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W. Washington dealing with life after football

Division II school drops the sport instead of trimming from each

March 08, 2009|Associated Press

BELLINGHAM, WASH. — The brick-covered quad at Western Washington University is always scrawled with chalked expressions of passion and frustration, joy and happiness.

Baseball is a common theme these days, especially the return of Ken Griffey Jr. to the Seattle Mariners. "Junior, you complete me," reads one of the notes.

But there are no odes to the loss of the school's football team.

"Football has just never been a part of the campus culture," said Western President Bruce Shepard, who started at the school in September after coming from Wisconsin-Green Bay. "Our student body president told our board that one student had complained about the football decision. I have students stopping me in the quad, 'Bruce, let me shake your hand. I want to thank you for that decision on football.'"

What happens when a school with a century of playing football cuts the sport and only those affected by the decision care? Welcome to WWU, a Division II liberal-arts school overlooking Bellingham Bay where the nearly 14,000 students have had little reaction to the decision made two months ago.

Instead, it's the players, the coaches scrambling for jobs, and some alumni who are taking issue with the way the school went about cutting a program that started in 1903.

The decision announced Jan. 8 came without warning or a call for help from alumni or boosters, and from a school president barely four months on the job.

"The president said for some budget reasons they were, instead of making small cuts to all athletic programs, going to drop football completely," linebacker Caleb Jessup recalled of the meeting where the decision was announced right after students returned from winter break. "Everyone was irate, and upset and crying, and in the flash of an eye changed everyone's life and changed everyone's path."

The decision by Shepard and the WWU administration serves as another example of the challenges small colleges face in trying to balance athletic opportunities and control costs during dire economic times.

Washington state is facing a shortfall of about $8 billion and the initial budget proposed by Gov. Chris Gregoire following her re-election in November called for a 13% cut in funding to the state's universities. The football program at WWU was running a deficit of nearly $500,000 per season.

The school says that cutting football will keep WWU's other 15 sports stable financially and competitively, even though the school is now out of compliance with Title IX regulations.

"It's the quantity of opportunities versus the quality of the programs we have," Shepard said.

But the WWU administration has drawn criticism for the way it went about making its decision and the subsequent cold shoulder it gave to a group of alumni and former players who claim to have raised $1 million in pledges to potentially bring back the program.

Coach Robin Ross believed he was heading into an early morning meeting with Shepard on Jan. 8 regarding recruiting, only to come out knowing that an upcoming trip to the American Football Coaches Association conference would now be a job search.

"I would have wanted to be in the conversations and I was not part of that process. I had no idea about the process and how it was conducted," Ross said. "You would have liked to think that you could have come up with some other alternatives that maybe wouldn't have resulted in losing the program."

Documents obtained by the alumni and fan group savewwufootball.com through a Freedom of Information Act request and reviewed by the Associated Press showed that discussions regarding the removal of football began during the 2008 season.

Shepard admits within his first week on campus the idea of cutting football came across his desk.

Most egregious to those opposed to the decision was the secretive nature of how the decision was made.

Shepard says the confidential meetings were necessary and if word had leaked the school was considering cutting football the program was all but dead.

"The other part of the smoke and mirrors that was going on was the comment 'We didn't leave any stones unturned,'" said Mark Wolken, president of savewwufootball.com. "To those of us that have been around and watching this the last few years and have a pretty good idea of what's going on, we're saying, 'Now that doesn't make sense. How can you come to that conclusion?'"

An e-mail from Shepard indicated that as late as Dec. 27 he was not convinced dropping the program was the correct move. Shepard says he had a better idea of the school's financial situation by Dec. 31, when documents show the process began to eliminate the program.

Also at issue is the school's initial claim that dropping football would save nearly $500,000 within the first two years. While savings of that amount are projected five years out, the school expects to lose more than $100,000 next year by not having football and Shepard says the amount could be more.

"If somebody from the outside is looking at this from afar or you're a board of trustees member and your looking at it from a macro level, and you listen to Shepard you say, 'Gosh, this makes sense. Tough economic time, but that's just too bad,'" said Jason Stiles, a former WWU quarterback and executive vice president of savewwufootball.com.

"But if you magnify the situation and take a little bit closer look, you see that's not right at all, and as a matter of fact there were other ways to do this and why didn't they look at that?" Stiles said. "That's what we're trying to get people to take a look at."

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