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UVM's future comes at a price
Win more. Spend less.
The two edicts came down at the University of Vermont a month apart last year and now are fully entangled and playing out together in a vice president's office on the hill. UVM athletics have reached a junction. Life around Patrick Gymnasium is over as we've known it.
The school will announce soon it is cutting several of its 27 varsity sports to relieve a burdened athletic budget that needs to be $350,000 lighter. The cuts come as the university sets about on an image makeover, with athletics a key player. Campus poobahs have discovered the concept of selling the school through its sports teams, and winners sell a lot better than losers, brother.
"We've got a great story to tell," said Tom Crowley, the school's new assistant athletic director for development. He trumpets the fact UVM's athletes have higher grade-point averages and better graduation rates than the student body at large, statistics he calls the "Halley's Comet" of Division I sports nationwide.
"There's one thing missing, and that's winning," he said. "The winning is what's going to get you the attention, get you some kid in West Bupkus, Ill., to read about us in USA Today and say 'Oh, UVM.' And now, he's going to apply. Now multiply that by thousands."
Such wisdom is debatable. UVM knocking off Stony Brook is hardly the stuff of Doug Flutie or Phi Slamma Jamma. Winning the America East Conference rarely translates into a spot in the Top 25. But if you concede the school's profile will be raised from success on the field, you also must concede winning doesn't come cheaply. Fielding 27 teams on a $5 million shoestring is no way to do it. You want to beat Clarkson occasionally? You want to be more than a spectator come March Madness? That'll cost you. More scholarships. Better facilities. More full-time coaches.
The school says something has to give, so men's and women's gymnastics probably are goners. Volleyball and swimming, too. Maybe cross country and golf. Possibly field hockey and track. Those teams don't make headlines and highlights, they don't generate revenue and most of them don't win very often. If UVM hockey and basketball and soccer and skiing are to do more, those Cats have to go. That is the cost of the winning business, says UVM.
The loss of those programs won't register on the scoreboard. Women's volleyball lost 86 matches the past four years and the swimming and gymnastics teams are glorified club sports at best. Cut golf and the only immediate fallout is that nine kids now have to call for tee times.
The real price the school pays by cutting those teams is the elimination from the athletic department of the competitors who fill their rosters. They are the finest student-athletes on campus.
Those high GPAs Crowley touts? The women's cross-country team collectively pulled down a 3.38 last spring. Volleyball had a 3.37. Sixteen members of the track team earned a 3.6 or higher. The men's gymnastics team was named the academic national champion by the College Gymnastics Association last month after posting a team GPA of 3.398. Andrew Siebengartner, a golfer, is a classical civilizations major. He has a 4.0.
UVM's higher-profile teams aren't dolts, mind you. The women's ski team averaged a 3.3 and the women's basketball team, a 3.14. But eight of the top 13 performers in the classroom last spring were teams on the bottom rung of UVM's three-tiered hierarchy.
Their success extends beyond the classroom. Dana Albrycht lost his right leg to amputation when he was 11 months old but it never kept him out of the pool. He became a three-year letterwinner and a co-captain of the men's swim team. Last spring, he was honored with the school's Sunderland Trophy for persistence in overcoming obstacles.
A teammate of Albrycht's, Chris McLernon, won the Semans Award for leadership, loyalty and service. He carried a 3.48 in biology and made the conference academic honor roll four years running. McLernon spent the spring semester of his senior year coaching the Mount Abraham Union High School track team.
Nedim Vilogorac rediscovered tennis at UVM after fleeing civil war in his native Yugoslavia. Jake Galbreath set the indoor track record for the 200 meters and graduated first in his class with a 3.92 and an engineering degree.
Perhaps each of these students would have been part of the UVM community without their chosen sports. The school can only hope their kind will continue to be.
UVM promises the swimmers and gymnasts and tennis players won't die in vain. The money saved by their demise will be reinvested into the athletic department. Their sacrifice will be remembered each time the hockey team wins a game or the basketball team reaches the tournament. Their offering will be UVM's raised profile in the public consciousness.
"Some of the foot soldiers have to go. That's the price of war I guess," said men's basketball coach Tom Brennan. "The thing you hope is that some good comes out of it."
Some good must come out of it. Otherwise, the cost of doing business comes at too high a price.
Patrick Garrity is the Free Press Assistant Sports Editor. If you have a comment, please call 660-1868 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For past columns see www.burlingtonfreepress.com.