The Long Shot

Jason E. Kaplan

John Johnson is taking the reins at Portland State’s athletic department at a time of existential questions for PSU — and for college sports as a whole. Can he right the ship?

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When Portland State football coach Bruce Barnum was a freshman on the Eastern Washington University football team in 1982, his “big brother” was an already silver-haired MBA student and wide receiver that everybody called “The Governor.” The “big brother” — an older player on the team assigned a new player to mentor — is supposed to buy the younger one a meal, make sure he’s adjusting well to campus life and perhaps offer advice on the challenges of juggling school with football.

But the way Barnum tells it, he was merely summoned by another player to the Governor’s locker, where John Johnson told him he seemed pretty settled in, and to let him know if he needed anything.

“Never talked to him again!” Barnum says.

Forty years later, the two men talk a lot. Johnson is now Barnum’s boss, having become Portland State’s athletic director earlier this year.

Johnson takes over the Vikings program at a pivotal time for both Portland State in general and Portland State athletics — as well as one of great upheaval for the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The Vikings football team doesn’t even play in Portland anymore, and school leaders have openly questioned whether the school should even have an athletics program. But Barnum — and Johnson — are optimistic that the new AD can right the ship.

PSU was already facing declining enrollment and budget deficits before the COVID-19 pandemic, which exacerbated both those problems. The past three years were also ones of leadership upheaval. Johnson’s predecessor as AD, Valerie Cleary, left for a job at the Multnomah Athletic Club in July of 2021. (An interim AD, Linda Williams, served between Cleary’s departure and Johnson’s hire.) President Stephen Percy, who’s been in office since 2019 (initially on an interim basis), is retiring at the end of the 2022-23 academic year.

But Percy will still end up wielding considerable influence over the direction of PSU sports. In the fall of 2020, he hired a private firm, Collegiate Consulting, to conduct an operational review of PSU athletics, while also convening an “Athletics Future Committee” comprised of internal stakeholders. The nearly 500-page consulting report was completed in September of 2021, with the AFC providing an evaluation of it two months later.

College athletics at the highest level has always had a bit of an existential crisis. But last year Portland State took the unusual step of saying that out loud. While the AFC’s 15-page report discussed myriad aspects of CC’s findings about the Vikings program — including economics, wins and losses, and the way athletics makes for a more diverse student body — the gist was also: What’s the point of college sports exactly?

“The Committee found no current or recent articulation of the reasons for having intercollegiate athletics at PSU,” the AFC said, adding that the school needs to “identify how Athletics furthers the mission of PSU and what benefits (if any) PSU receives from having intercollegiate athletics.”

0922ProfileIT4A6678wViking football practice in fall, 2021.   Photo: Jason E. Kaplan

National college football writer and podcaster Matt Brown says that Portland State deserves some credit for actually looking in the mirror. “It’s pretty easy for a lot of D1 schools to say, hey, we have a sports program because that helps drive enrollment. It drives student engagement. It helps with donors,” he said on former Oregonian columnist John Canzano’s “The Bald-Faced Truth” podcast. “Right now, based on their own words, that’s not really happening at Portland State.”

Percy was not available to speak to Oregon Business for this story, but a university spokesman sent along a statement that includes some of the same language from his January 2022 response to the reports. “PSU remains committed to an intercollegiate athletics program and its contribution to the mission of the university,” Percy wrote. “However, we do not have the luxury of being in a position to infuse major new permanent university funds into any program, including athletics.” Upon hiring Johnson, Percy tasked him with coming up with a “comprehensive strategic plan” to build on the reports, but presumably the AD will have to work with PSU’s next president to execute it.

Even if you’re just a casual fan of college sports, you’ve probably heard about the latest round of conference realignment — including USC and UCLA leaving its geographic/Pac 12 rivals, among them Oregon and Oregon State, for the bigger TV money of the Big 10 — as well as the Name Image Likeness revolution (see “Always Hustling,” Oregon Business, November/December 2021). In some ways, both the conference upheaval and the NIL gold rush represent a long overdue recognition that college sports, at the highest level, is big business for both schools and TV networks, sometimes at the expense of its own unpaid athletes.

For Johnson, coming to PSU marks a return to the Big Sky conference and the Division 1 Football Championship Series (FCS) level. The Spokane Valley, Washington, native started his career as athletic director at both Eastern Washington and Weber State, and to Johnson, FCS is a purer expression of what college sports is meant to be.

