Commentary

Programs in precarious position

Originally Published: July 14, 2009
By Graham Watson | ESPN.com

When the NCAA's annual Sports Participation Report is released in the fall, the association expects to report that more than 100 teams were dropped in the past year, bringing the two-year total of dropped teams since the economic crisis began in the winter of 2007 to more than 227 teams.

Although the NCAA doesn't keep track of which schools dropped programs for financial reasons, it's safe to assume that the economic crisis is weighing heavily on all facets of collegiate sports.

Across the board, state financing for public schools is being slashed and athletic departments are getting hit hard. So much so that athletic directors often are faced with the decision of cutting a program or finding a private donor to float the program while the economy rights itself.

Cal State Fullerton, Northern Iowa and the University of New Orleans are three schools that have been hit hard by the poor economy and have either tried to save their athletics programs or cut some of them loose. Although these three schools represent just a small sample of suffering universities around the country, their stories hit home for nearly every collegiate institution.

Paying to play

Dan and Jill Hicks don't spend a lot of dinner conversation asking each other about their days -- the subject of work can be too stressful.

Both are head coaches at Cal State Fullerton -- Dan the wrestling coach of seven seasons and Jill beginning her fourth season with gymnastics -- and both programs are marked for extinction. The Hickses were told earlier this year that severe education cuts in California were forcing athletic director Brian Quinn to make some tough decisions. And because wrestling and gymnastics are the only sports that don't participate in the Big West like the rest of Cal State Fullerton athletics, getting rid of those sports seemed like an easy solution.

[+] EnlargeCal State Fullerton
Matt Brown Cal State Fullerton sophomore Alaina Baker finished ninth in the all-around at the 2009 NCAA West Regionals.

But Quinn gave the Hickses an option: If they could obtain $150,000 -- $90,000 for gymnastics and $60,000 for wrestling, which would cover travel, uniforms, supplies and services, with the school picking up the tab on salaries and scholarships -- through fundraising, both teams could participate in the 2009-10 season.

Within a week of learning its fate, the gymnastics team, with the help of USA Gymnastics, was able to raise $75,000 through a pledge drive and another $15,000 through phone calls to donors. Dan said he expects to have his $60,000 after his camps are completed this summer, as well as an extra $20,000 to supplement scholarships.

But that's where the happy part of this story ends. Despite a triumphant fundraising effort by both programs, the school is now asking for two years' worth of both teams' operating budgets to compete in 2010-11. That means gymnastics has to raise $544,000 and wrestling has to collect $394,000, all by August 2010, to cover scholarships, salaries, travel, and supplies and services.

"It's sort of a slower death," Jill said. "It also will look good if you can imagine the headlines. They allowed us this opportunity to save our sport because the last thing they want is bad publicity, and I truly don't think they want to drop sports. Athletics directors, that's not what they're in it for."

Quinn said that it would have been easy just to cut both programs but that he didn't like taking away opportunities for kids. In fact, Cal State Fullerton added men's and women's golf through the help of a private donor for the 2009-10 season, one thing that irks the Hickses.

For Dan, the conundrum is doubly frustrating because he knows that if his program is saved and his wife's isn't, his program might still be cut. To stay in compliance with Title IX, Cal State Fullerton might see fit to do away with wrestling anyway.

But neither Jill nor Dan is losing hope. Dan is trying to meet with members of the athletic department and business office to see whether there's a way to raise money yearly, something both coaches think they can do. Currently, the new golf program is being financed in a similar fashion.

"It really comes down to, who are you as a person in that situation?" Jill said. "Do you see it as an opportunity, or do you see it as negative? My husband and I just really feel like impacting these kids' lives is really what it's all about. It's not about the money, and it's not about what we get out of it. It's about what we can give. So, we see it as an opportunity to give it our best shot and try to save our sport."

Relying on false hope

Northern Iowa's baseball players found out via text message that they were playing their final season.

The team was on a road trip in Arkansas and traveling back to the hotel when parents and friends started calling and messaging players after hearing of the program's demise on the news. Coach Rick Heller, who had just started his 10th season, had heard the news earlier in the day but hadn't found the right moment to tell the team a 103-year-old program was ceasing to exist.

[+] EnlargeNorthern Iowa
Molly Wade/UNI Marketing and Public RelationsNorthern Iowa baseball played its last game May 16.

"Guys started asking what the hell was going on," Heller said. "As soon as we got off the bus, we found the conference room at the hotel. The coaches met and we thought of some key points that we needed to focus on, and we went in and we addressed the team and told them exactly what was going on. It was a pretty awful day. A lot of tears and a lot of sadness. It was really awful, absolutely awful."

