Big Sky rivalries spark renewed community, student interest

The news out of Portland State's athletic program may not be earthshaking, but it does sound promising for current and potential supporters.

The Vikings are close to naming a new track and field coach, are switching local radio stations and are looking forward to perhaps playing in the NCAA tournament in at least one sport during the next athletic year.

And then there's Thirsty Thursday and the mullet haircut.

Portland State's first football game of the season is set for Sept. 4, which falls on a Thursday at PGE Park. That's cheap beer night, and the school has plans to sell general admission seats for $5 for that game as well as use the mullet as a promotional device.

'It's kind of a turn-back-the-clock idea,' says PSU Athletic Director Tom Burman. 'We're trying to think out of the box as much as possible. We want to make Portland State athletics fun and attractive to the community.'

Burman's idea of using the mullet in connection with the Sept. 4 football game is because of the opponent, Texas A&M-Kingsville, which was one of PSU's biggest rivals of the 1980s when it was known as Texas A&I. The Vikings beat Texas A&I during the Division II playoffs in 1988 before 21,079 fans at Civic Stadium.

'I think it will be fun if we can connect this game to the '80s, to those (days of) Trans-Ams, gold chains and the mullet,' Burman says. 'That's what we're working on currently.'

The Vikings, who hope that their women's soccer team will win the Big Sky tournament and advance to the NCAA playoffs, will switch to KTLK (620 AM) as their flagship station, Burman says.

And Kebbe Tolbert, an assistant at Syracuse, is poised to become the school's new track and field coach, succeeding Tony Veney, who moved to UCLA last month.

Portland State's teams didn't fare that well in Big Sky Conference during the 2002-03 school year. The Vikings won the league title in women's golf and played for the tournament crown in women's soccer, but the men's programs finished last in the conference all-sports standings while the women's programs finished sixth out of eight schools.

In the spring, PSU eliminated the men's and women's tennis programs as a way to handle what's expected to be a $200,000 shortfall for this year, according to Burman.

Despite the mediocrity in athletic results, the school is making strides in its battle to become a modest success at the Division I level (the football team plays at the Division I-AA level).

One of PSU's biggest successes last year came during football season, when the Vikings played host to then-No. 1 Montana and gave away a record 1,100 tickets to students, who get them free through their student fees. Normally, only a couple hundred students pick up tickets for games.

The athletic program also developed the 'V Team,' a group of students interested in sports marketing who work to promote PSU athletics to students.

Burman says increased student interest and seven years of games against Big Sky opponents are starting to develop a level of familiarity with PSU fans in Portland.

'We're starting to build a rivalry with Montana, and with Eastern Washington and Northern Arizona,' Burman says. 'The longer we play in the Big Sky, the better we're doing.'

One indication of success is the school's ability to sell most of the luxury boxes for its home football schedule. Last year, PSU sold only half of the 32 boxes at PGE Park. This year, it has sold 29.

Portland State's athletic budget has grown from $5.8 million to $7.5 million in the last three years. Burman expects it to remain at $7.5 million for the upcoming year.

Track and field is an interesting sport at PSU because of its potential, particularly women's track, which is one of the school's better-funded sports. It offers 12 scholarships, while men's track has four.

New coach Tolbert seems like a good fit to develop the track program, especially on the women's side. He's been involved with developing junior sprinters in the Midwest and Northeast as a regional director for USA Track and Field.

But the PSU track teams do not have a home meet facility. The school has had discussions with Lincoln High about using Mike Walsh Field for home meets once renovations are completed there.

The renovations include stands on the north side of the field as well as a track built to college-meet specifications. The Vikings could host the Big Sky championships with such a facility, Burman says.

'When you're always on the road, it's pretty hard to get people interested,' Burman says. 'And it's pretty hard to recruit athletes.'

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