Johnson sees PSU upholding what he calls “the collegiate model” of sports, even as big schools like Alabama, Ohio State and, yes, Oregon will be more like the pros. “It’s for the love of the game,” Johnson says. “And yes, kids are getting scholarships, etcetera. But they’re playing because they love their sport and want to be part of the athletic community. Be part of a team.”

This doesn’t mean the Vikings aren’t big-time in some ways. In men’s and women’s basketball, the Big Sky sends its champion to the NCAA tournament every year, where it sometimes pulls off one of those upsets that make March Madness so beloved. And FCS football is more like basketball: It’s an actual college football playoff, with 32 teams in a tournament, not just something called the College Football Playoff, with four teams (at least for now).

“When you win in basketball and football, all boats rise,” Johnson says.

PSU’s football future seemed bright after Barnum’s magical first season in 2015 (he was also interim coach at the end of 2014). The Vikings went 9-3, finished the season ranked 10th in the country and made the FCS playoff for the first time since 2000. Two of those nine wins came on the road against Football Bowl Subdivision teams — Washington State and North Texas — the so-called “money games,” in which a team like PSU is paid what is generally a mid-six-figure sum, for which they are expected to show up and lose. At PSU those games are an essential source of money for all the teams, not just football; one of Barnum’s dreams would be to only have to play one “money ball” game a year instead of two.

But the football program’s progress was arrested by another Portland sports-success story: the Timbers and the Thorns, which forced them out of Providence Park. PSU had called the former Civic Stadium home since 1947, and in recent years had shared the field with the now-defunct Portland Beavers baseball team and the lower-level Timbers. The Timbers moved up to Major League Soccer in 2009, and the Thorns began play in 2013. In 2017 the combination of field-quality issues and available dates began pushing the Vikings football team to Hillsboro Stadium; by 2019 it was their only home. The school’s soccer and softball teams also play in Hillsboro. Adding insult to injury, the Vikings’ final home game of the upcoming season — against Sacramento State — still did not take priority over the Oregon high school football playoffs and had to be moved to Friday night.

Barnum is guardedly optimistic that Johnson can change that. “When they hired him, I told the staff, ‘My God, that’s the best thing that could happen to us. He’s already done what we need done.’”

Specifically, Johnson was at Weber State during a time when football struggled, and led a renovation of the Wildcats’ stadium. The school is now a Big Sky power in football as well as basketball (Weber is Damian Lillard’s alma mater). Johnson’s main job as associate athletic director at Washington State also meant a lot of fundraising and facilities building. The consensus is that PSU needs a stadium on or near campus. But making that happen will be difficult, time-consuming and costly — to the point where the CC report explicitly recommended against it. Portland State needs its own Phil Knight or Dennis Washington (who helped bankroll the University of Montana’s Washington-Grizzly Stadium) to step up with a big check.

Being a big-city university has actually put PSU in the position of playing second fiddle to the Blazers and the Timbers and Thorns among Portland sports fans. And college-sports fans pay more attention to Oregon and Oregon State. The school also has one of the lowest athletics budgets in the Big Sky.

Johnson considers improving the student-athlete experience — academically, socially, athletically — to be his No. 1 job. By extension, as he sees it, student athletes who excel and enjoy their experience make the university better. He also believes athletics has a role in PSU’s mission to “let knowledge serve the city.” And he says local business leaders have told him Viking sports can be part of helping Portland bounce back from the pandemic by getting them downtown.

Barnum too imagines sports not only helping improve PSU’s enrollment numbers but getting alumni excited and writing checks. He also hopes to draw fans who’ve never taken a class at PSU in their life, who would just come to the games for fun.

Percy’s response to the two reports was technically to stay the course, saying, effectively, sports is good for PSU — but the program needs to improve. As the AFC said in its own report: “The Committee believes that there is value in having intercollegiate athletics at PSU. At an appropriate level of investment, with effective leadership, and with a comprehensive strategic plan, Athletics could help PSU recruit and retain students, further its equity and diversity goals, and enhance its relationship with alumni, donors and the community.”

It’s up to Johnson to come up with that strategic plan. “We’ll see what the future holds. But right now, absolutely. We have a football program and we plan to maintain that, and we’re in the Big Sky Conference as of now.”

Barnum knows he can’t count on anything, but he is hopeful. “He’s talking about a stadium,” Barnum says. “He’s talking about [raising the number of] scholarships. I mean, I’ll probably be gone [by the time a stadium is built], but he’ll do it.”

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