College Budget Cuts Felt On Playing Field

For the past few months, college athletic departments have been facing serious budget cuts. They've had to reduce their spending, and some have even gone so far as to eliminate sports teams entirely. An athletic director who made a tough decision, a coach who had to dismantle his baseball team and a football player who just learned this is his team's final season talk about the cuts.

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ROBERT SMITH, host:

For the next few minutes, we'll look at the way the nation's economic troubles have rippled through colleges, specifically college sports. Athletic departments from coast to coast are slashing budgets. Some are trimming travel cost, others are laying off coaches or ordering temporary furloughs. A few schools are doing something more dramatic: dropping some sports entirely.

Coming up, we'll talk to the people feeling this pain, a player being uprooted, a coach having to dismantle the team he built, and first, we'll start at the beginning with the guy who makes the decision. Troy Dannen is the athletic director at the University of Northern Iowa. Faced with $600,000 in cuts to the department, Dannen announced on Monday that he's dropping the baseball team next year.

Mr. TROY DANNEN (Athletic Director, University of Northern Iowa): Northern Iowa, like a lot of schools that don't play alleged big-time college football, we receive about $5.3 million in funding to supplement our athletics budget from the university. And so, when state funds are cut to the institution, those cuts are going to trickle into the athletic program. And given the fact that athletics is further from the core mission of the institution, of course, than the academic programs, those cuts are going to hit us even harder than they would the academic programs.

SMITH: Rather than cut team budgets across the board, Dannen decided to eliminate a single sport, and he says he cut a men's team because of Title IX. That's the federal requirement that schools equalize opportunities for male and female athletes.

Mr. DANNEN: If we have 57 percent of a female student body, we need to have at least 52 percent of opportunities for female students in the department. And given the fact that we're not at 52 percent, we're actually at 39 percent right now, it eliminated female sports from the consideration of would they be dropped.

SMITH: Dannen says he chose baseball because the travel is so expensive. Northern Iowa's first 21 games this season are on the road. And when he told the players about his decision?

Mr. DANNEN: They reacted with disappointment. They were angry. They were bitter. I think every emotion they should have had because something that was completely outside their control was taken away from them, and as I told them, the very basic tenant of education is to create opportunity, and I'm making a decision that goes against that tenant. It's eliminating opportunity.

SMITH: This had to take a toll on you personally, making this sort of decision. I mean, what's it been like for you?

Mr. DANNEN: You know, I talked to a lot of my peers who have had to drop sports, and they said, you know, it's the worst thing that you will ever do professionally, and it will linger with you for the rest of your life. And so far, both of those things are true. But at the same time, you know, in my own mind, I reconcile it with the fact that I have an obligation not just to the baseball program, but we have 360 other athletes in 17 sports in our department, and I have an obligation to make sure their programs have the ability to thrive, as well.

SMITH: Troy Dannen is the athletic director at the University of Northern Iowa. He joined us from the studios of Iowa Public Radio in Cedar Falls. Thanks for talking with us.

Mr. DANNEN: Thank you.

SMITH: So, when a college drops a sport, it's the person who built the team who has to dismantle it, the coach. At the University of Vermont, Bill Currier has coached the baseball team for 21 years. He just learned that this will be his team's final season.

UVM plans to eliminate two sports, baseball and softball, as part of a $10-million cut in the university's budget next year.

Mr. BILL CURRIER (Baseball Coach, University of Vermont): I'm the longest-running coach here at the University of Vermont. The baseball program is the most successful in the school's history. There's no other coach that's ever coached here that has more wins than I do. It was a difficult thing. You have quite a legacy of alum and players, certainly, and friends of the program through the years, when you've got one coach that's been here that long.

You know, somebody had to go, obviously, I guess from their decisions, and I don't ever want to point the finger at any other sport because I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy.

SMITH: As a coach, what was it like to tell your players that the team was cut? How did they take it?

Mr. CURRIER: Well, the players were certainly confused. The kids don't realize how the economy can affect them, how things work exactly in administration, why our sport, why another sport. They had a lot of these type of questions, which we're continually answering and dealing with all the way through the process.

SMITH: Well, what happens to the players now?

Mr. CURRIER: Well, it's kind of a feeding frenzy, certainly, on your top players, from other programs. They're immediately eligible to transfer and play right away, where normally they'd have to sit out a year.

