WVU – A Model For the Future of Division 1?

Much has been written in the aftermath of West Virginia University's stunning announcement on 17 April 2003 that its Department of Intercollegiate Athletics was cutting five sports programs.

The outrage over the rifle team's dissolving has received particular attention, as that program has been to the sport of rifle what UCLA was to NCAA Division 1 basketball under John Wooden. Efforts to resuscitate the rifle program have been suggested by no lesser than the Governor of West Virginia. Even the National Rifle Association may become involved in this saga!

Most of what has been written after the decision's (notice how the term "the decision" has gained immediate recognition amongst WVU sports fans, much like "The Drive" is immediately understood by Cleveland Browns and Denver Broncos fans?) announcement has been highly critical, even highly condemning, of the Athletic Department. Both Athletics Director Ed Pastilong and President David C. Hardesty, Jr. have been castigated in the media for this obviously painful decision. The lives of 56 student-athletes, the affected programs' head coaches and their respective staffs have been jolted hard by this decision. Even football Coach Rich Rodriguez, specifically his salary, has come under fire in the wake of the decision.

The criteria used by the Athletics Department in making its decision has been challenged, with many blaming Title IX as the underlying culprit, while the department has publicly pointed to financial reasons as the primary motivation behind the moves.

Often lost in the criticism – some of it warranted, e. g., waiting until the scholarships granting "seasons" of the affected sports was practically over at most Division 1 schools to which the affected athletes may have transferred, thus rendering their options few, at best – are a number of realities that gave the Athletics Department few options that could have saved the sports to be eliminated. These are realities that are being faced at most Division 1 schools across the country – not just at WVU.

In fact, WVU is not the first NCAA Division 1 athletics department to drop some of its sports programs recently; even fellow Big East conference members have dropped various programs within the last few years. Yet, while the reverberations from this decision continue around the country and in the midst of the predictable pain and agony that has ensued from this decision, there may just be the not-so-slow emergence of an NCAA Division 1 athletics program model at WVU that might become the standard for most Division 1 schools.

Might WVU become the institution to which other Division 1 athletic departments across the country point to as "how to do it the right way"? Have I lost my mind to suggest such heresy, you say? Lets look at a few factors, then you be the judge of my sanity.

First, WVU's Athletics Department (as many of its supporters rightfully and proudly proclaim) is a self-sufficient organization. In other words, the department takes nary a single dollar from the taxpayers of West Virginia to maintain its existence. The department also receives no tuition waivers from the University. (Those waivers were pulled from the department under then-WVU President Neil Bucklew, and that practice has continued under the subsequent Hardesty administration.) These two realities place WVU in a very small minority of Division 1 athletics programs across the country.

As financial pressures continue to mount at most public and even many of the private colleges and universities across the nation to cut operating budgets and to do more with less, I contend that more and more of those college and universities might begin to look at WVU's totally self-sufficient program as the "how to" guide for running a Division 1 program.

Colleges and universities exist first and foremost to educate students – not to crank out national championships in every sport (although simultaneously doing both would be sweet tasting, indeed!) As educational funding from most states is being cut as part of the general economic pressures most state legislatures are facing, more and more colleges' and universities' athletics departments may be introduced to the harsh reality of becoming self-sufficient. Some may be asked to do so practically overnight, creating quandaries far beyond those that Athletics Director Pastilong and his department faced in eliminating the five sports jettisoned on the 17th.

Most of us are constrained to run our households by balancing our budgets. Ed Pastilong and his administrators must do likewise and he may not be as lonely in that regard in the near future as more university presidents may begin to ask their respective athletic directors, "If West Virginia can do it, why can't you? Why can Ed Pastilong in Morgantown, of all places, field competitive teams and balance his books while not taking a dime from the state or the university? If he can do it, so can you, so get busy – now!"

By focusing on providing a high quality product in a fewer number of sports rather than continuing to produce moderately successful (or less) programs across a greater number of sports, WVU's administration has proactively done what many Boards of Directors and CEOs have been forced to do in the current economic malaise – focus on high quality products in key core competencies rather than attempt to maintain a wide spectrum of product offerings.

We see this every day in the business pages of local newspapers as businesses shed unprofitable or stagnant business units and, instead, focus on what they do best. While I do not necessarily equate an unprofitable business unit with a WVU sport, say, women's gymnastics, the pressures faced are not altogether different, either.

The investments in the salaries (contracts) of Rich Rodriguez and John Beilein are intended to produce solid returns in the two programs that essentially support all others at WVU. Clearly, the new focus of the WVU Foundation on athletics fundraising will help, but by and large football and men's basketball revenue is the primary revenue-generator for sustaining WVU's sports programs. Focusing on those sports' revenue-generating potential is a sound economic decision if – a big if – those programs both elevate to sustained levels of excellence on the national level. Recent results indicate that Messrs. Rodriguez and Beilein have their programs pointed in the right direction to achieve that high level of prominence so crucial for WVU's entire athletics program to thrive.

Title IX compliance also factored heavily into the decision – more so than WVU may care to admit. Like it or despise it, Title IX is the law and WVU's program is now in compliance with the federally mandated requirements of Title IX. Other schools are facing this same reality and we haven't seen the last of the upheavals associated with Title IX compliance.

Self-sufficiency, Title IX compliance, focusing on high quality teams in a fewer number of sports. These are sensible reasons that were taken into account when Mr. Pastilong made his announcement. I doubt he gained one iota of satisfaction from the decision; I'd bet the mortgage it was a painful day for him and the department – a day he'd rather forget than remember. However, the steps taken by the Athletic Department are sound, long-term solutions to the realities that WVU faces – realities that may soon have more and more colleges and universities calling Ed Pastilong to say, "Hey, Ed, can we borrow your manual on how to run a self-sufficient program?"

Mark Fought is a longtime supporter of West Virginia University and its athletic program. The opinions expressed herein are his own.

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