The newest milestone approaches for Cal State Bakersfield athletics, and it might be the biggest.
The imminent membership in the Western Athletic Conference, which is expected to be announced Tuesday, is the finishing touch for the program's elevation to NCAA Division I status.
The lack of a conference home had been a frustration for CSUB ever since President Horace Mitchell announced in May of 2005 that the university was leaving Division II, where it had been so successful, to take on the NCAA's elite in Division I.
CSUB is officially a Division I independent, although most of its sports have found homes in conferences as affiliate members.
But men's and women's basketball, volleyball and women's soccer were the odd teams out of the conference picture. The WAC invitation will take care of those programs. The university has not yet made an official announcement about the move, but a press conference is scheduled for Tuesday at 10 a.m. at the Dore Theater to announce the "athletic department's role in conference reallignment." The press conference is open to the public.
In 2005, Mitchell, then-athletic director Rudy Carvajal and others in the athletic department figured the Roadrunners would join the Big West Conference.
After all, the Big West consists of many members that were longtime rivals of CSUB in the Division II days. It seemed like a natural fit.
Only, no Big West invitation ever came, and until this recent WAC development, no other offers for full conference membership came from any other league, either.
"That's a fly in the ointment," Carvajal said.
Carvajal retired at the end of 2010 and Jeff Konya took over as athletic director in January, 2011. Konya has said many times that it was only a matter of time before CSUB would get a conference invite.
"The reason I say that: I think our athletic teams are performing and are worthy on the field of competition," Konya said. "We have a great media situation here in Bakersfield. We have a great population that is increasing. One of the best economies. A good housing market.
"I mean, all the intangibles are there when someone from the outside is evaluating. This is a place you want to invest in."
A conference membership ensures a solid schedule of home and road games. It is also easier to reach the postseason if the conference has an automatic qualifier into the various NCAA tournaments for its member sports.
The conference question wasn't an issue 40 years ago when what was then Cal State College Bakersfield began athletics.
The California Collegiate Athletic Association greeted the Roadrunners with open arms shortly after the college established an athletics program. CSUB stayed in the CCAA until leaving for Division I after the 2006-07 academic year.
"We were able to be accepted during my first year into the CCAA," said Carvajal, who was hired in 1972. "That was big and it turned out to be very helpful."
But as time passed and many of the stronger Division II programs moved to Division I, effectively weakening Division II, the Roadrunners -- spearheaded by then-newly hired Mitchell -- made the commitment to move up.
"We had done as much as we could do in Division II," Carvajal said. "Division I is more than athletics. It is about relationships, institutional relationships, your image, wanting to be the very best in academics, not just athletics."
It cost CSUB $15,000 to apply for reclassification from Division II to I.
"Now it's over $1 million," Carvajal said. "That weeds out institutions. And now you must be accepted into a conference to be able to make the move.
"If we did not make the move when we did, we would not have been able to make the move for decades, if at all.”
Making the Division I move when it did saved CSUB a boatload of money. And having enough cash has always been the biggest challenge facing the Roadrunners athletics program.
Carvajal was hired as the program’s first athletic director. He inherited a college program with a $90,000 annual budget with four intercollegiate sports teams.
Now it’s a university. Athletics is a 19-sport, $9 million budget organization.
While $90,000 may not seem like much compared to a budget that’s now 100 times greater, it was still trying times financially, Carvajal said.
“At the time, the program was in the hole,” he said. “I took over in February and they had only raised $34,000. We had to take out loans to pay off our current year’s expenses. And that was before we could raise money for the second year.”
It was a different Cal State Bakersfield.
“There was just one core group of buildings, where the president’s office is now,” Carvajal said. “There were no athletic facilities. The basketball team traveled to Lakeside School for a place to practice.
“The wrestling team went down to the YMCA. The track team to wherever we could get on a field. We played (basketball) games at the Civic Auditorium and some at high schools.”
Those budget shortages were overcome. A group of local business people spearheaded fundraising that supported the various athletic department expenses, plus athletic scholarships.
Presently, money woes are still an issue. Wrestling and the men’s and women’s golf programs must raise their own funds or they’ll be discontinued.
Women’s tennis, which began in the mid-1970s, was recently dropped because it failed to raise enough funds to support itself. Sand volleyball, which will be funded through the athletics department, will start in 2013-14 at the earliest, returning CSUB to 19 sports.
Higher education in California has been ravaged with budget woes. Proposition 30, Gov. Jerry Brown’s bid to raise taxes, is not a shoo-in to pass. Brown has said funding will be cut from the California State University and University of California systems, along with commuity college funding, if Prop. 30 fails to pass in the November election.
“I don’t like the fact that higher education is being used as a political lever,” Konya said. “I don’t think that’s fair to the high school-aged California residents who want to get an education to better their station in life.”
If there is another wave of funding cuts, Konya acknowledges athletics would likely see further budget reductions.
“Part of our budget is constructed by state resources,” Konya said. “Like almost every other department on this campus, we’re very concerned about what higher education in California will look like if this continues.”
Konya said “contingencies” must be developed for worst-case scenarios. He declined to comment on anything specific.
“It could be a game-changer in a lot of ways for a lot of departments,” Konya said of the prospect of Prop. 30 losing. “Everything is on the table at that point. I don’t want to envision them. There are no easy solutions.”