The good ones, certainly, the top ones, they're being picked over pretty hastily, like some vultures, you know, so that's a little difficult to see your last four or five years' work just disappearing. So, you know, my objective now is to make sure these kids are taken care of, and I feel that's my role as a coach.

SMITH: The Vermont baseball team is in Nashville this weekend, playing Vanderbilt. Coach Currier says he's grateful they have a game to focus on.

Mr. CURRIER: That's really what we have left. We have our team and our family of those players, and that's our circle right now. Certainly, the players don't feel too indebted to play for the V on their hat. They feel like they certainly want to play for their teammates, who still have their trust and loyalty and dedication, and we are, I think, going to become a much tighter team and we'll play with certainly vengeance this spring.

SMITH: Bill Currier is the baseball coach at the University of Vermont. The school just announced that it was eliminating the baseball and softball teams after this season. Coach Currier, good luck with the rest of the season.

Mr. CURRIER: Thank you, Robert.

SMITH: They're feeling the same pain out in Bellingham, Washington, where the university there has cut one of their most high-profile teams.

Mr. CALEB JESSUP (Former Football Player, Western Washington University): My name is Caleb Jessup. I'm currently a junior at Western Washington University. I played middle linebacker in this past season.

SMITH: And you found out last month that your school is dropping football next season, your senior year.

Mr. JESSUP: Yeah, yeah, going into my senior year, something I was really excited about. We had just got back from winter vacation, and we were about to do some testing in the weight room, and I got a text message saying that there was an emergency meeting. So, I went over and actually found out that the football had been canceled.

SMITH: Did you see it coming?

Mr. JESSUP: To be honest with you, I couldn't be any further from seeing it happening. Division II football up here in the Northwest isn't quite as big as it is in other parts of the country, but for those involved, it's everything. And so, when it got taken away, no one expected it. Our coaches found out a few hours before the meeting, and at the meeting, the president sat down with us and said that for budget reasons, it'd been cut.

SMITH: Now, you've been playing football at Western Washington for three years.

Mr. JESSUP: Yeah.

SMITH: What went through your head when you heard your team would be dropped?

Mr. JESSUP: Complete and utter shock and dismay. I didn't want to believe it, just so disappointed and so angry.

SMITH: Now, some of our listeners might think maybe the team wasn't very good, but that wasn't the case, was it?

Mr. JESSUP: No. No, that's definitely not the case. This past year, we won the only bowl game in Western history. So, we had a winning record. And really, we were on a high note, and we were excited for next season. They had a lot of guys coming back and looking to make a surge for the playoffs. So, it was a complete and utter shock, to be honest with you.

SMITH: Well, that also adds to the pain, you know, knowing that people might think that you guys did something wrong.

Mr. JESSUP: Right, right. Yeah, I mean, you've really got to look in the mirror and think, you know, what could I have done different, or maybe if we had won a few more games, and maybe they couldn't have taken it away, or — but at the end of the day, it's one guy's decision. And no matter how many people are affected by it, we can't do anything about it. So, it's something that's really frustrating when something that --with this magnitude affects your life and not be able to do anything about it. It's really hard.

SMITH: So, what's next for you? Does this mean the end of your football career?

Mr. JESSUP: Well, fortunately, for myself, I had a few more options, and I had a couple scholarship offers from some other places. And so, actually, a couple days ago, I committed to Pittsburg State University in Kansas, another Division II school, but for a lot of guys that were going into their senior year with only one year left of eligibility, they're forced to just hang them up and their careers are over.

SMITH: And personally, what does it mean for you, moving to a new school? I guess you're going from being a Viking to a Gorilla. Is that — that's the mascot?

Mr. JESSUP: Yeah, yeah, yeah, the gorillas. I mean, for me, it's definitely something that's bittersweet. I really can't enjoy it as much as I could. You know, I am going to a Division II powerhouse that has a definite chance of going far in the playoffs next year, but at the same time, I'm not going to be able to enjoy it with the best friends I've made up here the past three years and the coaches who have been teaching me, and it's definitely going to be tough. But I mean, really, all I can do is make the best out of the situation and deal with the cards that were dealt.

SMITH: Caleb Jessup was a member of the Western Washington football team. His school recently announced that it's dropping the football program. Thanks for talking with us, Caleb.

Mr. JESSUP: Thanks a lot, Robert.

(Soundbite of music)

SMITH: Coming up, a tasty shock to the system or at least the tongue. This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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