Having recorded three top-10 times in school history last season as a University of Iowa freshman swimmer, Ryan Purdy was prepared to captain the team as a sophomore. Then, suddenly, there was no team. One of four sports cut in August by the university, citing coronavirus-related revenue losses, Iowa swimming and diving is drowning. But it may have a lifeline in Matt Purdy, Ryan's father and a former offensive lineman who captained the Iowa football team in the 1990s under legendary coach Hayden Fry. The elder Purdy has emerged as the voice of Save Hawkeye Sports, an effort to not only spare his son's program, but men's tennis, men's gymnastics and women's swim/dive, too. Public response through September had encouraged Purdy and other parents and alumni to propose a new funding model to help ensure the sustainability of non-revenue collegiate sports nationwide. AB senior editor Paul Steinbach asked Matt, the head varsity football coach and assistant AD at Glenbrook North High School in Northbrook, Ill., to assess the state of athletics at his alma mater.
Does Ryan's freshman success make this all the harder to deal with?
What built upon it even more was the way he approached COVID here after they sent him home. He was fortunate enough to find somebody who had a connection to an outdoor, 25-yard, three-lane pool that was heated, so he was out swimming in the snow. He was out pushing his car. He went true "Rocky IV." We had TRX straps in the garage. We bought heaters. We bought lights. We did everything possible. Then he gets elected captain. He called us in a very prideful moment and said they had bumped up his scholarship. This was only a couple weeks before the cut happened, so we were very, very excited because he had trained so hard and was kind of breaking the surface of greatness. He has great goals. This past year, he was just off the Olympic trial cut coming out of the season. He was a 10th of a second off the 200 back and two 10ths off the 100 back, so looking at it, he would have been at the Olympic trials this past summer, and still obviously has that aspiration going forward. But there were a lot of great things that came out of last year as an Iowa swimmer.
What led Ryan to follow your path to Iowa City?
He had a number of other schools interested in him. He was kind of like me — it was weird. He was back and forth with looking at other places and wasn't sure about Iowa initially. And he got his Junior Day invite, and we went and he really liked it. When he went on his official visit, I wasn't even able to go, which was great. He just loved it. He loved the team. He loved the coaching staff and training staff. The same thing kind of happened to me on my visit. You get that feel. It's the right fit. He came back and was like, "It's done. I'm going to Iowa." I never pushed that on him. I was happy that he went on his visit with my wife, which allowed him to really see it for what he could do for that university and the impact that he could have on that campus.
It sounds like he made his choice for all the right reasons — his reasons.
Yes, he did — 100 percent. In swimming you're not going to get a full ride. There's not really a pro career out there. You're talking about a small percentage of swimmers who actually get to the Olympics. Obviously, he has those goals, but he knows how hard it is. You have to be top-two in the country to get there. Certainly, that sits in front of him. But he went there because he loved the school side of it. He loved the experience. His exact quote was, "This is home." Last year, right about this time, he said, "I may never leave this place." I'm a firm believer that if we find a way to get this fixed and things evolve in the right way, he'll probably work for the university. He wants to be a physiologist, a kinesiology major. He loves training people. I could see him ending up there training Olympic sport athletes, because he's so good at it. He has friends seeking him out to write workouts, at 19 years old. Those things just kind of roll into the bigger impact this decision has had on him.
That said, what are his options moving forward?
He's in the transfer portal. Almost instantly, probably within an hour, five or six smaller schools were very interested in him, and the next day the Power 5 started rolling in. He's received numerous offers from other schools. In the event this doesn't work, he has accepted an offer at another school. We haven't put it out there in public yet, but he has an outstanding opportunity at another top-20 university in the country that excels at a very high level in swimming. And the percentage of scholarship is actually bigger than what Iowa is currently providing him.
Iowa has given him little choice.
The University of Iowa talks about how they're going to honor their scholarships, which is great, but it's really a paper honoring, because, as I said, my son has these deep aspirations of being a conference champion, a national champion, getting into the trials, and by the grace of God getting onto the Olympic team. Yes, the academics are huge for him, but he wants to compete. If we can't solve this then he wants to compete and he wants to get his degree, and Iowa can't offer both of those things.
You speak as though you're not close to giving up on Iowa.
