One of the great celebrations in American college sports took place April 3 with the crowning of a new men’s basketball champion in Phoenix.
There was no celebrating at the University at Buffalo.
The university paid a price for competing at the top level of college athletics by concluding it had to eliminate four sports teams – men’s soccer, baseball, men’s swimming and diving and women’s rowing.
The cuts, effective at the end of this school year, represent a belt-tightening that ultimately will save $2 million a year in athletic department spending, UB said.
The decision was met with sadness, anger and sympathy from the students and fans impacted.
“I guess doing things right doesn’t matter,” tweeted UB senior soccer player Austin Place. “Back to back title games, highest GPA on campus and loads of community service. Still in shock.”
Soccer star Russell Cicerone, who in January became the first UB player drafted by Major League Soccer, called the move “humiliating.” In a letter posted on Twitter, Cicerone wrote: “I am so disappointed in this decision that I can no longer be proud of the university I called home for the past four years.”
“I guess I would say that while I’m really upset and disappointed that this has happened to our team and the other teams, there’s nothing we can really do about it,” said UB sophomore Mason Miller, the Mid-American Conference men’s swimmer of the year this season. “The university made the decision to cut these programs, and everyone just has to accept this reality.”
The cuts bring UB’s sports teams from 20 down to 16, the minimum number required to compete at the NCAA’s top level of Division I athletics, known as the Football Bowl Subdivision. Three other MAC schools – Ohio, Toledo and Western Michigan – were at 16 teams this year.
“It’s a sad day,” said UB Athletics Director Allen Greene, “to share with our student-athletes that we just don’t have the ability on a long-term basis to support their endeavors in a way that’s both beneficial and rewarding to them and for us to produce championships the way we want to.”
UB’s athletic department budget for the 2015-16 school year was $31.9 million, which ranked third in the 12-team MAC, according to federal budget documents. The MAC average athletics budget was $29.4 million.
UB President Satish K. Tripathi said the decisions were based on an “overarching review of our athletics department,” an assessment separate from the rest of the university and not tied to UB’s overall budget for 2017-18. Tripathi said UB is not planning budget cuts in other units or departments for the coming fiscal year.
Greene said the cutbacks would not have a financial impact on UB’s most popular sports, basketball and football. He said it would not impact the push to build an $18 million field house for football, which is on the drawing board.
In a broader sense, the cuts can be viewed as an attempt by UB to rein in the subsidy the university provides the athletic department. Roughly three quarters of the UB athletics budget, in the $24 million range, has been subsidized with students’ fees and general university funds, which primarily are composed of tuition and state tax dollars. UB’s subsidy of athletics ranked ninth in the nation, according to a 2015 higher education study, and numerous MAC schools were high on the list.
Tripathi said there has been an “understanding that we will reduce that subsidy” and that an assessment of athletic spending in 2017 had been planned for a couple years. Athletics fundraising represents about 10 percent of the athletics budget.
“Our fundraising this year probably is going to break all the records in terms of athletics fundraising,” Tripathi said. “It’s not a big number, but I think we’re going to be more than $3 million this year.”
Football is the most expensive college sport, and UB’s football budget was $7.53 million last year. Football drew the ire of some in the UB community Monday.
“Absolutely ridiculous that UB men’s soccer gets cut when the bottomless pit of UB football is throwing country music concerts before games,” said former UB soccer player Vinny DiVirgilio on Twitter.
Nevertheless, Tripathi and Greene stressed the importance of football for a state institution of the size and reputation of UB. The MAC requires its members to compete in football, men’s and women’s basketball and women’s volleyball.
“We are committed to being in the MAC,” Tripathi said. “If you look at the benefit to the university in terms of the number of applications that come in, the kind of successes that you have with some sports. Some years you don’t. But really you have look at the long term, and you have to look at providing the students the kind of experience that they expect from a state university. And that decision has been made for awhile.”
Said Greene: “When we think about our purpose in terms of athletics and the university, our responsibility is to raise the profile of the University at Buffalo through intercollegiate athletics.”
UB said the decisions on what programs to cut were based on program costs, athletics facilities, Title IX, geographic location and a comparison of sports sponsored by the MAC.
The reduction affects 120 students currently on team rosters (30 other students on those rosters will be graduating this year). UB said it will honor the scholarships of all affected student athletes who want to continue their studies at UB. Affected student-athletes are being given permission to contact any other schools to seek a transfer.
The problem for the current students is most other universities have committed most of their scholarship money for next year.
“It sucks for the teams being strung out with little or no time to try and find schools and teams that will take them,” said Miller.
“I’d say 90 percent of scholarships have been handed out,” said UB baseball coach Ron Torgalski. “Guys who thought they were set and excited to be a part of what we had going, their world has been turned upside down. Everybody’s scrambling.”
UB’s men’s soccer team is coming off one of its best seasons. The Bulls finished 12-4-3 and ranked 50th in the nation, their highest season-ending mark. The MAC, however, has only four other schools that play men’s soccer (Akron, Bowling Green, Western Michigan and Northern Illinois). A fifth school, West Virginia, joins the MAC only for men’s soccer. This likely was a big factor in UB’s decision to drop the team, which was founded in 1971. UB’s well-regarded coach, Stu Riddle, left in January to accept a higher-paying head job at Northern Kentucky.
The UB men’s swimming and diving program was founded in 1948. This is another sport that has limited MAC support, with only three other full-fledged MAC schools participating (Eastern Michigan, Ball State and Miami). Teams from three other conferences join the MAC teams for men’s swimming only.
UB still will sponsor women’s swimming and diving. Andy Bashor has served as the head coach for both men and women’s swimming since 2007.
The UB baseball program was founded in 1949, discontinued in 1988, and restarted in 2000. Ten of the 11 other MAC teams support baseball. Akron dropped it in 2015.
Nevertheless, UB has a lot of baseball history. UB great and Lackawanna native Joe Hesketh spent 11 years pitching in the major leagues. Catcher Tom Murphy, who ended a great UB career in 2011, made the Colorado Rockies roster out of spring training last week.
Women’s rowing was founded in 1997 and competes in an eight-event schedule over the fall and spring. The rest of the MAC does not compete in rowing.- by Mark Gaughan, The Buffalo News (New York)