On Sports: Thursday night games, addition of David Hersh get ball rolling

by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Portland State, under fourth-year coach Nigel Burton, is aiming to contend for the Big Sky football title and to increase attendance to 12,000 per gameAs with horse racing, Champions Tour golf and the International Basketball League, Portland sports fans have taken a less than fervent approach to Portland State football.

The ho-hum factor has prevailed.

There have been pockets of decent interest in the PSU program, especially during the Pokey Allen and Tim Walsh eras. From 1988-94, the Vikings averaged more than 10,000 per home game for seven straight seasons. Only twice has that happened since — in 1999 under Walsh and in 2007, the first year of the ill-fated Jerry Glanville regime.

But even when Mouse Davis’ teams were lighting up the scoreboard from 1975-80 and going a rather amazing 31-4 at home (but 11-20 on the road), average home attendance peaked at 8,612 his second season.

Nigel Burton’s first three seasons have produced home attendance average figures of 4,895, 5,947 and 5,957. The first year, games were played at Hillsboro Stadium while Jeld-Wen Field was being renovated, but the larger stadium hasn’t made much of a difference.

As Burton begins his fourth season at the Portland State helm today in a 7 p.m. Jeld-Wen game against Eastern Oregon, can the Vikings attract more interest? Could they get their home attendance back up to 10,000 again?

“That should be a minimum of where we are,” PSU athletic director Torre Chisholm says. “I’d like to see much more than that. If we can figure out how to consistently get 12,000, it changes dynamics of our program. If we average 12,000, there’s a lot more we can do.”

The dilemma is how to get there, especially with more than 100,000 of the state’s football fans watching games in Corvallis and Eugene when Oregon State and Oregon are playing at home on the same Saturday.

One way to eliminate competition from the FCS Beavers and Ducks is to play Thursday night games, as the FBS Vikings will do twice at home this season. They should do that every year.

Chisholm will bring in a heavy hitter to help with marketing this season. David Hersh, once the owner of the Pacific Coast League Portland Beavers, relocated to Portland last December and has formed C-Level Sports Management. He’ll create a partnership with the Vikings as does Learfield with Oregon State and IMG with Oregon in terms of promotional operations. It’s a positive step, for sure.

Portland State needs to invest more money in its football coaching staff. Burton has lost a dozen assistants in his three years, many of them to FBS rivals who offered a higher salary. Burton has privately fundraised in the city to help bring the Vikings up to speed in that regard, a move that could reap dividends in the future.

Then there is a matter of creating a winning program. The Vikings went 7-4 in Burton’s second season, 2011, and drew almost the same as they did going 3-8 last fall.

They need to win big and win consistently, though even that may not get them to the attendance levels they reached in the early 1990s, when the Ducks were just getting good and the Beavers were lousy.

A record in the 8-4 range and a spot in the FBS playoffs would at least put the Vikings on the state sports fan’s radar this season.

“We can make a playoff run, and then who knows where that will go?” says quarterback Kieran McDonagh, a sophomore who started as a true freshman last year. “We want to win the Big Sky, and once we get into the playoffs, just take it each game at a time.”

Burton seems to have some good talent to work with. Start with McDonagh, a 6-2 bruiser out of Vancouver’s Skyview High who weighs in at a middle linebacker-like 242 pounds

and threw for 2,187 yards and 14 touchdowns and rushed for 406 yards and nine TDs in

the Viks’ pistol attack.

“I’m hoping we get even more production out of him this year,” Burton says.

Running backs D.J. Adams and Shaquille Richards combined for 1,491 yards rushing a year ago. They’ll run behind a veteran offensive line with three returning starters. The receiver stable seems deeper with the addition of 6-6, 210-pound transfer Victor Dean from Fresno State and Kasey Closs, a transfer from Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, Calif., who redshirted a year ago.

Three former Oregon State players figure into the plans — tackle Joe Lopez and cornerback Mishawn Cummings to start on the defense and Kyle Loomis as punter.

Portland State ranked next-to-last in the Big Sky in pass defense last season. Will that be a focus?

“It was a focus last year,” Burton says. “We lost so many guys to injury in the secondary. We had a walk-on senior playing corner because we ran out of players. This year, we have a decent amount of guys coming back and an infusion of talent.

“But in the grand scheme of things, it’s not always the guys in the back who are the issue. I feel pretty good about our lines on both sides of the ball. That’s going to be a big factor for us, especially on


Burton is in the fourth year of a five-year contract.

“It’s an important year not for just him but the program,” Chisholm says. “We need to show that his second year wasn’t a fluke. That has to be the new norm for us.

“We have to make strides with the program, especially since the state is becoming such an impressive sports marketplace, with the Blazers and the success of Oregon and Oregon State football, the Timbers, the Thorns, the Winterhawks. It has become a place where they expect winners. It becomes our responsibility to deliver that with our program.”

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