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UVM Menís Track & Field Team Enters Their Final Lap

By Peter Weith

 

As spring descends on the Green Mountains, all across the state young athletes test their minds and bodies in Track and Field - one of Vermontís most popular participant sports. This year signals an end to Division One Menís collegiate Track and Field in Vermont - since UVM announced the termination of their program on September 13, 2001. This weekís America East Championships will be the last time a full roster of Men don the green and gold to compete in UVM Track and Field - a 100 year tradition. The announcement came as a complete shock to those associated with the program. Now 7 months later, satisfying answers that might explain this decision remain elusive. Letís take a step back.

The 6 Criteria - Over two years ago, UVMís Board of Trustees asked the Administration to focus more on their core mission, including athletics. Several committees later a team of 4 persons came together to evaluate the intercollegiate offerings and make a recommendation for eliminations on 6 key criteria. Interim Dean David Nestor has consistently referred to this set of 6 equally important criteria, against which all 27 sports at UVM were measured. This means that some form of point system and resulting matrix would need to have been developed in order to fairly weigh the 162 variables. The problem is that even the simplest assessment of the remaining teams doesnít support their decisions. Teams remain with almost no visibility, limited America East participation, higher costs per participant, reduced academic achievement, fewer participants and less athletic accomplishments. Even the coaches of certain teams sparred were astounded at the conclusions reached! Meanwhile, Dr. Nestor has not offered to explain the overall "strategy" and how student athletes are better served by having no sport to compete in versus ones not ideally resourced.

While the Athletic Department has avowed a commitment to being an active participant in America East, today they will soon be the only school in the conference without a Menís Track and Field program.

UVM Menís Track and Field Snapshot - The following facts concerning the Menís Track and Field are simple: lowest operating cost per student-athlete participant (less than $400 per participant), highest percentage of native Vermonters (over 50%), consistently ranked among the highest academic achievers (Vermontís only Verizon All American last year), model examples of student athletes, and 14 School Records broken in the last 3 years ( America East Outdoor Male MVP- 2001). Track and Field offers by far the single greatest opportunity for native Vermonters to participate and compete on a Division 1 level. Indeed, UVMís Menís and Womenís Track Team trained, traveled and competed together and shared costs. This unique situation offered the most efficient use of funds possible within the Athletic Department. Most of these costs will not change by eliminating Menís Track and Field.

The Administration reported there would be no collateral damage by this decision. Track and Field and Cross Country are intimately tied. The Menís Cross Country team will have little ability to attract serious long distance runners without the related option to participate in Track and Field. Predictably, a pioneering Womenís team, is finding their ability to recruit new athletes in jeopardy, as questions linger concerning UVMís overall commitment to Track and Field.

National Trends - Without doubt UVMís decision to terminate 5 sports is reflective of a national trend. Within the last few months UMass, Tulane, and Bowling Green have announced the termination of Menís Track and Field. Yet, in each case the representative Administration has been straightforward and honest - clearly indicated that there were substantive financial issues at stake or Title 9 - Gender Equity issues.. In the case of UMass a state budget crisis was cited in reducing their athletic costs by over $1.2 Million, while at Tulane the Male/Female ratios where over 20% out of range. While tragic, their candor was refreshing compared to the fuzzy logic offered up by UVM. UVMís ratios as reported in their own NCAA Gender Equity and Compliance filings NCAA were never at risk. UVM finally admitted that wouldnít even achieve half the originally announced $100,000 per year savings, after NCAA matching funds were accounted for. The real operating savings for eliminating Menís Track and Field are probably less than $10,000 per year.

Ironically, Gymnastics has quietly been reinstated at nearly the same budget, as a Club sport. Funding will now come via the Student Association, further reducing the Athletic Departmentís influence over UVM sports. Isnít this part of the same overall budget, just a different pocket?

 

Beyond the 6 Criteria - It is common knowledge among Patrick Complex cognoscenti that most of the "remaining" teams are connected to well healed alumni contributors. They can rattle off the name of an individual(s) who has made a financial contribution or is likely to make a contribution associated with the remaining teams. Personally, I applaud those alumni or friends of the institution who are making financial contributions. The problem lies in the lack of due process, where all teams and associated alumni had an equal chance to support a favored program. Well- focused athletic fundraising efforts at UVM have been limited or non-existent in the past. Most alumni donations came from a group of "insiders". Within UVMís own Framework for Change document, it clearly states that outside donations should be the first place to go if internal resources or reallocations were not possible. This, however, is not what occured. The end result of Dr. Nestorís lead action is that there are now 17% less intercollegiate athletes participating at UVM, with almost no financial savings.

Somewhere over the past 3 years it was decided that if UVM could excel in a few high visibility, revenue generating sports, this would encourage Alumni to donate more money and ultimately a higher caliber student could be attracted. This became more important than to offer a wider range of students the educational benefit and opportunity to compete on an intercollegiate basis. The way to excel was to reduce the offerings, and somehow this would magically produce better performances with regard to the remaining teams. Sounds simple but is it really true?

 

Administration Spin - The Athletic Department reported that UVM had the fewest scholarships, smallest budget, and supported more sports than any other American East program. On face value the rationale for cuts seems clear and defendable. Yet, America East undergraduate body populations range from 3,600 - 16,000 students with UVM at 7400, so comparing the absolute budgets is not really fair. More importantly, 6 out of 9 America East schools offer Menís Football - the big budget enchilada, a cost UVM again doesnít bear. Were they comparing the current America East schools or earlier versions of America East? According to the definative Chronicle of Higher Education statistics regarding Operating Expenses, UVMís overall budget is closer to the middle of the America East pack rather than the bottom - even without considering the impact of football.

It also wasnít mentioned that Dartmouth, Middlebury or St Lawrence average over 30 intercollegiate sports, to UVMís current 24. In many ways, isnít UVM vying for some of the same student athletes?

This is not to say that UVM is not budget challenged, but the facts were not as clear-cut as indicated. UVM failed to manage their situation by "capping" participation in key high participation sports. More serious was a failure to professionally seek outside sources of funds, particularly an undersolicited alumni base.

The University of New Hampshire, also a member of America East, reacted with creativity and innovation in 2000, when faced with Track and Field financial challenges. Led by a combined effort between the Athletic Department and Development they generated over $500,000 in donations for Track and Field in less than 6 months - by focusing their attention on former participants, a unique constituency. They learned that over 60% of those making donations were "first time donors", a completely new source of funds. UVM has sacrificed this opportunity. Is this the nature of strategic planning, or someone who didnít do their homework?

 

Is there a future? - UVM Track and Field alumni have been meeting and are committed toward correcting this situation through the full reinstatement of Menís Track and Field. Toward that end we are willing to pledge full financial support for the next 5 years at a level at or above what was provided in the past. This should provide time to regain the confidence of alumni so that a perpetual endowment could be developed that hopefully would augment a realignment of funds from within UVM. To date, there has been little or no interest in this offer from the Administration. Meanwhile the Menís Track Team continues to train and compete knowing that they will not give up, like UVM has on them.

If you would like to learn more about this situation please visit www. uvmtrack.com

 

Peter Weith was a CoCaptain of the Menís Track Team in 1976. He is now Vice President of Marketing and Sales at Bio-Tek Instruments.