College sports: The cruelest cuts come at smaller schools

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After Mount St. Mary's University in Maryland cut its women's golf program her freshman year, Amanda Reach was offered a second chance.

Through a graduate assistant, she got in touch with Robert Morris coach Jerry Stone and ended up falling in love with the Moon campus on a visit.

Hopefully, Reach thought, this would be a refuge, a place where her golf career could stabilize after being temporarily derailed.

Unfortunately for her, that vision would never materialize. Robert Morris cut seven sports in December, including women's golf, an announcement that blindsided a number of athletes, some of whom had been hosts to recruits the day before.

One year after experiencing the uncertainty that comes with such news, Reach had to go through it all over again.

"It's one of the hardest things I've ever had to do in my life," the Moscow, Pa., native said. "It's tough to realize everything you've worked for in high school -- with all the early practices, the weekends away and the workouts -- that it has to end two years early for me."

The decision came as a surprise to some, but it was the most recent case study in an increasingly common trend of universities both big and small moving toward leaner athletic departments. Three days after Robert Morris' cuts were announced, Temple dropped seven sports. Locally, Duquesne eliminated four teams in 2010 while numerous colleges across the country, such as Maryland, California, Delaware and Towson, have made similar moves in the past four years.

In many ways, Reach has become something of a poster child as schools, particularly those with fewer resources, must evaluate whether their current athletic costs are worth it.

PG graphic: The cut list
(Click image for larger version)

"I think what we see happening with these cuts is we see a system that is increasingly responding to the demands of a commercial marketplace," said Ellen Staurowsky, a professor and program director in Drexel University's Center for Hospitality and Sports Management. "The ability to be able to provide a large and expansive athletic department is becoming a thing of the past."

The cuts at Robert Morris were the culmination of a university-wide strategic review. Before that began, Gregory Dell'Omo, the university's president, heard a saying that stuck with him:

"In higher education, we're all brilliant at addition, but we're terrible at subtraction."

Part of the reason the study was conducted was because the school was guilty of what many others are, the kind of actions referenced in the aforementioned sentiment. Universities have a propensity to add and, in an effort to shed its image as a commuter school, Robert Morris did just that the past decade. Enrollment quickly rose, new buildings sprouted on campus and between 2004 and 2006, six new sports were added.

Some of those changes have helped bolster the university's profile, but as with other schools that have cut sports, the large number of teams eventually became a burden.

"Sometimes, smaller schools may not have adjusted their programs to a reality of what the realistic revenue generation is versus realistic expenditures," said Richard Southall, the director of the College Sport Institute at the University of South Carolina. "It's no different than any college or university that has to deal and live within a budget. You have to be realistic about what the purpose of athletics is in college."

As with adding teams, different colleges often have various motives when restructuring an athletic department.

In the case of Robert Morris, the cuts were not made to sports deemed too expensive. Four of the eliminated teams -- men's and women's tennis, women's golf and field hockey -- were among its seven cheapest in operating expenses in the 2012-13 season, according to data from the Office of Postsecondary Education. Nor did it have to do with academics, as six of the school's 10 teams that had perfect academic progress rates last year are among those being cut.

Rather, it was about quantity. The Moon Township school with an enrollment of 4,468 had 23 teams, more than places such as Texas and Florida, without the wherewithal of those larger institutions. Because of that, it was middle-of-the-pack in the Northeast Conference in total expenses per athlete.

Unlike its larger programs, Robert Morris does not offer full scholarships for Olympic sports. Each of the teams being cut had received a set number of scholarships and divided them up as they saw fit. The university will continue to honor the scholarships held by the affected athletes.

The move from 23 to 16 teams next academic year will allow Robert Morris to invest more money in its remaining programs and eventually save $1 to $1.2 million annually, putting it in a group of schools with similar enrollments and finances.

Many of the smaller universities with a sizeable number of teams come from the Ivy and Patriot Leagues, the kind of schools that have opulent endowments and, in some cases, do not offer athletic scholarships.

Others, however, still sport 20 or more teams without those same luxuries. Sacred Heart, for instance, has 32 teams and spent more than any NEC school on athletics last year despite an undergraduate enrollment of 3,773 and an endowment that is dwarfed by schools with a similar number of teams.

With some notable exceptions, the model of providing a wide variety of teams is no longer feasible.

"There was once a time 40 years ago when athletic departments were justified on college campuses on the basis of a participatory model, where the emphasis would be on providing as broad of a menu of sports as possible to give the opportunity for as many athletes to compete," Staurowsky said. "In the 21st century in college athletic departments, the financial structure is dramatically different and the priority structure is different."

Because of that, cuts often come. Dell'Omo is adamant that Robert Morris' cuts were proactive, meant to streamline and improve a department that wasn't necessarily broken. Still, that's not the case for everyone.

"Down the road, in the next couple of years, as more institutions are having more and more financial challenges, you're going to see this become much, much more of a reactionary approach," Dell'Omo said. "That's not a positive trend for collegiate athletics."

For schools that eliminate sports, the results can be mixed.

Duquesne's move from 20 to 16 teams was made in part to strengthen a core group of sports. Though some of those teams were able to help claim a school-record 14 individual and two team championships this past season, other programs such as men's basketball have not improved, posting a lower winning percentage the past three years (.407) than in the three years before the cuts took effect (.571).

Robert Morris athletic director Craig Coleman and Duquesne athletic director Greg Amodio declined to be interviewed for this story.

As the idea of providing stipends for Division I athletes gains traction, some presidents at smaller universities worry about what impact such measures would have on the bottom line of their athletic departments. Southall said that any stipend system would largely not affect them since athletes at those institutions don't possess nearly the same market value as, say, a football player at Alabama and thus wouldn't require a sizeable stipend.

The issue, though, has made some wonder if bigger changes are on the way.

"There's a time to divide up Division I into those big, money-making schools and the rest of us," said Mount St. Mary's president Thomas Powell. "It's very hard to compare us to a Penn State. There is no comparison."

Of course, when cuts are involved, there is always more than the facts and figures that surround them. There are the people who are most deeply impacted by them, some of whom have to adjust to a world in which they no longer play the sport they love in college.

At Robert Morris, a number of athletes have opted to transfer without penalty, but many others have decided to stay. Nine of the 11 returning members of the men's track team, for example, will remain at Robert Morris and three of the six returning women's golfers will also be staying, a group that includes Reach, who has a partial scholarship.

Numb to the changes she has endured the past two years, she is ready to move on to a new chapter of her life.

"I kind of put things in perspective, that my academics are more important than golf for the next two years," she said.

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