Athletic Revival

After a two decade absence from intercollegiate competition, Roosevelt U. decides to restore sports programs despite tough economic times. Officials believe the benefits outweigh the risks.
May 15, 2009

Underperforming college athletics teams have been dropping like flies in recent months, and even a few football programs are finding their days numbered. What better time, officials at Roosevelt University think, to restore an entire intercollegiate athletics program that has been defunct for nearly 20 years.

Roosevelt, a private university located in downtown Chicago’s South Loop, has slowly changed over the past decade from a largely commuter to a more residential institution. Increases in undergraduate enrollment have also transformed its formerly adult student population into one consisting of more traditional-aged students. In the past six years alone, though the university’s headcount grew by only about 200 students -- to nearly 7,700 -- its full-time enrollment ballooned by almost a third, to almost 5,100.

Charles R. Middleton, president of Roosevelt, said this dynamic change in makeup fueled calls from students for the revival of athletics. Residential improvements and the promotion of other extracurricular activities aside, countless students told Middleton and other administrators that intercollegiate athletics were one of the few features that the institution lacked on its way to becoming what many students called a “real university.”

“When I first heard this from students, I thought, ‘intercollegiate athletics,’ every president’s worst nightmare,” quipped Middleton, eventually adding that he did not hear as much criticism from faculty and staff as he had expected when he shopped the idea around.

The numbers from a major student survey, at least, spoke for themselves. Nearly 79 percent of those surveyed last spring wanted Roosevelt to bring back its intercollegiate athletics program. A third described having such a program as “extremely important” to the university. Additionally, around three-fourths of the students responded that it would “enhance spirit and pride,” “improve campus life” and “promote Roosevelt in the community.”

Ultimately, Middleton submitted a formal proposal to Roosevelt faculty, who approved the move to bring back athletics.

What Legacy?

In the two decades since Roosevelt’s final three teams competed at the intercollegiate level -- men’s basketball, golf and soccer -- so many new faculty members and administrators have passed through the university that its institutional memory has all but forgotten the existence of sports on campus.

“An old colleague of mine sent me a DVD copy of a scratchy video tape of our basketball team’s last game in 1989,” said Lynn V. Weiner, dean of Roosevelt’s College of Arts and Sciences. “The hapless Lakers, as they were known, weren’t the most fabulous team ever. Hardly anyone remembers.”

Middleton, Weiner and other administrators at Roosevelt are convinced that reviving their athletics program will boost the institution’s already burgeoning enrollment and reconnect a wide swath of its alumni to the university. In fact, Ira Berkow, Pulitzer Prize-winning sports writer for The New York Times and former Roosevelt basketball star, has already been tapped to head the athletics program’s booster club. (Berkow attended Roosevelt for two years before graduating from Miami University, in Ohio.) Middleton said this network of donors, in addition to a large commitment of funds from the institution, should help the program get off the ground.

But, lest anyone think that starting an intercollegiate athletics program from scratch is as simple as that, Roosevelt officials acknowledge the great risk they are taking, and admit they have a lot of work yet to do.

“I heard more complaints early on in the discussion,” Weiner said. “How do you pay for it? What if it doesn’t take off? Those were some of the real concerns. Still, if I worried about everything, I wouldn’t do anything new. We did this very mindfully, knowing that we’re launching a program at a time that a number of schools are dropping sports. But, I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to keep on responding to meet the changing needs of our students. It’s a leap into the dark, but a fair one at that.”

Taking the Non-Scholarship Approach

Roosevelt plans to introduce 12 varsity sports -- of which football is decidedly not one -- over the next five years, with an even split of opportunities for men and women. The first teams should be ready for intercollegiate competition by the fall of 2010, when the university will rejoin the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, a lesser-known group of sports-playing colleges of which Roosevelt used to be a member. After five years, the institution plans to lobby for entry into Division III of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, known for its non-scholarship model, which differentiates it from Divisions I and II.

Contrary to popular perception, a recent Division III report notes that non-scholarship athletics programs tend to cost more to run than even partial-scholarship programs. Though most athletics programs in the NCAA operate with a net deficit of funds, some Division III programs have operational deficits greater than many Division II programs. Although h is aware of this, Middleton said the decision to continue as a non-scholarship program was a no-brainer, as he did not want “all that goes with” offering scholarships.

Some faculty members who have championed the idea of reviving the program applaud the idea of keeping the teams non-scholarship. Daniel L. White, education professor at Roosevelt and former college basketball player at State University of New York at Oneonta, said he cherished his Division III experience and believed it instilled in him many positive values.

“Without a doubt, it’ll teach the ethics of hard work, the ethics of doing something because you believe in the pursuit of excellence, and the ethics of community,” White said. “I would point to any of those things when trying to convince someone that this is all worthwhile.”

A Major Financial Commitment

Michael J. Cassidy, new director of intercollegiate athletics at Roosevelt and currently a staff of one, would not offer any of the detailed financial plans he has developed for the revival of the program. He did, however, offer some glimpses of the financial commitment the university would make in the process.

The average Division III athletics program without a football team has an operational budget of around $700,000 -- mostly to pay coaches and other support staff. Cassidy said he has made this his benchmark in future planning. By the time Roosevelt will begin the formal application process for Division III, in five years, he said he expects the university to have spent about $4.5 million, aside from the cost of facilities. As Cassidy expects the university to enroll around 200 more students to fill its teams’ rosters, he believes these extra tuition dollars will help bankroll most of the program’s operational budget.

Facilities, however, are a different story. For the time being, Cassidy said Roosevelt will have to lease nearby indoor and outdoor spaces for its teams to play and practice. Currently, he noted that the university is working with the city of Chicago to get permission to use playing fields in Grant Park. As leasing space is neither a cheap nor sustainable solution, Cassidy said the university is pushing to build a $5 million field house to host playing and practice facilities. Unlike the operational budget, he said the field house will have to be built largely with dollars from private donors.

“Building this is really the linchpin to being successful,” Cassidy said. “Getting a home where we can train and compete will be a huge recruiting bonus for us, instead of having a nomadic lifestyle.”

As travel has become more expensive for sports teams – with rising fuel costs and newly adopted baggage charges – Cassidy said conference affiliation will also be an issue to approach seriously when Roosevelt joins Division III. Though Middleton said he would love to be a member of the prestigious University Athletic Association – a far-flung group of private colleges, including the University of Chicago and Emory University -- Cassidy argued it would be more economical to join a more regional conference like the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin.

Despite the many obstacles ahead, Cassidy remains optimistic. Moving from an athletics post at the University of Illinois at Chicago, he said he could not pass up the opportunity to start a program from the ground up.

“Am I worried about meeting budgets?” Cassidy asked. “Yes. But, my main focus is going to be on the experience. If it’s all about money, then we’re not going into this for the right reason. I didn’t think this opportunity would ever be possible and I wouldn’t change a thing.”


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