Editorials are opinions of their authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions of SwimSwam as a company, nor other members of the staff.
On Tuesday afternoon, William & Mary administration, most forcefully athletics director Samantha Huge, had to admit that they got it wrong, when Huge resigned her position amid the fallout of her decision to cut 7 of the school’s varsity sports.
Huge’s calculation, and that of the school, was that their fortunes would be advanced if they could build the school into a recognizable brand in football and basketball.
But what they neglected, and what the alumni of the programs that were cut have said all along, is that unlike at places like Iowa, or Minnesota, or other Power 5 schools that have cut programs this fall, the football fans don’t hold the purse strings at William & Mary.
“‘Football Saturdays’ is not part of our culture,” one alum told me shortly after the swimming & diving program was cut. Alumni don’t get doe-eyed at the thought of making the leap to BCS football. They don’t even sell out their existing 12,000 seat stadium.
Meanwhile, several of the alumni of the school’s Olympic/non-revenue sports have gone on to wildly successful careers outside of sports. That’s what William & Mary alumni are known for. 3 United States presidents earned degrees from William & Mary. 13 members of the U.S. Cabinet have degrees from William & Mary. Ambassadors, directors of major national organizations like the National Park Service or the FBI, founding fathers, CEOs, and the co-founder of Hulu attended William & Mary.
They’ve had a handful of players go on to play in the NBA or NFL or Major League Baseball, but even in sports they’re better known for the coaches they produce than the athletes, including Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, the United States’ most successful women’s soccer coach ever Jill Ellis, and the head coach of the last 3 NCAA Division I women’s swimming & diving champion Stanford Cardinal Greg Meehan.
Perhaps the school’s most famous athletics alumni was a member of the men’s soccer team. Jon Stewart, the former host of the Daily Show on Comedy Central that reframed the way Americans approach politics, has won 22 Primetime Emmy Awards, which is more than any other individual male in history.
The point is, that it’s not clear that the alumni ever asked for a championship-winning football team. As evidenced by the substantial endowment that covered almost all of the costs of the swimming program, they were happy with their success in Olympic sports.
Even the response to the protests by alumni were disingenuous, with the school painting a worst-case “fully funding” financial endowment picture for programs like swimming that were already doing well without that level of money.
But the hubris of the administration, including Huge, who has quickly climbed the ladder of college athletics, burned too brightly here.
She believed that her future as a Power 5 athletics director rested on building a football and basketball program, rather than the fact that your college’s swim team was winning conference titles and producing All-Americans without athletic scholarships swimming in an unspectacular pool by Division I standards.
And maybe it does. But maybe it shouldn’t. Especially in the modern era of college athletics as budgets across the country disintegrate, there is more skill in an athletics director who does more with less, and produces winners in a variety of sports. That shows true expertise in one’s craft more than throwing huge sums of money at football and basketball programs and hoping you hit gold.
She’s not the first AD that has fallen apart chasing this glory. And she probably won’t be the last. The most infamous example is former Boise State athletics director Gene Bleymaier, who oversaw the building of the Boise State football program into one of the most famous success stories of the modern era, was eventually fired after an NCAA investigation revealed 22 rules violations.
But others, of course, have had success, and have made that jump, and so they will continue to try.
There may not be a universal message here, and nothing that will necessarily help Iowa or UConn save their swimming & diving programs. But the alumni have made it clear: William & Mary isn’t a stepping stone for an athletics director hellbent on proving a point about football and basketball. If you take the job at William & Mary, you better understand that the alumni have their own idea of culture, and if you want their money and their support, you better make sure that you listen to their ideas, too.