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The Unkindest Cut

Stanford has always been a little different.

Different because, at Stanford, the term “student-athlete” wasn’t an NCAA promotional slogan, but a fact of life.

Different because Stanford athletes had to meet the same entrance requirements and fill out the same admissions applications as other students.

Different because Stanford sponsored 36 men’s and women’s sports, and gave all of them the resources needed to win championships.

Different because Stanford always put academics, tradition, diversity, integrity and opportunity above ringing the cash register.

But things have been changing at Stanford, and not for the better. In recent years, although the academic standards have been upheld, Stanford has fallen prey to the same excesses and the same insanity that has changed college sports into big business.

Coaching salaries have escalated into the stratosphere. Stanford has gotten caught up in the facilities arms race. And the athletic administration has grown like some out-of-control amoeba.

With ticket sales declining and empty seats becoming the norm at Stanford Stadium and Maples Pavilion, deficits mounted.

So something had to give.

Yesterday the University announced it was cutting 11 sports at the conclusion of the 2020-21 season: men’s volleyball, wrestling, field hockey, men’s and women’s fencing, men’s rowing, lightweight rowing, co-ed and women’s sailing, squash, and synchronized swimming.

The Stanford press release and the letters sent to donors and community members blamed these cuts on “structural deficits” exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. COVID may have played a part, to be sure, but those structural deficits weren’t caused by the 11 sports that were cut.

Blaming an athletic department’s deficits on the squash, rowing and synchronized swimming teams is a little like blaming an alcoholic’s addiction on the bar snacks.

No, the real culprit was the excessive spending on football, basketball and administration.

A little history might help. Back in the 1970s and 80s, when I was Sports Information Director (SID) and Associate Athletic Director at Stanford, we did quite well with coaching and administrative staffs that were among the smallest in the country.

Our SID office had three people—my incredible associate, Nancy Peterson, a secretary, and me. We aggressively and effectively publicized over 30 sports and also handled marketing for the department.

Later, I brought on the inimitable Bob Rose and moved up to Associate AD. At that point we had 5 people in the administration—Athletic Director Andy Geiger, three associate ADs (Doug Single, Alan Cummings and me) and one Assistant AD (Jim Gaughran).

Take a wild guess on how many administrators there are in the athletic department’s current staff directory.

37. Yes, 37. That’s not a misprint.

The breakdown: 1 athletic director, 2 deputy athletic directors, 4 executive associate athletic directors, 2 senior associate athletic directors, 7 associate athletic directors, and 21 assistant athletic directors. The SID office now has 11 people, and there are another 6 in marketing.

The 11 sports that were eliminated (with an annual budget of $8M) might’ve been saved with some judicious cuts in football and administration, plus a little help from Stanford’s $27 billion endowment, which is not fully restricted.

When John Ralston and Bill Walsh were Stanford’s head football coaches, they managed to win conference and bowl championships with seven assistant coaches and a grad assistant or two. Those assistants also handled recruiting and one of the three associate athletic directors handled football operations.

David Shaw’s staff currently includes 10 assistants, plus five quality control analysts, three grad assistants, two operations officials and four recruiters. (To be fair, there are some schools, like Alabama and Clemson, which have twice that number).

Back in the mid-1970s when Joe Ruetz was the Athletic Director and Title IX had been passed, Joe called the entire Athletic Department together and announced that Stanford not only would fully comply with the requirements of Title IX (when other schools were trying to find ways around it), but also that Stanford was going to build the best women’s athletic program in the country.

So I became the only SID in America who regularly sent out press releases on field hockey and fencing.

The next AD, Andy Geiger, was just as committed, hiring a number of NCAA championship coaches in what were then known as “minor sports” and now are called “Olympic sports.”

Until yesterday, the University honored that tradition and that commitment. Indeed, it has won the Directors’ Cup for the best overall athletic program in the country 25 straight years.

Much of that excellence, and much of that championship legacy, was fueled by the sports cut yesterday. Indeed, the press release noted that the 11 eliminated programs had been responsible for 20 national championships and 27 Olympic medals, along with a raft of academic and professional achievements.

No matter. They were all sacrificed to the gods of football, basketball and assistant athletic directors.

Gary Cavalli - Bowl and League co-founder, author, speaker 

Gary Cavalli, the former Sports Information Director and Associate Athletic Director at Stanford University, was co-founder and executive director of the college football bowl game played in the Bay Area, and previously was co-founder and President of the American Basketball League.

Get in touch//@cavalli49//

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