We are in an absolute full-court press. In six days, our group has raised $2.5 million. I don't know the number of people who have donated, but there is an unbelievable amount of just $20 pledges, which are adding up. And we've had some very major donors come onboard. In one day, we had a $500,000 donation and a $100,000 donation. A Title IX lawsuit was filed that same day that is raising some eyebrows. And I'm part of this group of about 20 people that's made up of a lot of alumni at the university. I'm one of two current parents, and there are some major business owners, some coaches who are working to develop a model of sustainability for Olympic and non-revenue sports, and we're looking into options that separate these teams from the football budget. We think we have a model that's ready in its foundation to be presented to the administration. But the hard thing is we can't have them fighting against us. We want to solve. We want to be the voice of change for the entire country. Oddly enough, I received a phone call from a representative of the University of Minnesota group that is dealing with their cuts. And he and I talked about a joint effort. They have a concept. This is not just an Iowa problem. This is a Minnesota problem, a William & Mary problem, a Stanford problem. These people are trying to find a way to save these opportunities for Olympic sports. It's a huge impact that's sitting out there and perplexing people. People don't understand why universities are taking away opportunities from these athletes who chose those schools. There's a parent of a current high school senior who had committed to Iowa who has threatened a class-action lawsuit about the harm that these cuts have made upon the university. But the ultimate goal for us is to get the University of Iowa to reinstate these sports, to accept the funds — $2.5 million in less than a week — and work with other universities to make funding of Olympic and non-revenue sports sustainable. Obviously, I have that pinhole view as the father of a swimmer, but we have this global perspective as this group at Iowa. We're pushing to save all four of the sports — men's and women's swimming, men's gymnastics and men's tennis. That's the ultimate goal, to do that. One of the people who I'm working with is big in the business school at the University of Iowa, and one of his ultimate goals is to take this foundational model that we're putting together and put it in the hands of some of the best and brightest business school kids at the University of Iowa and let them continue to build, and let Iowa grow this and say, "Hey, here's what we've done." And now we've taken these Olympic and non-revenue sports out of the realm of the effects of football, the effects of COVID, and make them sustainable now and forever.
What would a national model for the funding of non-revenue sports look like?
One of the things we're looking at doing is branching out the swimming team and the tennis team into the rec services side of things, which would allow for some different funding approaches, allow for the naming of the Iowa pool to directly benefit the swimmers. And that's one of the things we're looking into — the rec services side of it. Being an NCAA sport, but housed under rec services, pulling that money off, allowing for some different funding approaches, some better direct donor and sponsorship things that would certainly build upon that. The people I was talking to at Minnesota have a very similar concept in their head. Really, it's pulling it away from the umbrella of the athletic department. You still have to be there, but it's pulling it away and allowing it to be more self-sufficient.
NCAA rules would allow that?
That's some stuff we're in the process of digging into more right now. There has to be some evolution of the NCAA to allow that, but we're hoping during this process that they will see the damage that has taken place and allow this to build and grow.
Is there a magic number in mind for Iowa, an offer that athletic director Gary Barta can't refuse?
He keeps throwing out this ridiculous number of $80 million to $100 million — basically us raising $10 million and getting that set up. As someone said in our group, how quickly can he go out and raise $10 million? That is a daunting number to anybody. For him to say it's going to take $100 million to maintain these sports is difficult. Our initial goal was a couple million dollars, and now we continue to climb, but we want to make him an offer he can't refuse and show the passion that these alumni and supporters have for Iowa athletics.
Have you held parent events in Iowa City?
Not since Aug. 29. The sports were cut on Aug. 21. There was a bunch of us parents talking about going to just give our kids a big hug and protect them. As parents, we were deeply concerned about their mental state. I called my son and said, "Hey, Ryan, do me a favor. Please don't grab a bottle of bourbon and drink yourself stupid." That's scary, and unfortunately that's the typical college male response. "Aw, I'll just go drink it all away." He promised us. Then three or four of us parents started talking — we have a group of parents that we've gotten super, super close with — and I'm like, "Let's all meet in Iowa City." That spun out to "Let's have a press conference." I started to reach out to my press connections from my era there, and it turned into a parent meeting. We probably had about 30 to 35 parents there. We also had a Zoom meeting at that same time which we broadcast live. I know we had close to 100 people on that. We were supposed to have more parents there, but unfortunately that was the weekend Iowa City blew up with COVID. We were supposed to have met inside a building, and then we diverted — at 11 o'clock, we needed to go outside just out of interest of everybody's safety. I was very happy. We had four or five news stations there, probably another half-dozen writers from different publications. We just went through the process and that process continues to grow. It has spun out into fundraising, it has spun out into reaching out to legislators — finding the best approach we can to solve this issue.
