At MU, pain and disappointment - LancasterOnline: Sports

At MU, pain and disappointment

School officials blame funding cuts for demise of men's track and cross-country teams. But group supporting teams say move was unnecessary.

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Posted: Sunday, March 25, 2012 12:20 am | Updated: 4:48 pm, Mon Jan 20, 2014.

It must've have felt like the 1960s, with two nearly concurrent protests on the Millersville University campus Thursday.

Nothing as prosaic as peace and love was discussed, though. Just dirty old money.

At the nexus of both assemblies was the school's vanishing men's track and field and cross-country programs.

At one gathering, MU students and faculty bemoaned a proposed 20 percent cut in state funding for the university, a cut of the kind that has made Gov. Tom Corbett a reviled figure on commonwealth campuses.

In the other, a group that has named itself CROS (Coalition to Rescue Our Sports) outlined its plan to save men's track and cross-country, programs MU administrators say they're cutting in response to Corbett's cuts.

"If this [level of state spending] holds, for every dollar that comes from the state, 4-5 will come from the students through tuition," MU Chief of Staff Dr. James McCollum said Friday.

"It puts the model on its head, back the way it was 30 years ago."

The administration claims eliminating three sports - men's cross-country, men's track and field and indoor track and field - will save the university a critical $200,000.

"We had to look at cost containment," said Dr. Aminta Breaux, vice president, student affairs, who oversees the athletic department. "We now can no longer support 22 teams and try to maintain the quality we have."

CROS isn't buying it. Its members addressed the media, backed by a group of around 60 MU student-athletes wearing black-and-gold T-shirts with the word "Fight" printed on them, outside Biemesderfer Stadium Thursday.

The group says it has offered a $300,000 private donation (declining to name the source) to keep the men's programs running in the short term while a permanent solution can be found, an offer it says was declined by MU President Dr. Francine McNairy.

CROS also says it has conducted its own investigation, which has discovered that the $200,000 savings is a misleading figure, due to calculation errors and the fact that many track/cross-country expenses will still exist, since women's track and cross-country are being retained.

The group contends that track and cross-country are relatively revenue-neutral sports, and their cost per participant is among the lowest of any college sport.

It also pointed out that a final state budget is likely to be far different than Corbett's proposal, and that the proposed budget cuts were announced just seven days before MU announced its program cuts.

"The governor's budget is far from being approved," Lancaster businessmen Bob Vasile said Thursday, reading from a prepared statement. Vasile is an MU cross-country alum.

"Last year's projected cuts to Millersville were reduced by 60 percent by the time it was finalized. This year's initial draft is already 60 percent below the starting point of last year's initial plan."

MU contends that the $300,000 would be far from adequate to sustain the programs over time.

McCollum added that, "The math and those details are not the appropriate subject. Those of us who manage the institution have seen the support from the state dramatically decline. It pains us to do this, but we can no longer be everything to everybody."

"To sustain a sport, the funding must be not just for this year," Breaux said. "We don't want to take that money now, have students come here (to participate in track, etc.) and we don't know about 2-3 years down the road and beyond. We don't want to kick the can down the road."

"The issue is the quality of experience for all the 8,600 students we have," McCollum said.

"Our primary focus is academic. In the past few years, we've eliminated or frozen 124 positions, faculty and some staff and pared from $15 million from the budget. (Even so), we will not be able to offer 140-some classes next year.

Breaux said the administration considered cutting other sports, such as men's golf and football, which have higher cost-per-participation than track/cross-country.

"Cutting football would impact 95 students," Breaux said, which is 3-4 times as many as would be involved in track/cross-country, not to mention the public-relations nightmare that would ensue from messing with football.

Cutting golf, she said, would save only about $14,000, since MU has a women's golf team and thus would be unable to eliminate a coaching position.

There was no chance of a women's team being cut because of Title IX, the federal mandate that government-funded institutions grant equal opportunity to men and women.

"We had to cut teams, and the teams we cut couldn't be women's teams," Breaux said. "That's the only place Title IX comes in."

The administrators said they would consider continuing men's track/cross-country as privately funded club sports.

"This wasn't just, 'Let's cut track and field,' " said Breaux, who said she was a hurdler on her college track team. "It truly pained me."

Several current MU coaches, including men's basketball coach Fred Thompson and football coach Greg Colby, attended Thursday's press conference.

Men's track and cross-country have existed at MU for over a half-century, and the cross-country team won the school's only national championship in any sport.

"I'm sick," Cy Fritz, who coached track and cross-country at MU from 1968 through 1982, said Thursday. "It's highly disappointing. I never thought it would come to this. I agree with what these [CROS] guys are doing."

At least a half-dozen of the MU students at Thursday's protest indicated, by show of hands, that they intended to transfer if the programs were cut.

"My heart goes out to the students," Breaux said. "I'm concerned that they have not really moved on. I would encourage them to please come talk to us."

CROS believes the fight isn't over.

"I really don't believe this is the end," Glenn Stephens, a Washington, D.C.,-area attorney and track/cross-country alum, said at the protest.

Stephens said he believed there was a possibility of arbitration, perhaps involving FCMS, the federal mediation group that was involved in the recent NFL and NBA collective bargaining.

"I think [the administration] thought they'd announce this, and spring break would roll around, and it would just slowly go away," Stephens said.

"One thing about being a distance runner is it teaches you persistence," he said. "It makes you think in terms of years."

"This was a management decision," McCollum said. "There is not going to be a reversal."

Contact Sunday News Assistant Sports Editor Mike Gross at mgross@lnpnews.com.

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