Opinion: William & Mary Leadership Miscalculated What Mattered

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.

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8 months ago

Awesome article. Thank you for inspiring hope in non revenue sports.

olde coach
Reply to  Anonymous
8 months ago

Spot on Braden

8 months ago

Was the all-in cost of running the swim and dive programs released? What is the cost per student-athlete?

Reply to  NICK
8 months ago

Yes. It was incredibly cheap b/c there’s only 1/2 a scholarship for the combined program (set to expire after this year) and b/c the swim team *already* has a $3 million endowment. It was something like $180K out-of-pocket to WM to run the combined swim program for a season. I believe the admin created a bogus cost figure that would include full scholarships for both teams and a new aquatics facility. But the team is excelling without those expenses.

Ohio swim observer
Reply to  swimgeek
8 months ago

Don’t forget that the athletic department was going to capture some of the swim endowment if they cut the program – ironically, if the endowment is not set up specifically, there is a financial incentive for the AD to cut the program because they can move some of the endowment to the general fund.

Tribe Parent
Reply to  Ohio swim observer
8 months ago

This is a very good point. I believe one of the miscalculations the W&M administration made relates to the hesitation future donors may have to contribute to endowments. What is becoming very public is that even if you donate to an endowment with very clear intent to support a specific program, the school can still legally repurpose proceeds from that endowment unless terms are very clearly spelled out in the event of discontinuation of said program. I don’t believe that W&M will do anything illegal, but in a recent meeting with donors, in response to a question about endowments for the cut sports, a W&M administrator said “when we give money away we no longer get to pull the strings… Read more »

Ol’ Longhorn
Reply to  Braden Keith
8 months ago

Especially those who funded $85 million in facilities improvements for football and basketball in the last 4 years. I seriously doubt that the pledges for the basketball arena will come through. Those endowments for swimming were a pittance compared to the pledges for basketball expansion, with a men’s coach and donors that Huge, a former college basketball player, hired and cultivated. It cuts both ways, but you never want to scare off the big donors. And they just did.

Reply to  Ol’ Longhorn
8 months ago

Uh ‘Ol Longhorn you know not of what you speak. Sure as I’m sitting here, those donation are forthcoming. These alums are dedicated and loyal.

Reply to  Tribe Parent
8 months ago

Donors should pledge money for many years instead of endorsing anything.

Reply to  Ecoach
8 months ago

Endowing not endorsing. Spell check !$#

Reply to  Ecoach
8 months ago

That’s a fair point – but a nightmare from a “collections” standpoint. Much easier to accept $5k today rather than chase the donor for $500 a year for 10 yrs. Also, the $5k is “worth” more today. The whole point of an endowment is that once it’s established, the interest/growth generated makes it -self-sustaining.

Reply to  Swimgeek
8 months ago

Agreed. I worked in non-profit and education for all my career. If the endowment was set up with what would happen if the endowment was no longer needed it would go to the school (who would ever thing the school would steal the endowment) that’s where it would go. If the endowment was set up to go someplace else- say back to the American Legion (go look at the Green Bay Packers, that is the only reason they are not owned by one person, the Legion backed them and if the Packers were sold the money would go to the Legion) or back to the donor (with interest) I bet the swim team wouldn’t have been cut.

New Tribe parent
Reply to  Ohio swim observer
8 months ago

That’s exactly what they were counting on, as many of these 7 programs cut had endowments that paid for a good chunk of their programs. What I read was that the endowments could be rolled into the general athletic find, and would get used to prop up the football team (which loses money every year).

Reply to  swimgeek
8 months ago

That is absolutely absurd. It’s a great article. They touched on the things the alums have gone on to do. I would also have mentioned that serious swimmers are often great students as well.

Timothy Raines
8 months ago

Great Article

About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder of SwimSwam.com. He first got his feet wet by building The Swimmers' Circle beginning in January 2010, and now comes to SwimSwam to use that experience and help build a new leader in the sport of swimming. Aside from his life on the InterWet, …

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