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Rutgers Athletics: Bring back crew!

It was 2006. The Mulcahy Massacre was underway as six varsity sports were eliminated in light of budget issues. But at least one of those sports has maintained a very strong presence in New Brunswick

Second in a series.

Okay, students, a quick quiz to open class.  What do Stanford's David Shaw and Rutgers' Steve Wagner have in common?

What's that?  Who is Steve Wagner?  Hmmm, okay let's forget the quiz and get right to the lesson.

David Shaw is the Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football at Stanford.  Right, he's the head football coach in an endowed position.  And Steve Wagner?  Well, he's the Bartels/Nicholas Head Crew Coach, and his is the only endowed coaching position at Rutgers, and that endowment is now worth over $2.5 million.  Did someone say budget issue?

Last week, we opened this series looking not at a sport that was cut from the sports menu, but one that wants to get a seat at the table.  With hockey, the current club program is looking to elevate its status to D1 "varsity" at  Rutgers.  Our story last Sunday dug into that proposal.

But let's go back and look at what happened in 2006.  Rutgers had more sports than most D1 schools then, but things changed quickly. The state had cut funding to Rutgers (I'm shocked!) and it was a significant cut.  So much so, that then-athletics director Bob Mulcahy announced that at the end of the 06-07 school year, six sports would be gone, including crew. Some 125 athletes were "on the street".  And it was a pretty blunt experience for the teams.

Crew coach Steve Wagner said that in July of 2006, he was told by Mulcahy that after that school year crew, along with the other sports, would be dropped as varsity sports.  It was the same day it was announced to the public.

But not everyone took the cuts lying down.  Men's crew, with a history longer than that of football, fought back. The sport that has produced more Olympians than the other Rutgers sports combined, was not going down without a fight.  And last year, crew celebrated its 150th year "on the banks".  Football won't do that for another four years.

Let's be accurate: crew isn't looking to be "restored", because it never disappeared. As Coach Wagner told us, "Rutgers Crew is still here, competing against the same teams, the best in the country, as we have for the last 100 years.  We are working to give crew back varsity status."

Follow the Money

We often talk about the need for alumni to dig deep in order to support Rutgers at the level it needs to be.  The Crew Alumni have put their money where their mouths are.  As explained by Wagner, in the spring of 2007, rowing alumnus Henry Bartels (RC '45) offered to match dollar for dollar, up to $1 million, money towards an endowment to fund the Head Crew Coach position.  The Rutgers Administration apparently agreed to pay for all of the operating costs of the men's crew program for three more years, and Wagner agreed to stay on to lead the effort to raise the matching money.  The Crew Alumni raised the matching $1 million in 15 months, despite being in one of the worst economic times in recent memory, and despite the large number of Rutgers Crew alumni who were angry at the school because of crew's situation and refused to donate to the school until varsity status was restored.  The coaching endowment is now at $2.5 million and men's crew endowments and annuities total over $3.5 million.

Over the last five years, alumni have paid the entire cost of the men's crew program that was not covered by endowments.  And at the same time, the operating and equipment endowments have continued to grow.

With so much of the costs paid for by donations, it sounds like we should still have crew.  Wagner explained that it was the program's understanding that once the Head Coach position was endowed, the Rutgers administration would seriously consider, and work with them, to restore varsity status to the program.  The endowment goal was reached six years ago. The Administration has been helpful to the program in many ways, including helping them to raise the endowment, but getting them to move ahead on reinstatement has been the issue.

Why not crew?  Why not now?

Obviously from the financial backing shown by alumni, there is a great deal of support for giving varsity status back to  men's crew.  But there is also support from a lot of different areas even beyond alums.

A good, compelling case has been made that a varsity men's crew would easily pay for itself (budget neutral) and also be Title IX neutral.  Those supporting restoration of varsity status have proposed limiting the Varsity Men's Crew roster to 20 athletes to keep Title IX compliance a non-issue.  Wagner also said the men's crew can be nationally competitive without scholarships, as it was before.

And how much would it actually cost to reinstate the program?  An op-ed piece in support of bringing back crew to varsity status was published back in early May.  It even got the attention of Steve Politi who wondered why it couldn't happen.

In that op-ed, the writer, a rising senior at Rutgers and someone not on the crew team, stated that the University cited a huge expenditure would be required to bring back crew:

In a letter shared with the alumni, the university's athletic department countered that the cost to restore crew would be $40 million. This is absurd. Their estimate to build the new basketball practice facility is $70 million. How could restoring this working club program to varsity status that is asking for no scholarships, already owns their minimal equipment and uses a river to train cost more than half the price of a newly constructed building?

From what we could surmise, the $40 million figure included endowing 20 scholarships for women, endowing 12 scholarships for men, and some other very inflated and, likely, unnecessary budget lines.  The alums estimated that it would cost the University about $120,000, which is the total annual cost not currently covered by endowments to operate the men's crew program at a Varsity DI level, including travel and other expenses.

Interestingly, there were concurrent resolutions passed by the New Jersey Senate and Assembly - ostensibly the same people who caused the financial crisis - to restore the cut programs. Senate Resolution 93 and Assembly Resolution 233, both promoted in 2007, " Urges the Board of Governors of Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey to reconsider its recent decision to eliminate certain athletic teams." Nice try, guys.

The Rutgers Crew Alumni (Friends of Rutgers Crew) were donating an average of $180,000.00 each year for the last few years leading up to when it was announced that the program would no longer have varsity status.  That money was used to support both the men's and women's crew programs.  The very large base of rowing alumni have shown that they are very willing and able to not only pay for the program annually, but also work to fully endow all costs once the program is restored to varsity status.

If you've read this site, you know I love writing about our facilities and the need for better ones.  And I've written that the Class of 1914 Boathouse is a poor example of progress when compared to those elsewhere.  The Crew Alumni, according to Wagner, are ready to work on a new boathouse, which obviously would benefit both the men's and women's crew.  But at the same time, he states that the boathouse, which was built in 1950, "is not the limiting factor concerning competitiveness".

Today, there are between 60-70 high school and junior rowing programs in New Jersey.  Forty years ago, that number was around seven, and only four were at public schools.  The sport has grown, and continues to do so in New Jersey and across the country.  It has a rich and proud tradition at Rutgers, one that deserves the opportunity to once again shine as a varsity program.  It's time.

Bring.  Back.  Crew.

Next week: Men's swimming and tennis