Bob Lutz

President John Bardo examines all possibilities for Wichita State athletics

Wichita State basketball coach Gregg Marshall gets a hug from president John Bardo following the Shockers’ Feb. 3 victory over Southern Illinois.
Wichita State basketball coach Gregg Marshall gets a hug from president John Bardo following the Shockers’ Feb. 3 victory over Southern Illinois. The Wichita Eagle

We just experienced the first weekend in a new season of college football and we need to catch our breath.

This is football’s world — or at least country — and we’re just living in it.

In Wichita, though, we’ve felt left out since Wichita State dropped its football program 30 years ago. It’s really been that long.

Those of us around then remember how mightily the Shockers struggled with football in most years. It was unsightly, mostly uninteresting and definitely uninspiring.

Football, though, tugs on our hearts. And when Wichita State president John Bardo entertains the notion of a potential return of football, our hearts beat faster. Because, well, it’s football. And we’ve been on the outside looking in for three decades.

There’s never really been big-time college football played in Wichita. The Shockers fell well short in all but a few years. Bardo, whose big-picture ideas and no-fear approach have appeal, could be the man to lead WSU where it has not previously gone. In football terms, that is.

The WSU president wants to bolster enrollment. He wants the university to be a leader in the community. He wants the Shocker brand on Wichita’s commerce. His Innovation Campus, going up where the leisurely sport of golf used to be played, is tangible evidence that Bardo is about more than fun and games.

He and Wichita State athletic director Darron Boatright have been studying the possibility of football and a change in conference affiliation for several months. Consultants have weighed in. Bardo and Boatright are poring over information and analysis so that they can make the decision that best serves Wichita State.

When the Big 12 finally decides whether to expand, WSU will have a better sense of where it might fit. Bardo has repeatedly said nothing is off the table, including the status quo of remaining in the Missouri Valley Conference without a football program.

My sense of Bardo, though, is that he’s not a status-quo guy. If there’s a sensible opening for Wichita State to bolt the Valley and somehow re-institute football, he’ll burst through.

But what is sensible?

WSU has a pretty sweet thing going. The Shockers have staked claim to the Missouri Valley, winning one All-Sports trophy after another and standing firmly on top of a hill as would-be conquerors are tossed aside. It’s gotten a little boring, frankly.

There were many years when we were left to wonder why Wichita State wasn’t dominating the Valley. Now that it is, we wonder if there’s more out there.

Bardo wonders the same. Without insulting the rest of the conference members, he acknowledges that Wichita doesn’t match up all that well with the other Valley cities. He wonders if the time is right for a new conference, a new direction. And he is curious to know how football might match up with such a move.

We all do. These are exciting, nervous times. Adding football would be a gargantuan change. Changing conferences would rattle the earth. Doing both? Somebody hand me a Tums.

Bardo, though, isn’t wavering from the mission. And the mission, for now, is to make sure he and Boatright have all the information before making these decisions. But it’s also about being decisive when the time comes to do whatever it is Wichita State will do.

Bardo is a careful thinker. But he has some shake, rattle and roll to him, with a clear vision for Wichita State that has caused Shocker boosters to hang on for dear life.

I think Bardo — and this is purely my speculation — would like to find a new conference for WSU first and foremost. The best-case scenario would be to land in a conference that would not require the Shockers to re-instate football.

But football just might be required for Wichita State to make the kind of move Bardo thinks is necessary for the good of the university. Which is why he has a number in mind — $40 million — for how much it would cost to renovate Cessna Stadium and add a practice facility where Fairmount Towers stands.

If Bardo and Boatright ultimately decide football has to be in play, they can’t approach it without a solid game plan. It would hopefully be one that wouldn’t detract from any of the success Wichita State has established throughout its athletic department while competing in the Missouri Valley.

Count me as one who thinks the Shockers have outgrown the MVC. It’s been fun, but it’s time to move on.

It’s easy to have that belief, much tougher to find a sensible alternative. It’s been long overdue for Wichita State to take an accounting of where it stands athletically. That’s being done now by a fearless president who won’t blink in the face of massive change.