When Scott Wetherbee was hired as Eastern Michigan’s athletic director last June, he knew he’d be spending a significant amount of his time Band-aiding a budget in a deep mess. He just didn’t realize he’d have to make such drastic decisions this early in his tenure.
Eastern announced Tuesday it was eliminating four sports — wrestling, men’s swimming and diving, women’s tennis and softball.
That brings Eastern down to 17 sanctioned sports — seven men’s teams, 10 women’s teams — which still is most among the state’s other two Mid-American Conference members, Western Michigan and Central Michigan, but a stinging scenario, nonetheless.
“I thought I’d have an opportunity for a couple years to get our revenues stronger and see,” Wetherbee said in a conversation with The News. “I had an idea this could be a possibility, but I just didn’t think it would happen this quickly. And I don’t think the president did, either.
“In hindsight, maybe I would pass on this (job) to not have to go through this.”
That’s quite a candid statement from Wetherbee, who’s in his first AD post, drawing a $269,000 salary under a five-year contract.
The truth is, Wetherbee has been through this before.
Wetherbee, a native of Kalamazoo, was all set to go to Ferris State to play baseball in the early 1990s. But before he arrived, Ferris State eliminated the baseball program, sending Wetherbee scrambling.
He eventually went to Ball State, where he earned his bachelor’s in sports administration, setting him on his path that eventually took him to jobs at Western Michigan, Ball State, Fresno State, San Diego State, East Carolina, Mississippi State and, finally, Eastern Michigan last summer.
He took over for Heather Lyke, who left Eastern Michigan for the athletic-director job at Pittsburgh.
“I know exactly how those kids feel,” Wetherbee said of the 83 athletes affected by Tuesday’s cuts, plus eight coaches. “I never wanted to have to do this and be on the other side.”
The initial budget cuts called for about $250,000 to come off the books in January, and Wetherbee accomplished that from the administrative side of things. The news grew even more grim in late February, when another order came down: cut $2 million.
The reduction of the four sports will save the department about $2.4 million. The department still will be several million in the hole, a deficit that long has been subsidized by student tuition dollars. That gets tougher and tougher to swallow as enrollment stays stagnant at the 21,105-student university.
Coming up with a plan was no easy feat for Wetherbee, who spent countless hours meeting with university regents and administrators, including president James Smith, on the job since early 2016.
Once a decision was made earlier this month, administrators wanted to wait until after spring commencement ceremonies, set for April 21 at the Convocation Center, to make the announcement.
Wetherbee shot down that idea, and instead met with coaches one-on-one Monday night, and the affected athletes Tuesday morning.
“It’s not fair to the coaches and the student athletes,” Wetherbee said. “I couldn’t walk around here for a month lying about something I knew was coming. For recruits, it’s not fair to them. The student athletes need to be able to find a new home to play their sports, and give these coaches time to find a job. Certainly, the longer we wait, the tougher it is to transfer or find a new home.”
Eastern Michigan has said it will honor the scholarships of all affected athletes, through graduation. It’s unclear how many of the 83 athletes are on athletic scholarship; several of them are seniors who have exhausted their athletic eligibility or will by spring’s end, when the sports will cease.
For now, Eastern Michigan officials say there are no plans to cut any more sports programs — as it strongly wants to remain in the MAC, its home since 1971, and a conference that requires members to sponsor at least 16 athletic programs.
Eastern Michigan, which had led the MAC with 21 sports, has to keep football, men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball to stay in the MAC.
“This is what needed to be done,” Wetherbee said. “We didn’t really have any other options.”