T.J. Bellama awoke on Tuesday planning to run with some of his Arizona State men’s tennis teammates before attending the squad’s routine year-end meeting. That gathering took place, but it was anything but routine.
Bellama exited holding a letter from ASU athletic director Lisa Love detailing his options in the wake of the school eliminating the program, one of three men’s sports that were cut due to rising operating costs.
Men’s swimming and wrestling were also discontinued, eliciting an array of emotions from the nearly 70 athletes who will continue to get full scholarship benefits but, for now, have no place to play.
“Sadness. Anger. Frustration,” said Bellama, a junior and half of a Pac-10 runner-up doubles team this season. “I have one year left. I don’t want to go anywhere else. I love it here. You have to start over and make decisions that you shouldn’t have to make right now.”
The cuts will save ASU about $1.1 million annually. ASU expects to balance its $41.5 million athletics budget for fiscal year 2008 and has enjoyed a large increase in capital-project donations.
“We’re pleased with the (revenue) direction, but it’s not keeping pace with the cost challenges of operating the athletic department we want,” Love said. “At some point, something has to give. And we’re at that breaking point.
“We have a responsibility to balance our budget. We are not in a situation where the university can ride in on their white horse. It’s our responsibility to solve it. That’s the economics of the situation.”
The axe-swinging, rather than scalpel-using, approach was endorsed by school president Michael Crow.
“Lisa made a very difficult but correct decision,” Crow said in a statement. “When faced with budget problems, ASU does not make across-the-board cuts; they weaken the entire enterprise. Selective cuts ensure the health of the remaining sports and our entire intercollegiate athletics program.”
Funds for such capital projects as the Weatherup Center basketball practice facility and football “bubble” indoor practice structure are part of a separate budget that is not included in the operating numbers.
Six full-time coaching positions were cut, although head coaches Lou Belken of tennis and Thom Ortiz of wrestling remain under contract through November. Swimming coach Mike Chiasson stays on because he also leads the women’s team.
Men’s diving is still sponsored by ASU, which now has 20 varsity sports.
“It’s tough to find individual donors to chip in big money for swimming,” Chiasson said. “It’s a challenge of all the Olympic sports, for the most part. I just hope that (administrators) went over it so thoroughly that there were no other options.”
Love said her department began to seriously explore the “last resort” option of cutting sports about six months ago. The decision was finalized within the last two weeks.
A sport’s level of sponsorship — at the Pac-10 and regional level — was a criteria, as was performance in recent years. Women’s teams were not considered because had ASU eliminated one, the school would have fallen out of compliance with Title IX federal gender-equity regulations.
Only two Pac-10 schools, Oregon State and Stanford, offer wrestling. There are about 85 Division I wrestling programs, down from more than 500 in 1972, the year Title IX was enacted.
The three-year-old Riches Family Wrestling Complex will continue to be used by Sunkist Kids Wrestling, due to a joint partnership.
Alan Howard, a freshman wrestler who redshirted this season, fears that his career is in peril.
“The day they let us know the program was going to be cut was the day they cut it,” Howard said. “I woke up and read about it in an e-mail they sent me. ... I’m in a last-minute scramble to find a school, but a lot of them have filled up their spots.”
A glimmer of hope remains for the cut programs if funds can be raised to endow the programs. It has been estimated that wrestling needs $8 million and tennis and swimming $5 million each to fund the programs in perpetuity.
“We’re going to do everything we can to obtain the money we need to,” Ortiz said. “We’ll die trying. I’m not giving up. My voice mail now says, ‘Hello. If I don’t answer, it’s because we’re out raising money to endow the program.’ "