Friday, February 16, 2007

Cleveland PD Article on Track Cuts

SPORTS CUTBACKS AT OHIO U.
Cold reality chills athletes, coaches


Friday, February 16, 2007

Drew Fattlar was trying to console his younger sister a couple months ago, searching for words to make her feel better, when he unknowingly predicted the future.

Lindsay Fattlar's rowing team had just been cut from the University of Cincinnati's athletic department in her freshman year, and she openly anguished about beginning her college search process anew in her transfer efforts.

As the two Westlake siblings huddled to find solutions and explanations, Drew shrugged and suggested that his position with Ohio University's track team wasn't any more secure.

"We'll probably be next," the junior distance runner offered.

Still, Fattlar was shocked a few weeks later in late January when Ohio Athletic Director Kirby Hocutt walked into an urgent meeting with the men's track and field team and told the group that its sport was one of four being slashed from the athletic department.

Men's swimming and diving, men's indoor and outdoor track and women's lacrosse will cease to compete for the Athens school after this academic year. The school cited financial and Title IX compliance issues.

Representatives from all four sports hoped that an Ohio University Board of Trustees meeting Thursday and today would save the programs.

The Board's chairman, R. Gregory Browning, however, said trustees will listen to complaints from student-athletes and alumni, but that he doesn't expect to overturn the adminis^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^trative decision.

"My view is that we are going to endorse the process and the outcome, even as we recognize how profoundly difficult it is to do this," Browning said.

Hocutt and OU supporters see the abrupt sports slashing as difficult but necessary amid a $4 million athletic department deficit and a failure to comply with Title IX regulations. Financial instability is most pressing, as OU was forced to abandon plans to add a women's sport to comply with the gender-equity law, Hocutt said.

Instead, OU must cut sports to reach equality, and in doing so will now field an NCAA Division-I minimum of 16 teams. OU's athletic department has committed to pay the athletes their due scholarship money until they graduate or leave the school.

Angry student-athletes and alumni see a school that has made football its primary focus, spending lavishly since high-profile coach Frank Solich was hired two seasons ago, and pouring more money into the team after it played in the GMAC Bowl last season.

A Web site to centralize efforts to keep the sports, www.saveousports.org, criticizes the $531,105 reportedly spent by the football team to travel to the bowl game in Mobile, Ala., among other perks, while Hocutt admits that cutting the four sports will save only $685,000.

The two sides have clashed openly since the Jan. 25 announcement to discontinue the sports. Hocutt met with student-athletes in an open forum to discuss concerns. He listened to a proposal made by track members that the school consider phasing out the sports over the next three years so that athletes already at OU could finish their careers at the school - a proposal which he dismissed a day later. Now, the last-ditch effort to appeal to the Board of Trustees.

Hocutt heard the stunned silence give way to a swelling movement to save the teams. Web sites have been established and donations sought. OU's Graffiti Wall was spray-painted to criticize the action. T-shirts mock the focus on football, proclaiming, "Got Frank? Lost swimming, lost lacrosse, lost track."

Prominent alums have condemned the actions. At least one, former OU track coach Stan Huntsman, who also coached the 1988 U.S. Olympic team, sent a letter to the school demanding that it remove him from alumni records and "dismantle and destroy my pictures that appear in the Ohio University Hall of Fame."

But Hocutt has no regrets about either how the decision was made or how the announcement was handled. Hocutt said he formed an advisory committee made up of faculty members and former athletes - but did not include current student-athletes.

"The thing that bothered us the most is that the entire thing was done behind closed doors," said Eric Vandenberg, a junior pole vaulter from Medina. "There was no discussion, no open debate about this. No input from students or any of the athletes who were to be affected by these cuts."

Hocutt defended the process, which he calls the first step in a "long-term recovery plan" to cut athletic department costs.

"There's no easy way to do this," said Hocutt, who has been at OU for 18 months. "I certainly understand the students wanting to be involved in the decision. But I did not, and still do not, think these are appropriate matters for us to discuss with them or within our community."

Hocutt said he talked with administrators at other schools that have had to cut athletic programs in recent years. In the MAC, alone, 22 sports at seven other schools have been slashed since 1999.

"The decision is final," Hocutt said. "As unfortunate as it may be, the decision is final."

So those left focus on how to find motivation to go on.

Greg Werner, the swimming and diving coach, will lose the men's team but remain to coach the women's team.

"I have mixed emotions," Werner said. "Certainly the knee-jerk reaction is that I don't want to be here anymore, but then I realize I owe it to the program to stay here and protect the program, to stay here and fight."

Upperclassmen have encouraged underclassmen to transfer, and athletes such as Fattlar and Vandenberg who don't want to lose ground on their majors search for incentive to compete in their final track season at OU.

"One of the big things that's hard right now is separating the administrators from the school," Fattlar said. "That's the way we have to think about it. We all came to Ohio University because we love this school and everything about it. This was a decision made by administrators. It wasn't Ohio University."

Said Vandenberg: "The first couple days, even the first week after the announcement, I didn't want to go to practice. That's the first time in seven years of track and field that I didn't want to go to practice.

"Now, the realization has sunk in that this is my last chance, so I'd better take it very seriously and throw everything I've got into it."

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