Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Akron Beacon Journal Covers OUR Efforts

Excellent article from the Akron Beacon Journal:

GONE IN A FLASH: Bobcats reeling from news three sports will be cut

By Stephanie Storm
Beacon Journal sportswriter

Three weeks after Eric Vandenberg and his teammates were called to an impromptu track practice at Ohio University's Convocation Center, they are still reeling from the surprising news that heads of the athletic department dropped on them.

Athletic Director Kirby Hocutt told the team Jan. 25 that the school was cutting not only the men's indoor and outdoor track and field program, but also men's swimming and diving and women's lacrosse.

``At first, we didn't know what was going on,'' said Vandenberg, a junior pole vaulter from Highland High School in Medina County. ``But when we went down into a conference room and I saw our compliance director was there, I knew it wasn't good news. Still, we had no idea what was coming. We were stunned.''

During the announcement, Hocutt explained the reasoning for such dire measures.

``Simply put, our expenses exceed our financial resources,'' he said, according to minutes from the meeting. ``We will have an accumulated operating deficit of over $4 million this fiscal year.''

After the announcement -- in which Hocutt cited the athletic department's budget andgender-equity concerns as the main reasons for the cuts -- Vandenberg remembers a deathly silence that lasted at least a minute until a teammate finally raised his hand.

``When does the decision take effect?'' he asked.

``At the end of the season,'' Hocutt responded.

In the days that have followed, Vandenberg and his teammates have called and sent letters to friends, donors and alumni seeking help. Many have pledged money to save the programs; others have been so appalled, they've asked that their nameplates and pictures be removed from the school's athletic halls.

Members of the teams involved have gone to a handful of emotional informational and question-and-answer meetings, given a power-point presentation and come up with a proposal that would phase out the programs over the next few years instead of immediately stopping them.

``Men's track and field raised over $5,000 through fundraising last year,'' part of the phase-out proposal read. ``Along with a $5,000 donation to the program, that is enough money to fund the maximum $10,000 needed for an outdoor track team. The team can be self-sufficient. It will cost the university nothing to phase out the track team.''

``But Kirby took a little over 24 hours before rejecting our proposal via an e-mail,'' Vandenberg said. ``It's sad that college athletics is now more concerned with money than students.''

Vandenberg is not alone in having to figure out what to do and where to go from here. Of the 87 athletes affected by the decision, there are 10 Akron-area athletes on the track and field team and three more on the swimming and diving team, as well as one local woman on the lacrosse team.

Is football to blame?

Perhaps the most difficult part for these athletes is determining whether the cuts are simply a lesson that life isn't always fair or whether these minor sports are paying the price to help fatten the growing budget hog that has become the Bobcats' improving football team.

With the hiring of high-profile football coach Frank Solich two seasons ago, the Bobcats have steadily improved on the field and represented the conference in the GMAC Bowl on Jan. 7 in Moblie, Ala.

However, the increased wins and national exposure also have meant a growing operating budget -- one the school has struggled to support.

``It's sad to see a 100-year history come to an end because of the administration's overzealous spending on other sports like football,'' said Pat Eaton, a former collegiate runner, OU track supporter and father of sophomore Shamus Eaton from Lake High School.

Eaton knows that it might make him sound a little paranoid, but OU's athletic administration expects to save $685,000 by cutting the three programs, while the school's books point to bowl-related expenses of $693,000 in the football department.

``Call me crazy, but those numbers are awful close,'' he said.

Eaton also points to the fact that despite the added revenue a bowl game generally produces for its participants, he learned the school still had to pick up a $277,550 tab related to transporting 261 people to the game. (Only 85 players can be in uniform).

``Yes, we have made a commitment to football,'' Hocutt said. ``Anyone can look at the numbers and see what we've put into (the program). Nonetheless, we still face three significant issues: the financial side, how we comply with Title IX (gender equity) and the quality and overall experience of our programs.''

The program cuts are a dilemma for track and field coach Clay Calkins. He now must help a handful of players find new schools, while continuing to promote Ohio University to recruits on the women's side.

``There were decisions made that I still don't fully understand with regards to the reasoning behind the cuts,'' OU's fourth-year coach said. Calkins called it ``pretty glaring'' to see a 200 percent increase in football's 2005 operating budget ``where OU goes from spending $3,300 to over $10,000 per football athlete.''

Moving on

In the meantime, the student-athletes continue to study and go to class even though much of their lives has been turned upside down.

``We're all doing our best not to let it ruin everything,'' said junior pole vaulter Mike Goodrich from Copley High School. ``But most of us who want to continue playing now have to look into transferring. And since we're on quarters here, it isn't going to be an easy transition. I'm looking at Ohio State and Akron, but neither have my major (community health), so I'm not sure what to do.''

Few do.

``We've been as united as possible and tried to show (the administration) there's other ways to do this, that there's some avenues they've overlooked,'' distance runner Shamus Eaton said. ``We're just going to keep fighting, and not take no for an answer. Hopefully, we can make a difference.''

The group continues to print T-shirts that refer to Solich and read ``Got Frank -- lost swimming, lost lacrosse, lost track'' and to attend various rallies on their behalf. Many, like the Eaton family, however, must raise an eye to the future.

``This has put so many good kids in a bind,'' Pat Eaton said. ``I love this place, and my kid loves this place. But we're probably going to have to leave. Truthfully, I don't know if there's anything we can do.''

Though most admit to still being numb, the athletes are finding a way to make sense of their future.

``I'm thinking of transferring,'' said freshman sprinter Curtis Leuenberger from Louisville, ``but to be honest, I'm kind of leery of going to another MAC school.''

Even seniors such as former Lake standout sprinter Dan Bailey are affected by the program's impending demise.

``Trying to get some straight answers here has been very time-consuming,'' he said. ``In the meantime, us seniors are trying to help counsel the younger guys best we can. Mostly though, I just sit and pray. It's tough to come to terms with the fact that I gave four years of life to this program and it's gone -- just like that.''

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