Wichita State president John Bardo spends his fall Saturdays watching football, sometimes two or three games at a time.
“I’m a football guy,” he said. “My wife laughs at me because I’ll have two games on the television and one on the computer all at the same time, and it almost doesn’t matter who it is.”
He spends work time watching the Big 12 and pondering scenarios that might benefit his school. The Big 12 is considering adding schools, perhaps two or four. In Bardo’s mind, that might open a slot in another conference for Wichita State. That movement is one of the key pieces Bardo waits on while the university continues to study the addition of football and conference affiliation.
“All I know is our name is out there a lot,” Bardo said Tuesday. “It will depend — does the Big 12 expand, yes or no? Does the Big 12 expand by two or four? That will all put in play a whole lot of other other issues for us.”
Bardo declined to address specific conferences, saying mentioning names only angers administrators in those conferences.
Several schools are publicly lobbying for a spot in the Big 12, including members of the American Athletic and Mountain West conferences. Should the AAC need to replace schools such as Cincinnati or Houston, or if Colorado State leaves the Mountain West, it is likely WSU already has pushed its credentials as a substitute.
That requires a lot of parts to fall in place for WSU. Conference affiliation comes first, in Bardo’s mind, because only then can WSU determine if football is necessary, and at what level.
“We really need to think about conference alignment and football as two separate questions,” Bardo said. “… What we really decided is that the conference question is the question, because that affects the institution at a very high level. Then, let’s get the football question after we get the conference question.”
In December, WSU announced a study to evaluate the athletic department, including its membership in the Missouri Valley Conference. In June, College Sports Solutions issued a 69-page report that provided WSU benchmarks on football budgets at the Bowl Subdivision and the Championship Subdivisions. FBS is the highest level of college football. FCS is played by fellow MVC schools such as Illinois State and Northern Iowa.
Bardo said he is considering the FCS level more seriously now, after originally stating a strong preference for FBS. Playing FCS and staying in the MVC is an option, he said. The public university MVC members play football in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, widely considered the strongest FCS conference.
“I’ve backed off on the FBS only,” he said. “There may be a reason FCS helps us. Maybe.”
While Bardo admits emotionally he’s excited about football’s potential, he maintains common sense will guide his decision. The study tells him FCS football requires an operating budget of around $4 million. To step up to FBS, the range is $8 to $13 million for conferences.
“This is a bottom-line business decision; it’s not an affection decision,” he said. “I’m no more committed to it than I was when we first started talking about it. I’m no less committed. We’re going to walk it through as a business decision.”
Bardo estimates WSU would need $40 million to renovate Cessna Stadium and build an indoor practice facility, offices, training rooms and a weight room for football. Around $20 million would be needed for the stadium and $18 million for the practice areas.
Using a bond payment to finance those building projects is one option.
“That’s the big nut,” Bardo said. ““The operating budget we can figure out. There are ways of doing that.”
The east side of the stadium, Bardo said, is not compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act standards and must be torn down and rebuilt, likely with fewer seats. While a capacity for a renovated Cessna Stadium isn’t set, Bardo said it would satisfy Bowl Subdivision requirements of 15,000 average paid attendance.
He envisions adding luxury boxes and update the press box on the renovated west side. Artificial turf and a new scoreboard are also part of the plan.
“The stadium is actually quite solid, it’s just ugly,” Bardo said. “It can be the stadium and that’s a positive.”
The practice facility would likely be located on the site of the Fairmount Towers dorm, which Bardo plans to tear down.
Potential changes in athletics are connected to the bigger picture of how WSU can help enrollment and Wichita’s economy.
From the start, Bardo talked about his desire to be associated with large, urban universities with research missions that are similar to WSU. He points to schools such as Cincinnati and Houston. The MVC is populated by four private schools and five other public schools, all of which are located in cities smaller than Wichita.
“This is about the positioning of the university,” he said. “If Wichita is going to be successful as a city as we continue to move into this world that none of us fully have grips on yet, the university has to be at the center of what happens in the city. Which means we have to have a reputation and an ability to deliver that causes the city to be perceived as having value.”