I had something else in mind for today's post, but since this news popped up today, it's really been all I've been able to focus on. Yesterday the announcement was made that 8 sports teams were expected to be cut from Maryland's athletic department, including men's cross country, and men's track and field (indoor/outdoor). Being an alum of the program, it's beyond sad for me to see this happen. Here's the Reader's Digest version of the story:
1. Maryland's athletic department is required to be self-sustaining, meaning that, unlike many other schools, the only money it has to operate with must be generated by itself.
2. Due to poor budgeting, and some poor financial moves, the athletic department currently faces a $57 million deficit, and expects it to grow significantly unless drastic measures are taken.
3. Maryland currently has 27 sports teams. Football and basketball, like at any school, are generally expected to be the bread-winners, and also generally support the other teams. However, football also loses money on an annual basis, and women's basketball bleeds it.
4. Over the past decade, Maryland has won National Championships in men's basketball, women's basketball, women's lacrosse (many times), women's field hockey (a couple of times), men's soccer (a couple of times), and has sent numerous individuals to national championships.
5. A board was commissioned with the task of making recommendations on how to stop the bleeding, so to speak. They came up with their decision, which was primarily focused at first on cutting some teams. The 8 teams they have recommended cutting are of course men's xc, men's track and field, men's tennis, men's swimming and diving, women's swimming and diving, women's water polo, and women's acrobatics and tumbling (had never heard of that one).
So basically, 160 or so athletes are impacted by this decision, which, although it's not final (yet), it looks like it's a done deal. These teams would be eliminated as of July 2012. At least, for any of those teams that happen to give scholarships, the school will honor those through graduation, and will honor the coaching staff's contracts through their terms.
I can't say it's a surprise, I always figured Title IX would get the track team at some point, but to go down like this is terrible. A lot of the blame can be placed on an administration who is no longer there: an athletic director from the era of overspending who thought that building suites and adding seats to a football stadium that already struggled to sell out was a good idea. Who then thought it would be a good idea to hire a football coach for a lot of money, who produced great results at first but then fizzled out. And then, after that AD rolled out for a "better" position, the new administration decided they were not satisfied with said football coach, and decided it was easier to buy his contract out and hire a new coach. So currently, Maryland pays two coaches, only one of whom actually coaches (if you can even call it that, I'm pretty sure I could instruct players on how to lose 8 or 9 games a season).
For now, it's not about which sport deserves to stay over another, or who is to blame, but rather about how a school needs to fix itself before it doesn't carry enough teams to be considered a Division I program. The ones who are losing here are each one of the athletes, most of whom are not on scholarship, and are just out there because they have a desire to compete and represent their school. It's a matter of pride. Your first ACC Championship event is just something special, even if you finish 2nd to last in the race and your team is DFL (me, XC 1999).
The stark reality is that a school which has the ACC record for most championship titles in track and field, both indoor and outdoor, is about to disappear. A school with a storied tradition of great athletes, fading into obscurity. Olympians, World Record holders, heck, even the 2012 US Olympic team head coach (current MD track coach, Andrew Valmon) have passed through College Park. And it's all about to go away.
And yes, I realize that this is not a new situation, and that Maryland is not the first who has had to make some cuts. Delaware, Towson, James Madison, to name a few, have all had their track teams stripped in recent years amid public outcries. But with due respect to each of these schools, Maryland is a school in the ACC - a BCS school and full eligible member of Division I sports.
In the years since I've been involved with Maryland Athletics, it's not often that we've fielded truly competitive teams. Every so often someone will make it to NCAAs in cross country or track and field, but for the most part, we're all "going professional in something else." For me, I knew my capabilities were never going to put me at the top of the conference, or even at the top of the team. I was just proud to be able to have that chance to compete. Had the team been any more competitive, I probably wouldn't have been able to run. As it was, I ran for two years and then went off to become a triathlete, a weird sport at the time for a college kid to get into. But not once have I forgotten my time on the team. My days there provided me with some of my fondest college memories, and some of my best friends. As I approach ten years since I graduated (well, it's still a little ways off, 2013), I still have "Go Terps!" in my email autosignature, and have to explain it at least once a month.
Maryland Cross Country and Track and Field provided me the platform to reach for higher goals. I still compete, and at a high level. It's in my blood now. When you're around winners, whether they were on soccer, basketball, lacrosse, whatever, it's contagious. You want to be a part of it. If you were an athlete at Maryland in the early part of the decade, it was a feeling that is hard to describe in words.
It also comes as no surprise that student-athletes are also among the highest academic achievers, track and cross country in particular. Every year they are in contention for, and often do, record the highest average GPA as a team. Strive for excellence, every day, in all things, right? I, for one, earned All-ACC Academic honors my freshman year. And while classes were definitely not that hard that year, I would wager some of that had to do with our required study hours each week. They provide you the tools to be successful, that's for sure. I know that swimming and diving, and I would also have to wager that tennis, also produce high GPA averages. With a basketball graduation rate at 0% (yes, 0%), how are you going to tell the students keeping the legitimacy in the "student"-athlete to take a hike? If I were in charge, I would want those kids around.
I know that words are only words, and that, in this case, what the athletics department needs is money. Unfortunately, I'm not going to make an impact there. From what I understand, men's track/xc needs about $200,000 to operate annually. What is it going to cost to allow these kids to still compete, at the minimum? All they need are some uniforms and entry fees to events. I hope whatever happens to these teams, they all still keep training and competing, because it's a part of who they are. I'd even volunteer to help organize them into a cohesive club if they needed it. Go out and be the baddest club around.
But, all we can do is keep spreading the word, and hope that someone out there is listening. Taking these teams away hurts the kids, hurts the coaches, and hurts the school. It alienates them from feeling like valued members of the alumni community. It discourages them from striving to be their best. It tells them that we are doomed, that everything we hear about the economy, and big business, is true. More than anything, it leaves us all feeling not as proud to be a Terp.
Good luck, Maryland Athletics, I hope to see you on the other side.