When the team got back into town Feb. 23, three days after it had begun its season, Northern Iowa athletic director Troy Dannen held a news conference and gave the team a glimmer of hope. He told the team in front of the media that if it could raise $1.2 million by April 5, which would guarantee three years of baseball, it could play the 2010 season. The team managed to raise $258,000.

"I told the coach that this is an economic decision and an economic decision only," said Dannen, who is in his first year as athletic director. "And so if the economics can get fixed, there's no reason we have to make this type of move. It was a long shot. And quite honestly, I've been here a year -- if there was a way to fix the economics and find that money, it would have been done long before I got here."

A committee of Northern Iowa alumni offered to give the program $250,000 yearly if the school would kick in $100,000 for scholarships. The proposal was denied, and Northern Iowa baseball played its final game May 16, a 3-2 walk-off victory over Bradley.

All but a couple of players transferred, and Heller and his staff were let go June 30, the end date for their contracts.

Dannen said a 9 percent reduction in state funding to the university created a projected $500,000 to $600,000 deficit in the 2009-10 athletic department budget. He couldn't cut a women's sport because of Title IX, which left baseball and wrestling up for grabs.

Baseball was targeted because Iowa's climate is not conducive to baseball; the team had to play its first 23 games on the road. Also, the team doesn't have its own baseball facility and shares a Northwoods League team's facility.

However, when Dannen took the job last summer, he vowed that no sports would be cut to solve the school's economic and gender-equality problems.

"A lot of promises were made the day Mr. Dannen was hired," Heller said. "He shook my hand and told me that he'd never drop the program. He publicly said it to all the media and at all of our booster club functions. … I was basically lied to the whole first semester."

A glimmer of hope

Three months ago, Jim Miller was wondering whether he'd have an athletic department to manage.

The University of New Orleans was still recuperating from losses caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and had suspended most of its sports while it rebuilt. The school obtained a waiver from the NCAA to stay in Division I despite having only six varsity sports through the 2007-08 season and nine through the end of the 2008-09 school year. But that waiver was set to expire.

[+] EnlargeJaroslav Tyrna
AP Photo/Karl DeBlakerIt appears that Jaroslav Tyrna and the rest of the New Orleans athletes can breathe easier.

"We had a plan to add the remainder back to remain NCAA-compliant, but then state budget cuts hit, the economy, the downturn," Miller said. "Everybody's cutting things, and we were already cut. So, having to cut something from nothing was pretty difficult. In the last three months, it's really become a matter of, 'Can we save our department or not?'"

That answer came May 11 when Logan Wickliffe Cary Jr. passed away, leaving the University of New Orleans a substantial amount of money in his will. Miller said Cary often would tell him that the program would be taken care of when he was gone, but Miller dismissed the notion.

"We didn't quite know how substantial he was," Miller said of Cary, who was a season-ticket holder for baseball and basketball but not a major contributor to athletics. "We just knew he was a good guy who came to a lot of our games, most of our games, sat up in the stands, kept score with his scorebooks and pretty much kept to himself."

Although no one is sure exactly what Cary was worth, his assets are rumored to be more than $150 million. UNO was left one-third of Cary's assets after he took care of friends -- he had no close relatives or family. Another third went to the University of Oklahoma, where he went to graduate school, and Tulane and LSU share the remaining third.

Just 10 days before this news, Miller said the athletic department had hit "its darkest hour." The state had cut about $1.5 million of funding to the department, which Miller was hoping to make up by doubling the student fee to nearly $200. The measure failed to pass by 167 votes, and an athletic department that had operated with a $5.5 million budget was looking at making things work with a $3 million budget.

Miller had even enlisted the help of New Orleans Hornets owner George Shinn to help drum up support for the institution.

Even with the money, UNO is still operating on a minimal budget. Most of Cary's funds are tied up in various assets, from oil to strip malls. Miller said the worst thing he could do is start to get excited and start mentally spending the money.

But he is confident a better tomorrow lies ahead for his athletic program.

"It was just, improbable, that's a good word," Miller said. "After all we've been through and just trying to piece it all together with almost bubble gum and baling wire, and to have something like this happen to us, there is a God."

Graham Watson is a college sports writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at gwatson.espn@gmail.com.

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Watson joined ESPN.com in 2008 after four seasons covering the Missouri Tigers and the Big 12 Conference for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She also covered college football recruiting for the Dallas Morning News.