When Torre Chisholm was hired as Portland State athletic director in spring 2007, he took over an athletic program that was desperately seeking an identity. The search that landed him had dragged on for well over a year and the athletic department was running with a bare-bones staff.
This year, the Portland State women's teams' combined success won the school the Big Sky All-Sports Trophy outright for the first time in school history. But while the women were celebrating, the men's teams suffered through one of their worst years in recent memory, with football and basketball finishing near the bottom of the conference.
On Monday, Chisholm and Portland State athletics got a huge boost when the state Legislature approved $24 million in bonds to help pay for the Viking Pavilion, a proposed overhaul of the university's Park Blocks sports facility. The approval would be the realization of many long-discussed plans and a feather in Chisholm's cap. Chisholm talked about what the Pavilion would mean for Vikings athletics, his expectations and his future with Portland State. Comments have been edited for clarity and length.
What's does the Legislature's approval of $24 million for the Viking Pavilion mean for the future of Portland State athletics?
It's a huge boost for us, obviously. We still have some work to do. We have to raise an additional amount of money to match what the Legislature has approved for us, but this really solidifies the project as something that's going to happen. ... For athletics it's a game changer in so many ways. It gives us a chance to really upgrade our basketball program and our volleyball program. It gives us a chance to solidify our funding sources with new revenue streams that we can use to stabilize our budget and hopefully grow the program across the board.
So what's the timeline on construction?
It's still hard to say right now. We're not looking at doing groundbreaking until we have firm commitments for all the money. I'd like to say we're probably looking at some time in 2015, a more conservative estimate would be sometime in early 2016.
Looking back on the 2012-13 academic year, how would you sum up PSU's athletic accomplishments?
It was another good year for us across the board. There were a couple of sports where I think we went into the year with greater expectations and we didn't necessarily perform at the level we had hoped to, but we still ended the year with multiple conference championships and outstanding performances, especially on the women's side.
What does winning the women's Big Sky Conference All-Sports Trophy outright for the first time this year say about the state of PSU athletics?
It goes to prove we've got great coaches, but I like to think it shows that we've got great programs. Because even through coaching transitions, we've been able to maintain success in a number of those programs. At the end of the day, it shows that we've got a campus and a presence that is attractive for recruits and we can build successful programs.
What about the men's side?
We've seen (the same) in starts and stops on the men's side. In the course of the last six years, we've gone to two NCAA tournaments (with the men's basketball team) and in football we had what looked like a breakthrough season two years ago, then this last year we took a step back. But we have such an incredible foundation of players in the program now that we have great optimism that the program is still on the right track.
Attendance numbers have been pretty static for football and men's basketball. What do you have to do to boost those numbers?
We have to be more aggressive in our marketing and our outreach. The thing I have noticed over my six years here is that everybody in town kind of knows what we're doing and how our teams are doing, so there is an interest level there. Our ongoing challenge is: How do we convert interest into action? ... It's fair to say that we haven't found the magical formula yet.
Would it be fair to say that making the connection with the community has been more difficult than you anticipated?
It's fair to say I've done marketing and fundraising at two institutions previously and things that I found to be true and proven at those institutions don't necessarily translate that well here, or maybe not that well in the Portland market.
What's the financial status of the athletic department?
I feel like we're fairly stable. Every year presents different budget challenges. We will continue to try and build more stability. This year external revenues increased over 25 percent from last year. I can't speak enough to what the Viking Pavilion means to our future stability. The reality is, right now a lot of our success financially is tied to one program. If we can diversify that a little bit to have more potential to generate better revenue from the basketball programs, we're really going to have an even better foundation.
What would you say has been the biggest change in Vikings athletics during your tenure?
I think it's just a change in expectations. When I came here, the mindset, at least on the university level was, 'We have a nice program and we're happy with occasional success.' I had a different expectation -- that our teams would be in the top tier of the conference and compete for conference championships. Our coaches across the board have adopted that expectation, and the fact that so many of our teams have achieved that just continues to reinforce that expectation.
Aside from the Viking Pavilion, what is one priority for the athletic department in the coming year?
We have to establish and continue to grow some of our operational funding. We have to get more competitive in salaries, especially for assistant coaches, and we have to continue to fund our scholarship programs. We're also trying to identify opportunities to bring some of our programs closer to campus and to create advantageous long-term situations.
How is the relationship with Jeld-Wen Field?
We have one more year left on our lease with them, so next year we'll re-evaluate where we are with them. It's been a great venue for us in terms of recruiting and also fan amenities. Last year we started to notice a little bit of a challenge, because currently it feels a little big for us, but we like the upside. We have high expectations for the football program and we're investing in the football program for it to be successful. Our goal is: How do we grow the football program and grow our marketing so we actually grow into Jeld-Wen?
Two years ago you were a finalist for a similar position at Cal Poly. Are you looking to stay at PSU?
I'm really enjoying my time at Portland State. I just signed a new three-year contract. I love the work here. My family is settled in the area and they don't want to leave. I am from California and have a lot of family and friends in that area, so there have been things that would have been interesting. I would call what I did exploring rather than chasing. I think there is so much more to be done here. I'm so thrilled about building the Viking Pavilion and the prospect of seeing us really finally turn the corner in football as well. I want to be a part of that.