EMU to cut 4 varsity sports: 'People are devastated'
Just this past weekend in Cleveland, Eastern Michigan's wrestling program celebrated its first Division I All-American since 1999 and fourth ever when, on Saturday, redshirt sophomore Sa'Derian Perry took eighth place in the 141-pound weight class.
On Tuesday, Perry and 82 other Eastern athletes — plus eight coaches — found out they no longer had a team.
The Ypsilanti-based university made the stunning announcement Tuesday morning that it was eliminating four sports teams — wrestling, men's swimming and diving, women's tennis and softball — effective at the conclusion of the spring sports season.
The move is money-motivated, and is estimated to save the university around $2.4 million as it deals with a budget crisis due to lagging enrollment.
"You can imagine, people are devastated," said David Bolyard, the fourth-year wrestling coach. "We had our first All-American in 19 years, we sent our most guys ever to the NCAA Tournament, we had five NCAA qualifiers, and now this. Yeah, it's been a roller coaster.
"I don't want anyone to be in our shoes."
Bolyard and the other coaches were informed of the decision in one-on-one meetings with athletic director Scott Wetherbee on Monday night. President James Smith and Wetherbee addressed the athletes on Tuesday morning.
The move cuts Eastern's roster of varsity sports teams from 21 to 17, just above the threshold to remain eligible in the Mid-American Conference, its home conference since 1971. Staying in the MAC also meant having to keep football, men's and women's basketball and volleyball, so those teams never were considered for elimination, Wetherbee said.
All affected athletes will have their scholarships honored through graduation, the school announced. Not all the athletes are on athletic scholarship.
This is the first time Eastern has cut sports since 2000, when men's tennis and men's soccer were axed, while women's rowing was added. Prior to that, men's gymnastics and women's field hockey were eliminated in 1988.
"We are very saddened by having to make this move, which is necessary as we continue to align the university budget with enrollment and state funding trends,” Smith, Eastern's president since 2016, said in a statement.
In the most recent budget available to The News, for fiscal year 2016, operating expense for softball were $399,753, men's swimming were $377,823, wrestling were $285,978 and women's tennis were $142,665. Those figures don't include the scholarship funds, which are a substantial factor.
Wetherbee, in an interview with The News on Tuesday afternoon, was first informed in early January that he'd have to cut about $250,000 out of his operating budget, which he did. Then, in late February or early March, the outlook got more grim, he said, and he was told $2 million in additional cuts were necessary. That's when it became clear that cutting sports teams was the only option.
He said a number of scenarios were discussed, and several factors were considered when discussing each team, including endowments, donors, past history, current performance and how elimination would affect the MAC's other schools, among others.
"Whatever decision I made," said Wetherbee, "wasn't going to be the right decision for everybody."
Officials with the union that represents faculty at the university blasted the decision Tuesday.
"It's about time that Eastern Michigan University administrators took a hard look at the money we spend on athletics," Judith Kullberg, president of EMU's chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said in a statement. "But today's announcement to cut four sports is the wrong call. This decision needs further review — not by out-of-touch administrators, but through consultation with students, faculty and staff.
"We want to see a successful athletics program — but it has to be sustainable. EMU administrators have cut back on course offerings, laid off staff, left positions unfilled, and outsourced essential student services. In this environment, it’s not sustainable for EMU to spend more than $20 million a year from its own funds to subsidize football and other NCAA Division I sports teams."
Kullberg said the school should change sports conferences so it "compete successfully against other schools of similar size and scale.
That's been a hot topic of conversation at Eastern for several years, but especially since April 2016 when HBO took a deep dive into the troubled finances of several university athletic departments, with an emphasis on Eastern's.
That ramped up calls from many on and off campus, including faculty leaders, to either cut the failing football program, or drop to Division II.
In fiscal year 2016, Eastern's athletic department reported about $5.17 million in revenues and about $27.2 million in expenditures, for an operating loss of more than $22 million — a number which includes about $10 million in athletic scholarships, $2.8 million of which are allocated for football. That huge deficit long has been subsidized by student tuition dollars.
Eastern's current enrollment, which peaked around 26,000 in the 1990s, is at 21,105 for the 2017-18 school year.
The football program has long been a target, because it's long been awful. It went from 1996-2015 without a single winning season and from 1989-2015 without making a single bowl game, until a breakout season in 2016 — just months after the heat from HBO, Eastern went 7-6 and made a bowl game (a loss), followed up by a 5-7 record this past season. As such, fan interest has spiked modestly — there were 1,318 season-ticket holders in 2017, a school record, up from 1,002 in 2016 and 676 in 2015 — and analysts say the program is on the rise, recruiting-wise. And Wetherbee said if the university got rid of football, Tuesday's cuts would've been even deeper.
With scholarships and salaries, football cost $6.9 million this past fiscal year, while making $5.7 million in revenues. Without those revenues, Eastern's athletic department would be in even bigger trouble, he said.
"That's $1.2 million down, almost what softball was," said Wetherbee, on the job since June, "almost what wrestling is."
Of course, that's not a consolation to the athletes and coaches who lost their teams Tuesday. Of the 83 athletes affected, 14 are seniors who will have exhausted their eligibility by the end of the spring. Of those with eligibility remaining, many aren't even on scholarship. Wrestling, for instance, gets the equivalent of 9.9 scholarships, to be divided up at a coach's discretion, yet had 30 players on its roster this past season. Some of those athletes pay full tuition and room and board out of pocket, but many of them receive academic aid, which still comes out of the university's coffers, Wetherbee said.
Eastern will become the only one of the 12 MAC institutions to not offer softball. Women's tennis will drop to nine schools. Wrestling will drop to seven schools, including "associate" members — members just part of the conference for one sport — Missouri and Old Dominion. Men's swimming and diving will drop to five schools, including more associate members (three) than full-time MAC members (two).
Women's tennis coach Jayson Wiseman took the job in September, and was stunned when he met with Wetherbee on Monday.
"I've had better days," Wiseman, who's married with eight children, said after practice Tuesday. "It's heartbreaking."
Peter Linn, who coaches the men's and women's swim teams, declined comment Tuesday, saying, "I have a lot to process and (am) focusing on taking care of my teams today." Diving coach Buck Smith didn't return a message seeking comment. It's unclear if either or both will stay on to coach just the women's swim and diving teams. Softball coach Melissa Gentile did not return a message seeking comment.
As for the athletes, the moves don't just affect the current players, but recruits, too.
Like Austin Emerson of Temperance Bedford, who was a state champion in at 285 pounds in Division 1 earlier this month at Ford Field. Ranked sixth nationally, he signed with Eastern despite being offered by Central Michigan, as well as being offered a preferred walk-on spot at Michigan.
"What happened was unfortunate and I feel really bad for all the coaches and athletes that are there right now, feel that they had the pretty bad end of the deal," Emerson, a 3.47 student who plans to major in computer engineering, said Tuesday. “I just learned this morning.
"I'm just looking for a place to go where I can continue improving my athletic abilities and see if I can do great for school."
Charles E. Ramirez and David Goricki contributed