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Rutgers Olympic Sports: Time to jump back in the pool! - Part 3 in a series

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The master plan is out - and we dont need a pool! Although it does talk about revamping Weblin Center. It does move tennis and build new courts. Why? Well, for the last eight years, there has been no men's tennis. Nor men's swimming & diving team at Rutgers. Sadly, we aren't alone.

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Third in a series

Last week we looked at crew and its effort to be restored to Division 1 status.  Today we look at men's swimming and men's tennis, two of the casualties of the cuts eight years ago.

"We can't be all things to all people"

When Rutgers cut six sports following the 2006-07 school year, it was due to a budget crisis in which the University was cut back by tens of millions of dollars in state appropriations.  In making the cuts, Athletic Director Robert Mulcahy indicated there was no alternative.  He told the Star Ledger:

"I appreciate everyone's good will in this and the fact that people are willing to help out. But underlying all of this is the fact that we need an additional $3 million as it is, to fund our remaining sports in an appropriate manner in terms of coaches, trainers, administrative help and scholarships. Excellence requires tough decisions in distribution of revenues, which is why we can't be all things to all people."

The "good will"and the willingness "to help out" referred to efforts by athletes, parents, and alumni to raise money, offer suggestions and alternatives, and to otherwise try to avoid the devastating elimination of the six sports and the 125 athlete positions it entailed.  But, the pleas fell on deaf ears.  After all, we can't be all things to all people.

Or can we?

Cutting the nets

Over the last several decades, there have been cuts of sports at virtually every school and at every level. The Intercollegiate Tennis Association oversees collegiate tennis, and ironically has its headquarters in New Jersey.  In an older story, it reported:

....only six tennis programs were dropped from 1930-1979, while 71 tennis programs were dropped from 1981-1991. From 1992 to 2002, over 225 known tennis programs were dropped with nearly half (101) dropped in the last three years of the decade. Another 74 have been dropped in the past three years.

Among those 74 was Rutgers' men's program, a victim of the budget crisis. There have been comments on this site that have said that Rutgers' array of sports should reflect the state - the feeder program, if you will - and the sports that are popular and successful in New Jersey. Well, there are 319 schools in New Jersey with boys' tennis.  By comparison, there are 297 New Jersey high schools with wrestling, and Rutgers sponsors it.  Interestingly, there was a general sense, confirmed by several sources, that wrestling was definitely on the chopping block at that time...and afterward as well.

In New Jersey, there are six D1 tennis programs:  FDU-Metropolitan Campus, Monmouth, NJIT, Princeton, Rider, and St. Peter's.  Of that group, only Monmouth and Princeton sponsor football, both at the FCS level, and incur that substantial expense.  In the Big Ten, Rutgers and Maryland are the only schools that do not sponsor men's tennis.

Unfortunately, there was not a lot of information on the dropping of men's tennis. But we'll come back to tennis, at least in terms of the impact/benefit of Olympic sports, later.

Everyone out of the pool

Guess how many high school All American swimmers there were from New Jersey in 2013-14?  Glad you asked.  There were 31 boys and 38 girls.  That placed New Jersey #17 in the nation in producing AA.  And none of those boys are swimming at Rutgers.

Where do New Jersey boys swim?  Well, Michigan, which won the Big Ten, had two from the Garden State and PSU had seven of their 30 swimmers from Jersey.

New Jersey has 214 high schools sponsoring boys swimming.  The NCAA has 136 programs for men - five in New Jersey - and that's an increase since last year as Monmouth will reinstate both men's and women's swimming in order to meet minimum sport standards for its new conference, the MAAC. But Rutgers, despite a pretty strong swimming conference in the B1G, will still be without a men's team, along with Maryland, Nebraska, and Illinois..

What's going wrong for swimming?

Rutgers is not the only college that has dropped swimming.  UCLA, as an example, has been without men's swimming for over 20 years, This is after they produced 16 Olympic Gold Medalists, 41 individual national titles, and a team title in 1982. But the team fell victim to state budget issues in 1994.  UCLA, in a state that has the most high school All American swimmers and with its storied past, dropped men's swimming.

There are those who worry that with the continuing demise of college swim programs, it is altogether possible that collegiate swimming could disappear completely in a decade or so.  And what would that mean for U.S. national/Olympic teams? The problem for swimming is multi-faceted, but very real.  And it doesn't seem to be going away.