Is it fair to say that you have emerged as the face and voice of the movement?
As I've told everybody that I've spoken with, if I had a quarter of a second of fame left in Iowa City, I was willing to dump it onto this case. And I think I have a face for radio, but I've been more than happy to have represented ourselves and use my past experience as a Hawkeye football player to champion this cause. And if it's me talking to writers and different news stations, I've been excited about that. I was very happy when I got a call from Sports Illustrated. I want to put It out there. I want people to see what's going on. I want them to see the damage that's been caused to these student-athletes — past, present and future. The alumni you talk to are just astonished. Iowa swimming has been around for 103 years — birthplace of the butterfly — and has a pool that is arguably one of the best in the world, and we're going to cut that sport? And then you had the president of the university, who comes out at the board of regents and has the gall to say that, ironically, it will be even more community opportunity, because the swim team occupies so much of the pool time. So, his approach as the president of the university is to say that the swimmers are too much of an impedance to the community swimming at an Olympic pool. My son practices as 6 o'clock in the morning until about 8. Not a lot of people getting up at 6 o'clock in the morning to go swim. And then the other practice is from 2 to 4. How are they making money on that? This summer, my son was there and he's training, because they had to sign up for times. He's like, "Dad, I'm training for an NCAA-caliber event and I'm swimming next to a lady" — a very pleasant lady, but she was like 75 years old. He was kicking hard, and she was like, "You're getting my hair wet." What is the point of what they're doing there?
What is it about swimming that makes it a target for budget cuts? Where are the cost savings if the pool is going to remain open?
This goes to sleight-of-hand budgeting, in my opinion. They talk about the $5 million they're going to save from cutting swimming. They're still maintaining these scholarships, so if my son were to stay and redshirt, he still has four more years left on that campus. They're still paying coaching salaries. The athletic program pays for part of that pool time to the rec services department. So, basically, the university is going to take it out of the athletic department and charge it back to the rec services department. It's a paper transfer. I was talking to one major college athletic administrator recently, and I was reviewing the savings with him. He goes, "Unfortunately, this is an eraser mistake on a budget plan." The operating budget for men's and women's swimming is between $500,000 and $600,000 per year. It's such a tiny amount, and the fact that they keep saying, "We're saving $5 million." Well, they're not saving any of that money this year, because the program is still operating. They're going to take out a loan. If, God willing, things are back to normal next year, they still have a loan. But, by the same token, the bond rate that they would get is so low, someone classified it to me as free money. The debt service would be so low on the original $100 million loan, it was like $250,000 a year in debt service. None of it adds up. And they talk about how it's saving from support staff. Well, I found out that my son still has opportunities, if he were to stay, to go to the academic center and get a counselor through the athletic department. So, what are they really saving? One thing we keep asking for is to show us the transparency. I've asked the athletic director numerous times to show me the rubric. Basically, right now, Iowa has 24 sports, including swimming and the ones that are cut. If you peel off the four common revenue sports, there are still 20 other teams that were potentially on the chopping block. Where is that data? I'm a firm believer that that data should be released to the public. Show the rank order of the 20 non-revenue sports. What separated swimming from rowing? What separated men's tennis from baseball? Was swimming 16, 17 on that list? Where was it? To be honest, if I'm a baseball player at Iowa, I might be a little bit worried. A baseball coach at an opposing school is out there telling recruits, "You don't want to go to Iowa. Look at what they just did. They just cut four sports. Iowa might cut baseball, too." That's a common recruiting ploy. And here's something for you, the University of Iowa in the last nine years has shown a 90 percent revenue increase in the athletic department but spent 105 percent.
