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The Buffalo News (New York)

 

A group of swimming alumni from the University at Buffalo thought it brought a viable option to the table to give the men's swimming team a stay of execution.

The UB swim alumni says it was willing to provide a little over $100,000 this summer to cover the coming season's operating expenses for the men's team, one of four sport programs eliminated in UB's athletic spending cutback announced in April.

In the long term, a $100,000 contribution from the alumni would not have produced the amount of budget savings UB says it needs to achieve by cutting men's swimming. The offer was a stop-gap measure the alumni hoped would buy time to work on possible ways to keep the team going.

No deal, UB said. Representatives of the UB swim alumni were told in late July that UB President Satish K. Tripathi rejected the idea.

The decision has left the swim alumni angry and disappointed.

"The lack of leadership and fiscal planning was evident through the entire process," said Jennifer Vaughn LeForce, a former UB swimming team captain who helped lead the alumni efforts. "It is important for the Western New York community to know how the university grossly mistreated the alumni community and student athletes by how they made their decision to cut the men's swimming and diving program."

"We appreciate they're facing cost issues, that's not unreasonable," said Mark Horgan, a 1998 UB swim alumnus. "It was disappointing it was a flat-out no. ... It's baffling why the school isn't really willing to engage on the topic. It's most baffling why they just won't take the money."

In addition to men's swimming and diving, UB eliminated the men's soccer, baseball and women's rowing teams. The cuts, UB said, are aimed at saving $2 million a year from an athletic budget that totaled $31.9 million in 2015-16. That ranked third in the 12-team Mid-American Conference. Three other MAC schools were at 16 sponsored teams this year. Some power-conference schools, like Georgia Tech and Kansas State, are down to 16.

UB says it did not see a long-term solution.

"The university appreciated the conversation, and we thoughtfully considered their proposal," UB said in a statement to The News. "Unfortunately, we determined that the proposal is not sustainable."

UB and two other Division I schools, Wright State and North Dakota, cut swim programs this year. Wright State reinstated its swim team for the coming year on June 29 after alumni raised $86,000 to cover operating costs. Wright State agreed to continue discussions with alumni on the future of the team.

UB swim alumni were hoping Tripathi would accept a similar deal. The UB men's swim annual expenses are about $500,000 a year, which includes money for six scholarships and coaching salaries. It does not factor in the tuition that UB gets from roughly 17 other men's team members.

But alumni felt a contribution of about $110,000 would make the men's team even on the budget for this year because UB already is honoring its scholarships to athletes and paying the coaches.

Getting $100,000 quickly for a non-revenue sport may not be a big deal at Ohio State, but it's significant for UB, which is expected to take in a bit more than $3 million in athletics fund-raising this year.

There are about 600 living UB swim alumni. While funding the whole men's program is unrealistic, the group thinks its fund-raising ability has not been tapped. The swim alumni were asked last year to raise about $50,000 for new starting blocks and did so easily.

"I said we could raise the money very quickly," Horgan said. "I could just put the money up myself, that's how confident we are we could get it."

"One of the things they told me was we've asked the alumni group for money many times over the years," Horgan said. "And that is just not true. The school hasn't really asked the swim alumni for money, other than the starting-block program."

Alumni representatives held an hour-long meeting June 22 with Tripathi's chief of staff, Beth Del Genio, UB associate counsel James Jarvis and UB athletic director Allen Greene. LeForce flew in from Phoenix and Horgan from New York. They were joined by local swim alumnus Matthew Schwippert and Joel Shinofeld, executive director of the Virginia-based College Swimming Coaches Association of America.

"The meeting was particularly disheartening," Schwippert said. "Clearly it was a meeting they had just to appease the masses. ... We were coming to them that day as a potential ally. Instead they just turned us away. So now they've made enemies of hundreds and hundreds of alumni. It defies logic to me."

Shinofeld also helped the Wright State alumni formulate its offer.

"Right now Buffalo has an incredible asset," Shinofeld said. "They have a program the alumni care about. And they have a facility that's one of the best in the country and definitely one of the best in the Northeast, one of the few facilities that can host the NCAA zone Diving regionals and other events. They have a fantastic 50-meter pool that other schools would love to have. And they're basically giving that away. ... It's a minimal investment to have the men's program on top of the women's program."

Reid Zyniecki, a UB swimmer who graduated in May, was disappointed that Tripathi did not attend the June meeting. Zyniecki was one of two students who met with Tripathi after a swimmers' sit-in at the president's office in May.

"I was pretty convinced after speaking with them that it definitely was going to be an uphill battle," Zyniecki said. "But I got the impression that they were at least open to conversing and hearing a possible course of action. It is upsetting that he wasn't involved in that meeting."

UB's legal obligations under the federal Title IX law was a factor in the cuts. Once the decision was made to trim the 80-some member women's rowing team, a comparable number of cuts to men's programs were required.

UB's student population is 56 percent male. After the cuts, the number of total spots on all of UB's athletic teams remains 56 percent male - in line with Title IX requirements. There is some wiggle room in the law. According to Title IX legal experts, if a school is within 20 or so spots of the proper proportion, it is within compliance. There were 23 men's swim team members last year. It's possible a few players would need to be added to women's teams if UB kept men's swimming.

"They didn't bring that up once in any of our conversations," LeForce said. "I think if it was truly a problem they would have brought it up early on."

UB alumnus Richard Lydecker had signed a commitment to give $50,000 to the men's swimming program in the coming years. He's a senior partner in the law firm of Lydecker/Diaz and is based in Miami.

He's mad about how the cut was handled. Like a lot of alumni, he's angry UB had recruits visiting campus the day before the cuts were announced.

"It's disgusting how they did it to the kids and the recruits," said Ann Marie Gorski Crye, a UB Athletics Hall-of-Famer

Lydecker says he has taken the initial steps toward bringing a claim against UB on behalf of the swimmers impacted by the cut.

"They've refused to help alleviate the cost incurred by these kids," Lydecker said. "It's all out-of-pocket expenses that they have had to pay now to transfer to another school, where they can't get a scholarship. They refuse to pay those costs, when it's directly a result of their late notice of termination of the teams. ... It's just mean-spirited in my opinion."

LeForce says the alumni are staying closely connected. She's not giving up on reviving the program at some point in the future.

"I do think Tripathi is not going to be there forever," Schwippert said. "This will come around. Of the four teams that got cut, swimming has the best chance to come back because the women's team is there, in place."

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