UC Irvine, a university known more for its quirky nickname than its athletic teams, turned to its students to try to change that. They voted this week to raise student fees, which will bring back baseball, add two women's sports and breath financial life back into existing Anteater programs.
Students voted for a $33 fee hike per quarter, beginning in the fall of 2000, which will put the athletic department on even better footing than it was before the 1992 budget crunch decimated its programs. The money will go to fund athletic scholarships and follows a recent trend of California universities that have turned to their students to help fund athletics.
"This is one of the biggest victories in my life," Athletic Director Dan Guerrero said. "It means the students allowed UCI intercollegiate athletics to rise from the ashes. The memory of 1992 has been erased."
Guerrero can thank students, and student athletes. Five members of the athletic advisory council ran a six-week campaign that not only convinced students to vote in favor of the referendum, but also got them to select the highest fee hike. They were offered a choice of $33, $19 and $13 on the ballot, or could just vote no.
The $33 fee was the only one that would bring back baseball, which will begin in the 2001-2002 school year. Women's water polo begins in 2000-2001. Another women's sport, which is yet to be determined, will begin in 2001-2002.
"The students are saying they trust us with this money," said golfer Mike Lawrence, who led the campaign. "They trust us that we can be a competitive athletic program."
Other schools have recently received similar votes of confidence.
In April, 1998, UC Santa Barbara students agreed to increase fees $9 per quarter, which will raise $420,000 annually for scholarships. Last June, UC Riverside students voted to pay an additional $35 per quarter, which will raise $750,000 annually, effective when the school jumps from NCAA Division II to Division I.
In February, UC Davis students voted to increase fees $127 quarterly, part of which will go to improve athletic facilities. Fresno State passed a student fee hike to help athletics last month.
Irvine, though, was believed to be a tougher sell.
Students at the university have not supported the Anteater athletics by attending events and the referendum needed 60% to be approved with at least 25% of the undergraduates voting. Athletes were organized to get out the vote, each being required to recruit 10 students. The plan succeeded beyond their hopes.
The voting, held Monday through Thursday, brought out 32% of the undergraduate students, the second highest turnout in university history. In 1978, 32.8% voted when a coupon for a free cola was given to every voter.
All the student athletes had to offer was the slogan, "Stop Having To Explain Where You Go To School" and canvassed the campus in the last week. It worked. The $33 fee received 2,209 votes, the $19 fee received 302 votes, the $13 fee received 172 votes and there were 1,036 students who voted against it.
The groundswell was evident. Most candidates for student offices who supported the referendum won. The one candidate who strongly opposed it lost.
The referendum now goes to UC Irvine Chancellor Ralph J. Cicerone, who is expected to approve it, and then to the University of California Board of Regents.
The payday for the Irvine athletic department, which has been one of the poorest in the nation, will be significant. The fee hike will raise $1.58 million annually, based on the roughly 16,000 undergraduate students currently at Irvine. If enrollment increases, as expected, so will the department's bankroll.
Additionally, the department will begin collecting money as part of a 1997 referendum to pay for a recreation center. It raised student fees $88 per quarter, $18 of which goes to athletics, and will go into effect when the center opens next winter.
Among other facility plans, the existing baseball stadium needs to be renovated and lights must be added to the track/soccer stadium. The soccer programs have played their night games on the baseball field.
"The students believed it was time for a change," track and field Coach Vince O'Boyle said. "They didn't want Anteater athletics to be a joke."
Baseball took the hardest hit in 1992, when $518,477 was trimmed from the athletic budget. There were across-the-board cuts and three sports were eliminated, although men's cross-country and track were later reinstated as non-scholarship sports.
"I'm glad the university decided baseball was important," former Anteater baseball coach Mike Gerakos said. "I knew it was important then. I just didn't have the votes."
The return of baseball has been on Guerrero's mind since he was hired as athletic director in 1992, after the cuts. But he said he would not consider it until all the current sports were fully funded. Only men's and women's basketball, women's volleyball and men's tennis offered the scholarship maximum set down by the NCAA.
Irvine currently offers 36.4 men's scholarships and 46.6 women's scholarships in all sports. The NCAA allows for 63.4 men's scholarships, excluding football, and 99 women's scholarships, although Irvine doesn't field some NCAA scholarship sports, such as crew, fencing and bowling.
"Is money going to bring us happiness? No," O'Boyle said. "But at least we'll be playing on a equal playing field."
Irvine ranked in the lowest 6% in scholarship money among NCAA Division I schools. Still, it was able to produce in some sports--water polo, women's cross-country, women's soccer--despite a financial disadvantage.
"I'm about ready to cry," women's soccer Coach Marine Cano said. "I'm thinking about all the players who came here to help make this a top [soccer] program and that was when we were part-time. Now we are full-time."