For those who may have lost count, the public drama surrounding Towson University’s desire to disband its baseball and men’s soccer programs has stretched 199 days. (Here’s our original story about the proposal.)
Despite a temporary stay of execution for the baseball program created by lawmakers, Comptroller Peter Franchot wanted to hear from Towson University president Maravene Loeschke at the Board of Public Works Wednesday. She didn’t show up. He was quite miffed, and called for her to resign.
Now, state Sen. James Brochin has condemned Franchot’s remarks.
“The Comptroller needs to back down and allow the President to do her job,” the Baltimore County Democrat said in a statement released today. “We in the Towson community are very supportive of her."
Brochin went on to say Franchot has “no idea what is going on at the campus and the positive and incredible changes that President Loeshke has helped create.”
That two minor sports at bottom-end Division I athletics program have become the state’s latest political football provides much fodder for government critics. There’s been robust discussion on many of our stories about the issue, as well as on content posted by Patch.com and Towson's student paper, the Towerlight.
Even those most closely involved have become confounded with how much time and energy this issue has absorbed. David Nevins, a prominent and heavily involved Towson alum who headed the task force that examined the cuts, said Wednesday that it was time to move on.
“It's a shame this issue sucked so much energy out of all involved,” he said.
And yet the discussion rages.
Brochin, who has been elected three times to represent the Towson area, brings up an interesting point.
“In addition, I think there is a huge double standard going on here,” the statement reads. “When the President of the University of Maryland, Dr. Wallace Loh, gutted the school's swim program and decimated the hopes of thousands of swimmers who thought one day they could swim for the school, the Comptroller was silent. President Loh wasn't asked to explain himself to the Board. Why isn't this any different? Likewise, when Maryland moved to the Big Ten and broke open meetings laws, the Comptroller again did not say one word. I simply do not understand this double standard.”
I won't speak for Franchot, but I will hazard a guess as to why a school with a miniscule fan base for any of its sports got more flak for trying to cut two of them while the state’s most popular school hacked eight teams -- it wasn't just swimming -- without too much scuffling from the public.
With a large stadium and its fancy new luxury suites, Maryland is quite upfront about the purpose of its athletic department. A modern, cavernous basketball arena and millionaire coaches further push that message home. Fans, in general, have accepted that the very top level of college sports is big business.
Towson operates on a much different plane. Its athletic department brings in yearly revenue equivalent to what Maryland could probably earn in one November week if there happened to be home football and men’s basketball games. Most of the department is paid for by student fees ($14 million of $18 million in recent years). The football stadium is a great place to watch a game. The new arena should be quite impressive. But neither is a top-flight facility. Towson doesn’t feel big-time, and may be held, by fans, to a different standard because of it.
(Towson also built some of its reasoning for the cuts on Title IX, a prospect fraught with trouble even when a school can show a clear compliance issue. Towson bungled that part of it, badly, on several occasions. But that’s a matter – and a significant one – for a different day.)
Bob Leffler, the highly respected advertising executive (who, it should be noted, works with Towson), posited in an editorial this week that many observers fail to understand Towson’s economic situation. The athletic department has long underfunded the sports that stand to have the biggest impact, both on the school’s reputation and budget, he says.
“But looking at it from the outside as someone who is familiar with dozens of college athletics programs around the nation, it appears that university leaders ran afoul of a group of alumni, boosters and political leaders who don't grasp what it means for Towson to finally act like a real Division I school,” he writes. “The entire controversy is a creation of misunderstanding and lack of perspective and industry knowledge.”
Leffler acknowledges something that Towson never quite came out and fully admitted: that cutting the two minor sports came down, ultimately, to money. The savings don’t amount to much – not even $1 million a year – and will only serve to help close a deficit that already exists. Waddell has spent that money on adding coaches and strength trainers. He’s hired more fundraisers, as well. He’s worked to make sure athletes eat better food and have better gym equipment. The savings can help cover the cost of expanded video systems, providing the sort of technology that appeals to recruits.
It can, in short, give Towson more of a big-time feel. Waddell believes the success of the football and men’s basketball teams proves his approach is working and that Towson will capitalize on the new arena through larger crowds and better sponsorships. He sees attention on winning teams as a way to drive enrollment at Towson, and to improve the university’s image.
Some have called his vision bold. Others think he’s ambitious only for his own sake.
As we wrote back in October, this whole fight comes down to the question of whether Towson should focus on winning by spending more on amenities that today’s football and basketball coaches demand, or continue to run a broad-based athletics program offering more opportunities but fewer perks per team.
When Maryland made it clear that it would have to cut sports in order to win in high-revenue, television sports (and remain solvent), many lamented the move, but few felt it violated their understanding of that level of college sports. A move, however unsavory, to show up in bowl games and Final Fours makes sense.
Not so with Towson, where recent success in football has done little to galvanize local fans. The basketball team is much better, too, but the thought of making the NCAA tournament – let alone making a sustained run – remains fuzzy. Towson’s a good school where you can continue to play sports at a very high level.
But not the very highest level, which, to many, makes the cutthroat maneuvering feel out of place.