“The decision to eliminate 4 sports programs today goes against everything that I believe in and was taught in intercollegiate athletics. This is not something that I take lightly. I was extremely disappointed to deliver this news today to our 68 student-athletes that are affected. It was difficult because I had to do it behind a computer screen, and I couldn’t be in the room with them. I couldn’t feel what they were feeling.”
These were the words of East Carolina Athletics Director Jon Gilbert in a press conference on Thursday where he addressed media regarding the elimination of the men’s and women’s swimming & diving programs, and the men’s and women’s tennis programs that the school announced this week.
After that opening statement, Gilbert had to take a pause to gain his composure as he appeared on the verge of tears addressing the decision.
Gilbert went on to directly address different stakeholders in the cut programs. That includes referring to head swimming coach Matt Jabs as “one of the finest people you will ever meet” and said that he leads a swimming & diving program that “routinely produces student-athletes that are among our best and brightest.”
He then issued a direct apology to the program alumni who helped build the programs.
“To the alumni of swimming & diving, and tennis, who helped build these programs to what they are today, words are not enough, but I apologize to you. This is not news that I want to be delivering to you today, however I understand our financial realities and that East Carolina is not able to support 20 athletic programs at this time.”
He also expressed empathy to former coaches of those programs, by name.
“I understand the anger and disappointment that these student-athletes and coaches are feeling and to that I say, ‘I’m sorry.’ With the pandemic and our financial situation, and understanding what financial realities can come, I knew that we could not support 20 sports programs, and I knew that decisions had to be made, and so we worked in conjunction with the institution…and how we arrived where we did.”
He apologized again, and committed to continued support of the other 16 sport programs, but said that right now, he wants the focus to be on the programs that are being cut.
Gilbert’s wife, Katie, was a former All-America swimmer at Alabama, where she swam under the name Katie Williams.
Other Budget Costs to Save the institution $4.9 million.
- Reducing sport and operating budget between 10 and 20%
- Scheduling more regional non-conference opponents to save money on travel costs
- Not filling multiple vacant positions within the department, including a ticket office position, academic advisor petition, and mental health position.
- Exploring additional opportunities for departmental savings
- Gilbert has offered to take a 20% pay cut for his salary, which would amount to around $70,000.
- The school is still looking at furloughs.
Gilbert said that the department looked at every sport aside from football and men’s and women’s basketball to consider cuts. They weighed scholarship costs, operating costs, and where the school was with regards to facilities. Gilbert said that the current state of the swimming and tennis facilities, and the cost that would need to be invested to improve those facilities, “played a large factor.”
The Minges Natatorium has an 8-lane, 25-yard competition pool and a separate 20 yard diving pool. The pool is owned by the University, and Gilbert said that they knew they needed to make a “long term financial commitment” based on its state, which included not only the pool, but also the locker rooms and coaches’ offices. The school does plan to continue to use the pool for academic purposes in the short-term, though the school’s Chancellor Ron Mitchelson did not commit to its long-term existence. The Chancellor emphasized that it was an “inadequate facility” for NCAA athletics. That is in spite of the fact that East Carolina routinely qualifies swimmers for the NCAA National Championship meet, including 2 in the 2019-2020 season.
When asked specifically about the success of the swimming & diving program, one of the school’s most successful, making the decision more difficult, Gilbert re-emphasized the aquatic center’s status, saying that they “could never get around the facilities component.”
Gilbert did say that the school plans to have students on campus in the fall and play football in the fall.
Both Gilbert and interim chancellor Ron Mitchelson said in their remarks that the school was already planning “less painful” cuts prior to the global coronavirus pandemic, but that the pandemic forced them to look at deeper savings that included cutting athletics programs. Gilbert said that the pandemic moved the decision from cutting 1-or-2 sports to 4 sports.
Prior to the outbreak, ECU says that their athletics department had a $7.5 million deficit this fiscal year, which grew to $10.2 million when the school lost money from the NCAA basketball tournament, among other sources. Gilbert said that, while these cuts were not yet enough to close the budget deficit, that no further sports would be cut, and the school would remain in FBS football (which has a 16-sport minimum).
The school’s football and men’s basketball programs were both near, or at, the bottom of the conference standings in the American Athletic Conference last season, and the department’s financial woes are generally credited to Gilbert’s predecessor Jeff Compher, who resigned in May of 2018. When Compher took over the position in 2013, the administration had a surplus of more than $3 million. By the time Compher left, the department budget had a $3 million shortfall.
Gilbert did say that the makeup of rosters, including whether the students were in-state or out-of-state or international students, did not play a part in the decision making process.
Watch the full press conference below. The first speaker is East Carolina Ron Chancellor, followed by Athletics Director Jon Gilbert.