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Athletic programs at public colleges feel California's budget ax

Athletic departments throughout California's three-tiered college system are under pressure to cut spending. They cope in various ways, some with drastic action. UC Irvine is dropping five sports.

August 07, 2009|David Wharton

The telephone rang early that morning while Chris Rosales was in the shower, so the news reached him by way of an urgent message.

When the UC Irvine swimmer listened to his answering machine, he heard his coach asking him to call back as soon as possible.

"That didn't sound good," Rosales said. "I knew something was up."

The California budget crisis has put state colleges and universities under tremendous pressure to cut spending. Schools have eliminated classes, raised fees and asked faculty to take unpaid furlough days.

Now intercollegiate athletics are feeling the bite.

At Irvine, officials abruptly dropped five sports -- including men's and women's swimming -- just before the new school year.

"The best word I can think of is shocked," Rosales said. "We didn't see this coming."

A comparable scenario is playing out at Los Angeles City College, with every sport except women's volleyball suspended until next summer. Not all schools are taking such drastic measures, but athletic departments across the state are scrambling to become, as one official said, leaner and meaner.

"No one is arguing that athletics are more important than academics," said Carlyle Carter, president of the California Community College Athletic Assn. "We know that extracurriculars are the first to feel that pinch."

The overall scope of the cutbacks is hard to predict. Schools within the state's three-tier system have the autonomy to deal with budget matters in different ways, and athletic spending ranges from several hundred thousand dollars at junior colleges to $65 million at UCLA.

Also, larger schools might be able to boost revenue through football and basketball.

Regardless, the tough economy could affect more than 10,000 student-athletes in the University of California and California State University systems, and about 25,000 more at community colleges.

So far, some changes have been minor. The University of California saved $140,000 by putting its media guides exclusively online; Chico State won't be handing out team schedules on refrigerator magnets.

Several conferences have canceled their annual meetings in favor of teleconferences.

"Every little thing you can do, it adds up," said Mitch Cox, a Chico State assistant athletic director.

Bigger changes will come later, affecting how and where games are played.

San Jose State announced it is backing out of a scheduled football game at rival Stanford in 2010, opting to travel to Alabama instead.

The Spartans risk a big loss on the field, playing a traditional powerhouse on the road, because Southeastern Conference schools are known to pay visiting teams in the neighborhood of $1 million. Stanford wasn't going to pay nearly that much.

Spartans Coach Dick Tomey, who declined to be interviewed, said through a spokesman that the switch offers a "significant benefit" and "will help put the football program in a better financial position."

At UCLA, Athletic Director Dan Guerrero has shaved $1.5 million from his budget and is rethinking the schedules for many of his teams.

Although football and basketball will not be affected, other squads might stick closer to home. The Bruins' baseball team, for example, traveled to East Carolina, Houston and Oklahoma last season.

"We don't need to do that for our strength of schedule," Guerrero said. "With the quality of competition that exists in Southern California, the ability to play a three-game series against a Fullerton, a Long Beach, is almost as important as flying halfway across the country."

Bruins baseball Coach John Savage expects his players will understand: "From their families and all that's going on, they're very conscious of the economic times."

Community colleges are considering proposals to dismantle existing conferences and regroup schools by geography, ensuring the shortest possible distance between campuses, Carter said.

Regular seasons could be abridged and, in some cases, organized into tournament settings involving several teams.

"With some sports, like softball, you could play multiple games at a single site in a single day," Carter said. "You could play more than one opponent."

The experience might not be as enjoyable, he said, but "our athletic directors are under the gun right now."

Budget concerns have prompted other travel changes. San Diego State teams will bus rather than fly to conference games against Nevada Las Vegas. The Cal football team will do likewise for an October game at UCLA, saving $135,000.

"By the time you get to the airport and do the check-in and all that, it's maybe one hour more" to take the bus, Coach Jeff Tedford said. "I think it'll be fine."

While athletic directors and conference officials search for additional ways to save, they also wrestle with the issue of furlough days.

On Monday, for instance, no one answered the telephones at Fresno State. A recording informed callers that university employees had been kept home.

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