Surviving a Shut-Down Scare

Athletic Management, 16.2, February/March 2004,

When an athletics program faces the ultimate budget cut--elimination--what is an athletic director to do? At Metropolitan State College of Denver, Joan McDermott got her facts together, educated her bosses, and told everyone in her program they were going to prevail.

"I felt like I was coaching again. I had my game face on, and I was determined we were not going to lose this battle,"says McDermott, who successfully stared down an attempt by Metro State's trustees to eliminate its NCAA Division II athletics program this past fall. "I was really focused on taking the high road because I felt that if I didn't, it would come back to haunt us."

How Metro State athletics saved itself is a case study in external and internal relations. The saga began in late October, when both of Denver's major daily newspapers reported that the idea of eliminating athletics had been broached at a trustees' retreat. McDermott found out only when reporters called her at home for a comment.

The reporters told her what they had heard at the retreat, including the budget calculations the trustees had made during their discussion. McDermott realized immediately that the numbers weren't accurate.

"I said, ‘Well, those facts aren't true,' I'm at home, and I don't have all the specifics, but can we talk again when I have my facts?'"she says. "We checked the figures and called them back the next day."

The discrepancy turned out to be a key point. The trustees had discussed an athletics budget of about $2.5 million, when in reality cutting athletics would only make about $523,000 available for institutional use. And instead of the 150 athletes trustees believed were involved, Metro State actually had 254 participating in 2002-03.

"We put together a little fact sheet and called it, 'Metro State: The Real Numbers' and got it out everywhere,"McDermott says. "It was an eye-opener."In addition to accurate budget and participation numbers, the fact sheet showed that Metro State's institutional athletics support was in line with that of Colorado's other public colleges.

TV stations picked up the story, some emphasizing Metro State's athletic successes: Men's basketball had won two NCAA Division II national titles in the past four seasons, the women's soccer team was among the best in the nation in DII, and all three fall teams were on their way to their respective conference championships and 2003 NCAA tournament play--and yet the entire program was faced with elimination. At least in the media, it appeared the tide had turned.

McDermott had worried that the possibility of using athletics money to support faculty raises would set professors in the elimination camp. Instead, after the next faculty senate meeting, the opposite was clear. "They were really upset,"McDermott says. "They said, 'Look, this is one of the most successful programs on our campus, and they want to cut it. Why would they do that?' They also felt that the board of trustees was pitting one program against another, and that wasn't fair. And the reality was, when you really considered how much athletics money the trustees would have had to redistribute, it wouldn't have made that much of a difference with salaries."

Meanwhile, McDermott took the issue to the alumni association, which began a letter-writing campaign on behalf of athletics. The student government association conducted a poll on the school's Web site, and 70 percent of respondents said they would be willing to continue paying a $23.50-per-semester activities fee to support athletics.

Trustees had cited low student attendance at athletic events. But McDermott theorizes that students value athletics even if they don't turn out at games. "Because we are a commuter campus, we don't get a lot of students at our games,"she says. "But I have had a lot of students tell me, 'You know what? I have a full-time job away from here and I'm always running. I don't have time to get to a game. But that doesn't mean I don't deserve to have an athletic program at my college.' Our students take a lot of pride in the athletic program."

McDermott also spent time talking with her coaches about the ongoing situation and keeping them upbeat throughout. Word of the possible elimination came as Metro State's volleyball and men's and women's soccer teams were going into postseason play.

"I told them we have a excellent program we should be very proud of, and that we were going to win this battle,"she says. "Some did get discouraged, but many didn't. [Head Men's Basketball Coach] Mike Dunlap really jumped on board. Every day he put in a couple of hours trying to help this cause. Others were fine for a few weeks then got discouraged."

Meanwhile, McDermott worked behind the scenes to educate trustees on what athletics does for the institution. Her talking points: "That we support academics, we contribute to the mission of the institution, we help the image of the institution from a public relations standpoint. Our program graduates students at a much higher rate than the institution overall--all those kinds of things.

"We also asked the coaches to write down how many people they touch in the community, whether it's working with kids in an inner-city school, or running camps or clinics for players and high school coaches,"McDermott continues. "We figured it was roughly 20,000 contacts. That was an angle that was really important."

Dunlap credits McDermott with maintaining her composure, even when faced with obstinacy and inaccurate views. "She wouldn't be argumentative. She would not fold her arms and pout,"Dunlap says. "She kept everyone calm."

McDermott knew combativeness toward trustees wouldn't work short-term and certainly not long-term. "I wanted them to save face and ease their way out, because they didn't realize what they were getting themselves into,"she says. "If I had gone on the offensive, I would have just made them angry. I don't think that would have worked for anybody."

In the end, the trustees agreed to a plan that reduced the athletics budget and contained a directive to recruit fewer out-of-state athletes. "They're asking us to go to a one-in-four ratio. So 75 percent of our student-athletes should be in-state, 25 percent out of state,"McDermott says. "We were already heading that way [63 percent of current student-athletes are from Colorado], and what they've asked me to do is put a five-year plan together with that goal in mind. We're looking at adding some sports, and we think we could add some sports that are very popular here in Colorado and maybe make them in-state-only sports."

The biggest thing she learned out of the experience, McDermott says, is to make and maintain connections outside athletics, both in the institution and the community. That's important, she says, because the budget problem isn't going away, even if the program benefits from increased attention now.

She also learned the importance of communicating with trustees. "It's ongoing,"McDermott says. "I think the key is to continue to educate them and build relationships with them."