UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- On the corner of Curtin and Bigler roads, the old brick façade of McCoy Natatorium looks no different than the neighboring academic buildings. Since 1967, the Penn State swimming team has practiced in a facility that doesn't include a competition-standard 50-meter pool.
It is, in words once used by Penn State associate vice president of finance and business Dan Sieminski, "inadequate for varsity swimming and diving teams." Its continued existence and the recent cancellation of its renovation also falls in a gray area in the consent decree between the NCAA and Penn State in which the university agreed not to reduce funding for non-revenue sports.
The issue raises questions about the well-being of these sports during this tumultuous period for an athletic department hit hard by NCAA sanctions, including a $60 million fine, levied as a result of a child sexual abuse scandal involving former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.
In 2011, Penn State approved plans to renovate McCoy Natatorium and to build a new indoor tennis center on campus. Last fall, the project was suspended indefinitely, in part because the athletic department had to withdraw funding.
The money for the natatorium, as well as the tennis center, was to come from three sources: $30 million from student activity fees (the swimming facility would have been open for student use), $25 million from the athletic department and $10 million from donations.
University spokesperson Lisa Powers said that the restructuring of the athletic department's budget after NCAA sanctions "put the project further out of reach."
Athletic director Dave Joyner said the cancellation does not violate the consent decree between the university and the NCAA because the project had not reached final approval. The university's board of trustees had approved an architecture firm for the natatorium and tennis center, according to minutes from its November 2011 meeting, but the project did not evolve beyond that stage before its cancellation.
When questioned as to whether Penn State was violating the consent decree by withdrawing funds for projects involving the swimming and tennis teams, the NCAA declined to address the specific situation. The organization released a statement through a spokesperson, saying: "Evaluation of any potential impact to non-revenue sports at Penn State will be handled via the relationship established among the NCAA, the Big Ten Conference and Penn State through the Consent Decree and Athletics Integrity Agreement."
Craig Depken, a professor at UNC-Charlotte whose work in sports economics has been widely published, considered Penn State's decision to cancel the project an "unseen" way to save money by extracting it from non-revenue sports. A lesser example would be Penn State forgoing the purchase of new volleyballs or nets in a year that they had planned to buy them -- a situation in which Penn State could have bought something but doesn't or chooses to delay the purchase.
"The NCAA is saying we don't want to visibly see less money being spent," Depken said.
"There are plenty of ways for the non-revenue sports being impacted on this. Are they enough for people to transfer and leave? We'll see in a few years," he said. "I don't think Penn State or any university wants to put them in a position where they can't compete. There's outside pressure to not completely devastate these other sports."
Men's and women's swimming and men's and women's tennis make up four of 31 varsity sports offered at Penn State. Only Ohio State and Stanford offer more programs.
In the most recent fiscal year for which records are available, July 2011 to July 2012, the Department of Education reported that Penn State spent about $24 million on its 27 non-revenue sports (football and men's basketball are revenue sports and men's and women's ice hockey were not varsity sports in fiscal 2011-12). The sports lost about $14 million, an expense offset by the football team's surplus.
Joyner said the school is committed to all non-revenue sports. He said the dynamic had changed for them, as it had for football, because future capital projects would have to be driven more by donations rather than money from the athletic department.
Scott Kretchmar worked as Penn State's faculty athletic representative from 2000-11. He said Penn State always has been committed to the non-revenue sports. But he also remembers hearing former president Graham Spanier say that the athletic department would never receive any assistance from the university's general fund if it was in need.
Kretchmar envisions a future, after the five-year NCAA probationary period, in which Penn State might have to drop a sport or multiple sports because of the fine and the increasing difficulty of fielding so many teams. More teams mean less money to go around for non-revenue athletics, which could dilute teams' abilities to compete. Texas, for example, spent about $27 million in the latest fiscal year on 17 non-revenue sports, giving the school better financial support for each varsity team.
"It's hard to support what will be 31 sports," Kretchmar said.
A murky future
The swimming teams have waited years for improvements to McCoy Natatorium. As far back as 1981, there was mention of renovations to McCoy in The Daily Collegian newspaper.
The proposed renovations in 2011 would have brought a 50-meter pool with eight lanes, three diving platforms, including a 10-meter platform, and room for spectators. Now, the pool measures 25 meters and has six lanes. There is no diving platform.
An outdoor pool on campus measures 50 meters, has eight lanes and a 10-meter diving platform, but can only be used during warmer months.
Men's and women's swimming coach John Hargis said facilities were a major selling point for recruiting top talent. The men's and women's swimming teams consistently have finished in the top 25 most seasons and are ranked in the top 25 this year despite the disadvantages.
"It's our football team saying, instead of 11 on 11, Ohio State is going to have 11 on the field, but you're only going to get nine," Hargis said. "But you better win. That's what we're dealing with in our sport."
Joyner said that, in spite of not having an ideal facility, Hargis had done a good job. Joyner said he couldn't forecast a future multiple years down the road for non-revenue sports.
Uncertainty likely will arrive sooner. A new president will be hired in 2014, and Penn State also will search for a new athletic director. Those hires could change the athletic department's priorities.
Hargis said he trusts the university leadership and realizes sports like his are safe for the five-year probationary period.
"I guess my concern would be beyond that," he said. "Yeah, you're protected for those five years; what happens in year six, seven, eight and nine when there's a chance that the athletic department could be in the red at that point? That would be my only fear.
"Would it happen? I still don't think it would happen. Not at all. I don't think this university would ever cut a sport. I really, truly don't."
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter@mdent05.