By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
On the eve of the NCAA Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships, the swimming community turns its attention towards collegiate swimming. Monday, I wrote about the perilous state some NCAA swimming programs have recently experienced. Cut teams. Decreased funding. Teams disbanded. In the past twenty years, more than a few men’s swimming and diving teams have experienced an athletic director’s swift guillotine. UCLA. Washington. Maryland. Rutgers. The list goes on.
And then, as if by serendipity, one school declared yesterday a change in a different direction. The University of Cincinnati – sprint star Josh Schneider’s alma mater -- announced that it was reinstating scholarships for 19 of its Olympic sports, including men’s swimming and diving.
“When I look at the number of swimming programs who have lost funding in the last 20 or 30 years, the list is massive,” says Cincinnati coach Monty Hopkins in this video. “Now we’re able to have an impact not just for the University of Cincinnati swim team but an impact nationally, which is going to send a signal out that you can protect, preserve, and expand.”
The move is not just a win for Cincinnati, but a clear and decisive message to all collegiate programs considering or who have already eliminated men’s swimming: You can bring it back.
In 2009, Cincinnati made that devastating announcement many student-athletes and coaches know too well: They were cutting men’s swimming and diving. That was four years ago. Since then, the men’s team has continued on without scholarships. Now, instead of cutting budgets, the school is increasing funding with the aid of alumni fundraising efforts and awareness campaigns. The lesson? Just because a program is cut does not mean it will be forever cut. And just because a team has lost scholarships does not mean they will be forever lost.
“While I’m pleased for all of our sports -- in particular swimming and diving and track and field -- just the chance to bring that back gives me a sense of pride,” said Cincinnati’s athletic director Whit Babcock. “This is going to benefit a lot more than two or three sports. It’ll benefit most of the 19 we have.”
According to Cincinnati’s press release, the funding will be partially achieved by starting what they label a “110%” campaign. The school is asking veteran donors to increase their donations by 10% as well as asking first-time donors to give $110. Of particular note, Cincinnati’s head football coach Tommy Tuberville is giving $300,000 over the next five years to help jump-start the scholarship fund.
"I'm making this commitment because it's the right thing to do," Tuberville said in the release. "These student-athletes compete as hard as all of us.”
What can be learned from this? A few things:
1.) Never give up. Bringing back a swimming program is not easy. But it can be done. Arizona State did it. Cincinnati is doing it. With the right people, the right support, and the right fundraising campaigns, teams can be instated and funded again.
2.) Be vocal. Cincinnati created a video along with a press release to make their announcement. It’s a bold declaration to the rest of collegiate athletic departments that says, “Look what we are doing. We are supporting our Olympic sports because this is important. This is what you should be doing as well.” There is nothing wrong with being vocal about supporting Olympic sports like swimming. Positive attention and news must be supported, spread, emailed, talked about, and shared. Kudos to the University of Cincinnati for producing a smart unveiling of an especially great announcement. Other colleges, take note.
"We've been `fully funded' in football, men's basketball, women's basketball, and some other sports for a number of years,” said Babcock in the release. “But today is a big step in the right direction to afford all of our sports and student-athletes that same opportunity.”
3.) We are all in this together. Part of the reason USA Swimming supports NCAA Swimming is because the two are interconnected. We are all one swimming community. A healthy NCAA swimming culture means a healthy USA Swimming culture. When I was an age group swimmer, one thing that helped me survive difficult morning practices and 800 freestyle relays was the thought that one day I would compete in college.
As the swimming community shifts focus this week to collegiate swimming, we celebrate yesterday’s positive news that one university is re-dedicating itself towards the funding of swimming. Not all is doom and gloom. Cincinnati is attempting to prove that tables can turn, tides can change, and collegiate swim teams not only can be saved, but thrive.
Mike Gustafson is a freelance writer for USA Swimming and Splash Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @MikeLGustafson.