By Marek Warszawski
The Fresno Bee
FRESNO, Calif., May 16. TWO Fresno State athletic programs received new life Thursday as university administrators and the Valley Soccer Foundation reached an agreement allowing both teams to compete next season in a largely self-funded mode.
Acting on behalf of men's soccer and women's swimming and diving, two of the four teams eliminated April 15 by athletic department budget cuts, the newly formed VSF raised $705,000 in cash and pledges, more than the $680,000 required to operate both programs for one year.
Because only $530,000 of the $680,000 had been raised by Wednesday evening, Fresno State Athletic Director Scott Johnson agreed then to chip in $150,000 earmarked in next year's budget for men's soccer and women's swimming scholarships. The university is obligated to fund pre-existing scholarships for sports that have been eliminated.
"I'm ecstatic," VSF President Randall Smith said. "It's really a sign of generosity on Fresno State's part to recognize the momentum we've generated. To me, this proves they really wanted to preserve these sports."
While men's soccer and women's swimming are rescued for one year, their long-term survival hinges on a Jan. 15 deadline. On that date, the VSF must present the university with cash or guaranteed pledges totaling $2.72 million — the amount required to fund both programs through 2007-08.
Based on what has been accomplished during the past month, Fresno State's vice president of student affairs, Paul Oliaro, said he is encouraged the community-based nonprofit organization can clear this most difficult hurdle.
"We told [the VSF] all along, 'Even if you make this first [deadline], if you don't think you can sustain it, let's not go there,'" said Oliaro, who also is chairman of Fresno State's Athletic Corporation, a nonprofit entity that funds the athletic department.
"We don't want to send false hopes to any group of student-athletes. They've already had their hopes let down once and now raised up. We don't want to let them down again."
The decision to compromise on the $680,000 figure was made Wednesday evening during a campus meeting involving university President John Welty, Vice President for University Advancement Peter Smits, Oliaro and Johnson.
Oliaro and Smith maintained close phone contact during the past several weeks as Fresno State was kept apprised of the VSF's fund-raising efforts. By Wednesday evening, the total rested at $530,000.
"We knew how close [to $680,000] they were getting," Smits said. "We decided that if we were going to spend $150,000 to essentially close down the programs, why not use that money to keep them open?"
By Thursday, Smith said, the VSF had reached $705,000 in cash and guaranteed pledges, boosted by three $100,000 donations in the final 24 hours. Two of the donors requested anonymity. The third, Kelly McCue of Clovis, raised the money through dozens of family members and friends.
Approximately $560,000 of the $705,000 came from men's soccer boosters. Because of Title IX gender-equity requirements, the university could not reinstate a men's program without also bringing back a women's team.
"If we had to lay all our cards on the table, we would have met the $680,000 figure," Smith said.
Emotionally spent after four weeks of limbo, Fresno State men's soccer coach Dave Chesler nonetheless was thrilled to learn of his program's reinstatement.
"Every time a pledge comes in, it just reinforces that whole concept that there is an important soccer community out there that thought we should be a part of college athletics," Chesler said.
Meanwhile, Tom Milich, who coached the swim team on an interim basis last season, is unsure whether he can accept another temporary position.
"If there were some job security, it would be something I would be very interested in," Milich said.
Now that the initial $680,000 deadline has been met, neither side expects the July 1 and Nov. 1 deadlines to present significant hurdles. On those dates, the VSF must hand over $340,000 in cash to the university.
It now is up to Johnson to trim an additional $150,000 from his already thin $18 million budget for 2004-05.
"This is a significant step, but we're going to have to make additional cuts," Johnson said. "My work's not over. We're trying to get to a balanced budget with a contingency plan for next year."
Oliaro added, "It would be the wrong message to say we pulled [$150,000] out of a pot. [Johnson] has got to go find it. Instead of cutting $680,000 out of his budget, he's only able to cut $530,000. That's still a dilemma."
Indoor track and men's cross country were the other sports cut.
Both sides acknowledged the possibility men's soccer and women's swimming could perish after one year if the VSF fails to meet its Jan. 15 deadline. The university remains firm in asking for a four-year commitment from both programs.
"We want a rolling four-year guarantee so that student-athletes who are recruited here know the program is going to be funded while they're here," assistant athletic director Steve Weakland said.
A cordial atmosphere pervaded during the 20-minute meeting, held in a crowded conference room at the Thomas Administration Building.
VSF officials presented administrators with a list of donors and pledge amounts. The university did not ask to see actual checks, nor did they request specific details from the organization's long-term fund-raising plan.
"There's a lot of good faith in this," Johnson said. "There are documents that need to be signed and commitments that need to be followed up on. It wasn't all dotted and crossed today. But there's a good relationship here, and there's trust."
Even so, Smith and VSF Vice President Tom Gleason brought along a wrinkled, cardboard box stuffed with manila envelopes containing donation checks, notarized pledge guarantees and other materials.
After the meeting, Gleason cradled the box against his stomach with both arms.
"We brought everything just in case," he said. "Now I'm going to need an escort to my car."