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Upper Iowa ‘not alone’ in battle to save programs
Ogden column: Fayette university dropped 7 sports last week, other smaller college battle same issue with lack of enrollment
It would be easy to say “it’s just bowling” or “it’s just shotgun sports.”
Football was saved. Men’s and women’s basketball go on. Men’s wrestling continues and a new women’s wrestling program remains on track.
It would be easy to dismiss the seven sports Upper Iowa University announced it was cutting last week, programs that maybe don’t generate the fan interest or the revenue of some of the others.
It also would be wrong.
“The sport they are in matters to them and matters a lot,” UIU vice president of athletics Rick Hartzell said. “You’re taking opportunity away from young people.”
Hartzell, 70, isn’t new to athletics administration or tough financial times. He spent 10 years as the athletics director at UNI when it was forced to cut a couple of sports. He also was AD at Bucknell and Maryland-Baltimore County.
He’s been involved in sports pretty much all his life and has seen the good and bad as a player, coach and administrator.
But this one hurt. This one hit Hartzell hard. He didn’t hide his disappointment during a telephone interview from his office on Tuesday.
Last week’s decision to cut women’s tennis, men’s cross country and track and field, as well as the aforementioned bowling and shotgun sports still was “gut-wrenching” nearly a week after the announcement.
“It’s extraordinarily hard,” he said. “There are no winners in this.”
It hurts even more because Hartzell was responsible for bringing men’s track and field back to the Fayette campus. He was the one who introduced bowling as a varsity sport and brought in shotgun sports. He also introduced esports to campus, a sport that moved to club status last year “for exactly the same reasons.”
“I have a personal investment,” he said about the affected sports. “It hurts.”
He wanted to give students the opportunity to continue their athletics career at a four-year college, maybe even earn a few scholarship dollars in the process. He wanted more students walking on this northeast Iowa campus, generating revenue for the university.
And there’s the rub.
It wasn’t happening. It wasn’t happening in Fayette. It wasn’t happening in Mount Pleasant, home to Iowa Wesleyan University, which announced in March it was shutting down after 181 years.
And, Hartzell said, he’s afraid it may be happening at your favorite “small” college. Those in the NAIA and NCAA III world are struggling and one way to survive is to streamline departments.
“We know we’re not alone,” Hartzell said. “I don’t think this is going to go away.”
The bottom line is there is a lack of students who desire a four-year education these days, he said. Many are opting for trade schools or two-year colleges.
Sports often can attract students to a campus. Sports like tennis, sports like track and field with large rosters. He said there would have been 20 on the shotgun team in 2024.
But some of those sports also can be expensive, especially when “just having a program isn’t good enough.
“You have to give young people and coaches a chance to compete,” Hartzell said.
It’s a double-edged sword.
“It’s a really big deal because we need students on this campus,” Hartzell said. “We need students who are paying a share of their tuition costs so we can have revenue.”
Even the big college programs with their huge budgets and mammoth TV contracts are “watching dollars.” At Upper Iowa, “we’re watching pennies,” Hartzell said.
Upper Iowa is 166 years old and “we’d like to keep going for another 100 years.”
“We all have to figure out what the right size of program is and how to compete,” he said.
If there is a bright spot in all of this, Hartzell said it was the way the student-athletes responded. He talked individually to the affected athletes and coaches, then met with those on the 16 sports that survived — football, volleyball, men and women's soccer, women's cross country, men’s and women's basketball, men's wrestling, women's indoor and outdoor track and field, softball, baseball, men’s and women's golf, and a fully-endowed cheer and dance program.
“Our students have responded well,” he said. “I’m proud of them for that.”
But, he said, “it’s been a tough couple of weeks here.”
And, unfortunately, those weeks may turn into months and years for schools like Upper Iowa.
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