For Chuck Warner, the last men's coach at Rutgers, the issue is money, but not as you might expect.  He feels you need to ask the question, why is there not enough money for swimming and the other Olympic sports?  His belief is that the issue is the perception of what is needed to run athletics; college athletics today is viewed as a business so it needs to be run in a way that the profit-makers are cared for.  And that means football.

Warner arrived at Rutgers in 1997 and began a 13-year program building process.  By the 2004-05 season, the program was growing steadily.  That year was highlighted by the re-markable individual accomplishments of All-American Kelly Harrigan and senior Sean Smith, who both came away with BIGEAST Most Outstanding Performer honors at the conference championship meet. Both the men's and women's squads finished in third place, behind only Notre Dame and Pittsburgh, and were poised for continued success.

The last year of men's swimming was, ironically the "Ray Rice" year and "Pandemonium in Piscataway" .  Rutgers was on a high in athletics, and that included swimming.  At the NCAA Championships in 2006, the Rutgers' women finished 19th, the highest finish ever for a Rutgers squad. The following year, the team finished second in the Big East and had a top 25 finish at the NCAA Championships.  And with little funding from the University, the men were in the thick of the Big East race. And so in 2007, a program that was building and on the rise was cut.  To what end?  Chuck Warner was coaching both the men and women, so there was no money saved on staff.  From an half empty bus on team trips? From an half empty pool, the finest aquatic center in the Big East?  And as I'll point out further, cutting the men undercut the women's program. And people were not happy.

Linda Tate, a member of the women's team at the time, offered, "When the team was first cut, there was a huge effort to try and bring back the men's team. We would go to the University meetings and send letters to the president. There was lots of anger surrounding the decision toward the athletics department and the University.

And George Zoffinger, a former member of the Board of Governors and former head of the New Jersey Sports Authority, said that it was unfair to eliminate the varsity teams since many of the players had rejected offers from other top colleges and universities in favor of the sports programs at Rutgers. The pleas of athletes, parents, alumni, and powerful allies went ignored.

What are we trying to accomplish?

The Athletic Department's mission statement notes that:

The mission of the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics is to reflect, reinforce and enhance the educational mission of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, by creating an environment of excellence where student-athletes will develop personal, social, academic and athletic skills that will enable them to earn degrees, become leaders, and win championships. In all areas of its operation, the Division's student-athletes, coaches, staff and programs shall embody the core values of accountability, respect, integrity, academic achievement, community service, equity and diversity, and sportsmanship. [emphasis added]

If that's the case, then why would you look to eliminate sports that promote the bonding and team building that the Olympic sports advocate?  Why, as Warner had said, would you look past intercollegiate sports as a part of a "specialized education", an "altruistic effort of education" and the "human connections to sport" that swimming, crew, or other similar non-revenue sports build?  Why would the service academies require participation by all cadets and midshipmen in some level of athletics if it wasn't beneficial to the development of the whole person? Some of the largest athletic departments, in terms of teams offered, are not at the big money-making schools but at the Ivies.  Granted, they have money to spend on the "luxury" of, say, a squash team, but they believe it is worth the expense.  Harvard fields 42 teams, Princeton 38, Cornell 37.  And one of the most successful programs is in Palo Alto where Stanford, a 21-time winner of the Directors' Cup, offers 38 varsity sports.

As mentioned earlier, the dropping of the men's team impacted the women as well.  After the successes in 2006 and 2007, the women finished 47th in '08 and did not score in 2009. There are also those women who won't swim at a school that doesn't also have a men's team.   It isn't an absolute, but it is a reality for some.  Warner did feel that the women's team suffered after the cut though he doesn't feel that it is a significant recruiting obstacle.

While we won't go into Title IX in any detail here, it is an interesting point that when the six sports were cut, it included one women's sport, fencing.  One of the three-pronged tests for Title IX compliance is continuing to expand opportunities for women athletes.  By cutting fencing, Rutgers seems to have put itself (perhaps conveniently) in a position to have to reduce male sports in order to be in "compliance".

So what does it all mean?

If money was no object, then we - and every school - could have every sport we want.  But that isn't the case.  There are times when tough decisions have to be made.  But how and why those decisions are made can impact an athletic department, a school, and most significantly, the athletes.  Budget issues and Title IX are the two points most often cited when a school eliminates sports.  But it seems that despite the law and despite the economic issues, if a school wanted to do justice to athletes and athletics, it could find a way to do more.  The arms race, which I've written about in terms of facilities, is real.  And those spiraling costs and expectations may be a problem that could cause the end - or at least a dramati change - of collegiate athletics as many of us know it.

Next week: Scholarships, Title IX, and some final thoughts

Previous stories in this series

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