all student-athletes will go pro in something other than sports. We just need to remember that, that as much as we want to see them win, that in the end, winning for them means getting a degree, learning how to be an adult, learning how to be responsible in the community, and having a wonderful experience winning games. The winning is part, to me, of a larger process.”
Q: You mentioned Penn State and the Jerry Sandusky scandal. How do you see those events changing how the NCAA deals with schools?
Bardo: “There have been some folks who say this isn’t a football issue. It is. It’s a football issue and an athletics issue. But it’s also an institutional issue. The issues at Penn State really do, in my opinion, have to do with lack of institutional control and really letting the culture of athletics go in a direction that is neither healthy for athletics nor healthy for the institution. I’ve got friends who are chancellors and presidents at schools who are dealing with some really awful things right now. It really is speaking to the question that athletics in those institutions have been allowed to separate themselves from the real educational purpose of the institution.”
Q: How do presidents change that culture?
Bardo: “I think (NCAA president Mark) Emmert took the first step in taking the position that this was an institutional issue and the institution has the responsibility that this moves in the direction it needs to move. At the same time, I worry because of the amount of money flowing through all this, that’s it a lesson that will get lost. It’s something that (WSU athletic director) Eric (Sexton) and I talk about a lot. I really do have a strong philosophy about this, that I want us to build our programs to be even more national-class than they are. But I want to continue focusing on the student-athlete and the recognition you do this in a way that benefits the university as a whole and that benefits that student. Sports is about emotion. Because it is such an emotional thing for people, it can be looked at in a way that isn’t very rational. It’s really important that we keep focused on what this really is about and who we’re really about. I want our men’s and women’s basketball teams in the Final Four. I want our students to graduate, and I want all our students to be good citizens. We have to keep that conversation at the forefront.”
Q: What are your impressions of the athletic department at Wichita State after a month or so on the job?
Bardo: “Really solid. When I came to interview, they wanted to show me the arena, which they should of. They wanted to show me the baseball field, which they should. Those are all good things. What I wanted to see was the training room. I know a lot more about what you think of your athletes by what you do in the training room than I do by how pretty your basketball arena is. I was really impressed by what I saw. I talked to a couple student-athletes while I was there. I looked at facilities. I looked at who was in there and who was doing what with the athletes and I had a very good feeling about where we are. That’s the barometer. If you’ve got a student who is injured, if you’ve got a student you are trying to keep from getting injured — how do you treat them? That made me feel really good about the institution. I know that isn’t where people normally look, but having done this so long and so many times that I can tell a whole lot.”
Q: So it sounds as if you like the direction of the athletic department and aren’t inclined to make big changes?
Bardo: “Stay the course, and let’s see what we can do to provide you more support to get you to that next level. Our AD grew up in athletics, but he worked a lot out of athletics. So the advantage that we have there is we have a different perspective than a person who has only been in athletics. He brings a very different perspective to athletics than many people I’ve talked to who are athletic directors, and I very much appreciate that. He does understand what it means to have student-athletes, what it means to run clean programs, what it means to try to build. That’s what I’m looking for.”
Q: What do you remember about Shocker sports from your earlier time at WSU?
Bardo: “I’ve got a T-shirt, stuck in the bottom drawer, that has ‘66-65’ and ‘13-10’ on it. I have vivid memories of both of those. I greeted the bus when the football team came back from KU (in 1982). My wife and I had season tickets to football. I didn’t end up with season tickets to basketball. At the time I was an assistant professor, and I had to make choices about paying the rent or do I go to games? My father-in-law had cable, and I didn’t, and I paid half of the cost of having the Shocker Super Channel, so we got to watch the ballgames and I went to as many as I could afford. I really enjoyed that a lot. My mother-in-law would just shake her head, because my father-in-law would be yelling at the television. My wife always reminds me that they can’t actually hear me when I yell at the television.”
Q: I’m sure you’ve taken many questions about football at WSU. What is your thought on that issue?
Bardo: “Not yet. It’s not a ‘No.’ It’s not yet. There are a number of really key issues that we need to deal with as a university, and I’m going to focus on those first. When we get a few things in line that I feel are where they need to be then I’ll try to figure out how we look at that in a meaningful way. I think it’s really important for people to understand that it is not as simple as simply saying, ‘Let’s start a football team.’ We have a stadium that, while it’s been maintained so that it is legal and safe, it’s not up to date. It’s certainly not competitive and it would not generate anything that we would want. It’s important to us as a university, aside from (Title IX), that we understand our commitment to women. Therefore, we’re talking about if we were to add football, we’re going to end up adding women’s sports in the same number of scholarships and participants. We neither have land nor stadiums for those things. The other thing I’m really concerned about, as I think this through, and I’m asking this question broadly — who do you want to beat? Not who do you want to play, who do you want to beat? Very different question. You can start a football program and you can play everybody in the world, as long as they can beat you 70-0. And they’ll pay you big-time. Are you really going to be happy beating Southern Illinois, or are you looking to beat Nebraska? If, in fact, KU, K-State, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State are all playing at home that weekend, are you going to choose to come to our game, rather than their game? All of that said, I remember Shocker football fondly, so this is not an ‘anti-football, no we should never do it.’ I’ve got to make this as a business decision, not an emotional decision. We have to understand we will lose money. There has to be a lot of additional revenue generated. And students will need to understand the true cost. I understand what it means to under-capitalize a program like that. And if you under-capitalize in the first place, catch-up is almost impossible.”
Q: These sounds like experience and thoughts gained at other schools. What have those experiences taught you?
Bardo: “I was at Cincinnati when they had a really bad football team and I know what it took to invest for them to become competitive. It isn’t just a very simple thing of saying I’m going to have a $10 million base budget and spend $30 million on a stadium. That will get you a team that KU, K-State, Missouri and others will beat on fairly regular basis. So the question truly is, ‘What are you looking to do?’ That is going to be a conversation we have to have with the community. Which means I’m going to have to take this in a very formal way. We’re just not ready for that, in terms of the cost When we do it, it will be very public. It’s going to be a very public conversation, both on and off campus. Right now, my focus has to be on growing enrollment at the university, assuring we’re continuing to increase quality, expanding our research capacities, expanding our intellectual property capacities and expanding the overall quality of student life.”