On buildings and everything else. It goes to the arms race. If you think about LSU, which has the football nap pods at $25,000 each, and then you have Clemson with the slide from the second floor to the first floor. Everybody just keeps adding and adding and adding, and it adds up. And it's gluttonous. And if Iowa football doesn't have this, it's being recruited against them at another place. And it keeps building. I think there are a lot of things that have gone on there that certainly could have been cleaner. What bothers me the most about this process is we found out from sworn affidavits of the Iowa board of regents that on July 31, the president of the university was presenting to the board of regents a plan to cut four then-unnamed sports. Then on Aug. 3, they had a similar conversation. If you recall, on Aug. 5, the Big Ten came out with its 10-game football schedule. And then on the 11th, they cut the Big Ten season. On the 21st of August, they announced to the kids that their sports have been cut. On the 24th, the AD comes out in his press conference and says these cuts were 100 percent based on COVID and the cancelling of football. He said, "If football would not have been cut, these sports would not have been eliminated." I emailed him, somewhat harshly, "You said it's 100 percent based on football being canceled, but football's back. I understand that the entire revenue is not there, but football is back. Go on your word." Those are the things we keep finding. It's the president saying that the swimmers are taking up too much time. And one of the things I've been most appalled by is the fact that I reached out to the president via email asking for an in-person meeting. I said, "President Harreld, I live three hours away. I'll get in the car any time and drive to Iowa City just to make an acquaintance with you, to put my face in front of you, to put a face on the program. I'll bring my son." And I sent him a letter that I had written to somebody else. I sent him an interview that my son and I did on a local Iowa news station. In addition, I was fortunate enough to carry Hayden Fry off the field after his 200th win. After he died last year, I had a news station come here to Chicago to do an amazing story on it. To give him my best face, I sent all that stuff to him. Ten minutes later, I get an email back from him, saying, "I appreciate your passion, but unfortunately these sports had to be cut to pay off the interest on a loan." So, as a parent, the thought that immediately came into my head was, "Wait a second. The president of the university put a price tag on my son's back and made his value that of an interest payment." I was just completely appalled. So, all these things for us — the lies by the AD, what the president said to me, the Title IX — just makes me wonder what is really taking place at the university right now, and what has gone wrong with the leadership. That just bothers me, because I know that the impact the university had on me was tremendous. Yesterday, I get a phone call from one of my closest friends who played 12 years in the NFL and now is a college coach. He called me just to say hi, and to tell me how me he supported me and how much he was embarrassed by what the university has done. That's the connection of Iowa athletics. We sat there on FaceTime, two grown adults, having a beer on FaceTime together, just laughing about the university, and he said, "Hey, I just want to tell you I love you and how much I respect what you're doing, and anything I can do for you, I will." That's the connection of just doing something outside of the regular student. That's a special thing.
You obviously have fond memories of your years at Iowa. Does this change any of that?
Yes, it does. I struggle with it. It taints it for me. It doesn't take away Hayden Fry, Bobby Elliott and Frank Verducci, who were my coaches. It doesn't take away all my friends who I played with, people I had in class who have reached out. It doesn't take away me meeting my wife in Iowa City. But it does taint the fact that if this doesn't find a way to end well, I'm really going to struggle walking back on that campus knowing the irreparable harm that it's done to my son. He really wants to stay there. I really want to watch him walk across the stage at Carver-Hawkeye, in whatever year that is, and get his degree. I could see him working there. I want to watch him coach his swim team and watch him benefit other student-athletes and take his story to them. "Here's what I went through. They cut my sport, but we had this huge upswell of people, and we saved it. And now look. Here's this model. Here's what we've done." That is something that would certainly change my perspective. But I have a tainted view of the administration right now and their lack of transparency, their lack of willingness to have a conversation with an alum, a member of the football team, who just wants to talk. It's, "Let's throw up this wall. Let's throw up that wall. Let's just see if we can get the Matt Purdys of the world to go away." And my message to every single person I've talked to is I'm not going away. I'm going to keep fighting. I'm going to fight to the day I have to move my son out of there in May. If I have to move him out of that school, I'm going to find a way to hold a press conference. I'll find as many local news stations to cover me watching him move his stuff out. That would be my last shot at the university. "This is what you've done."
To see your son denied the type of experience you had must be difficult.
I told my son that when he walked on that campus to make an impact — not just with his swim team. Make friends. The fact that he has friends on the football team, tennis team, gymnastics, pom, cheer. It's not just a football world you're living in. And I knew I had friends who spanned everything. It's networking. That's what these kids are starting. As I've found out in the last month, the swimming network is immense, and the number of CEOs and captains of industry and doctors and lawyers who have come through that University of Iowa pool blows my mind. People have to see that it's more than just football. It needs to be an entire experience. It needs to be an experience that's best for these kids. I'm an educator, and in your first foundation of education class, they say, "Do no harm to kids." Well, the University of Iowa has done harm to these kids. Minnesota's done harm. Stanford. William & Mary. These kids picked their university for more than athletics. They pick the university to be an athlete and to be a student. There's no pro swimming team. Ryan might swim until he's 70, but he's not going to be out there making multimillion dollars as a swimmer. He's going to take his degree and use that, and potentially give back to the University of Iowa. He'll be giving it to some other university if they don't solve this.
This article originally appeared in the November|December 2020 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Iowa football alum seeks to save non-revenue sports." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.