University of Maryland swimmers struggle to save their program from elimination


Signs hang on the pool wall showing support for the Maryland men’s and women’s swim and dive programs that are slated to be cut. (Jonathan Newton/WASHINGTON POST)
February 2, 2012

At first, all Megan Lafferty wanted to do was lie on her bed in the dark. Like all of her teammates, she was devastated when Maryland Athletic Director Kevin Anderson informed them last November that the university planned to drop its men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams.

Instead, Lafferty threw herself into her junior season for the Terrapins with the same determination she had used to throw herself into the pool for thousands of pre-dawn workouts since she was 7 years old.

Her teammates have done the same, refusing to let the specter of their teams’ elimination interfere with their athletic goals. Meanwhile, out of the pool, a booster group spearheaded by parents has been equally vigorous in trying to raise the $11.6 million that university officials say is needed to spare the teams.

With Terrapins athletics hemorrhaging money, Maryland President Wallace D. Loh decided to cut eight of 27 varsity teams to address a deficit that’s projected to balloon from $4 million this year to more than $17 million by 2017 unless spending is dramatically curtailed. Cutting the teams will pare $5 million from the athletic department’s $57.7 million annual budget, according to university projections.

Soon after, Anderson unveiled fundraising targets that each team had to meet by June 30 to win a reprieve. In the case of men’s and women’s swimming and diving, that figure was $11.6 million — 59 percent more than the $7.3 million that Maryland’s chief athletic fundraising group, the Terrapin Club, had raised for the entire athletics department the preceding year.

While the parent-driven booster group Save Maryland Swimming and Diving has made impressive strides in the last two months — raising $1 million in pledges, identifying prospective donors capable of giving $3 million more, crafting a business plan that pares spending and generates $250,000 in new revenue — it’s nowhere near reaching the $11.5 million goal.

‘It can’t be done!’

And with less than five months to go, some are questioning whether the university’s formula for saving the teams (with each team required to raise eight years of annual operating costs, including scholarships) was developed in good faith or is merely a public-relations ruse.

“To raise eight years of operating costs in four months is ludicrous! It can’t be done!” Maryland Del. Benjamin F. Kramer (D-Montgomery) said in a recent telephone interview. As a university, “you’re going to pat yourself on the back and say that you gave everybody an opportunity. But it’s absolutely insincere.”

Anderson said eight years of operating costs is reasonable because it reflects two full recruiting cycles, giving coaches and prospective athletes confidence in the teams’ financial stability. According to Anderson, the plan to cut sports initially offered no route for teams to save themselves. He said he lobbied hard to develop the fundraising option — based on a successful campaign waged to save certain athletics programs at the University of California — as an alternative.

In a Feb. 1 letter to Loh, Kramer characterized the university’s fundraising goal as “disingenuous” and argued that a more reasonable standard would be asking teams to raise one year of operating costs by June 30.

“The heavy handed, unrealistic proposal, as it currently exists, is an embarrassment to all of us who serve the citizens of this state in our legislature,” Kramer wrote in the letter, which was co-signed by 50 fellow delegates.

According to university spokesman Brian Ullmann, Loh met with several Maryland delegates in Annapolis on Thursday and plans to continue talks on what he called a “complex and emotional issue.”

“We remain committed to working with the swimming and diving group, as well as the other affected teams,” Ullmann wrote in an e-mail. “The athletic department put a lot of thought into the Save our Sports fundraising campaign, but we are open to other options, provided they are fiscally responsible and address [the athletic department’s] persistent budget deficits.”

While Maryland’s swimmers may be among the first casualties, they may not be the last. The recommendation to cut eight teams (men’s and women’s swimming and diving; men’s tennis; men’s cross-country; men’s indoor and outdoor track; women’s water polo; and acrobatics and tumbling) — made by the President’s Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, approved by Anderson and endorsed by Loh — is predicated on the assumption that Maryland’s football and men’s basketball teams will soon become more profitable.

That in itself is a leap of faith, with football coming off a 2-10 season under first-year Coach Randy Edsall and basketball in rebuilding mode following Gary Williams’s resignation.

“Swimming is just the canary in the coal mine,” says John Tynan, a Save Maryland Swimming and Diving board member whose son, Matthew, swims for the Terrapins. “Today it’s swimming or it’s track or water polo. But you could make the argument: ‘What kind of funding does dance bring in? Or theater? Or philosophy? No one has paid attention to philosophy in 200 years, so let’s whack those!’

“If anyone thinks they’re safe from this, they’ve got their head in the sand.”

‘I still have high hopes'

There are other issues that make supporters question whether the university wants to save its swimming and diving teams, which have helped raise the academic profile of Terrapins athletics. The women’s swimming and diving team graduated 100 percent of its athletes, according to the most recent NCAA data, while the men’s squad graduated 80 percent.

Instead of being regarded as an asset, the teams have been deemed a drain on the budget.

Maryland charges its swimming and diving teams $330,000 per year to use the university’s state-of-the-art pool, an accounting arrangement virtually unheard of among NCAA Division I swim teams, insiders say.

That represents more than 20 percent of the teams’ combined annual budget of $1,544,595.

Anderson said discussions about whether the charge can be waived or reduced are ongoing with Campus Recreation Services, which levies the fee.

Nonetheless, Coach Sean Schimmel said he’s optimistic about the swim teams’ future, even though he has lost next season’s recruiting class because he is precluded from extending scholarships. “I’m hoping the university takes a good look at what we’ve done in the last 10, 12 weeks and sits back and says: ‘This is viable. Let’s step forward and work together,’ ” Schimmel said.

Maryland’s swimmers are preparing for their final home meet of the season, Saturday against Georgetown. Without a reversal, it will be the last home swim meet in Maryland history.

It will also be the last college meet for Lafferty. Although she has one year of eligibility remaining, she has decided against transferring to a school that offers swimming. She’d lose too many credits, she said, and would face two more years of school in order to swim competitively for one more season.

So the college swim career she has loved so much will likely end prematurely. “Everyone says their senior year is the pinnacle of their success,” Lafferty says, the disappointment evident in her voice.

“I still have high hopes. And I have a lot of trust in all these people that we’ll be able to save our program.”

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