Snow started to fall in December as a crowd of rowers gathered in Fairmount Park between the condemned East Park Canoe House and the tents the crew and rowing teams have been housed in since 2008.
About 100 student-athletes, alumni and supporters milled around, looking at trophies and medals that the programs have compiled in their history.
They came together for a rally they hoped would help save the teams that were set to be eliminated in July 2014. Both crew and rowing were cut, along with baseball, softball, men’s gymnastics and men’s track & field.
Multiple pictures were taken at the rally, including one with all the team’s medals hanging on the fence that walls off the boathouse. The atmosphere wasn’t that different from a family reunion. However, most families aren’t fighting to save the thing that brought them together.
“It was heartbreak, and I think that’s the best way that I can explain it,” Rachel Jordan, a former Temple rower who graduated in 2007, said. “This team had been my family for so long. I still row today, and I think rowing is such a big part of Philadelphia’s tradition. It was devastating to me, not just that I might lose some of my family, but that this opportunity wouldn’t be there for future Temple students.”
“My friends from Temple rowing will be my friends until the day I die.”
“My friends from Temple rowing will be my friends until the day I die,” Jordan added.
Jordan was one of a group of alumni who had taken an active role in protesting the cuts. A “Save Temple Athletics” Facebook group was created and quickly gained thousands of members.
“There was a really big Facebook chat with 160 names on it at one point,” Scott Waters, a 2011 graduate of Temple crew, said. “Facebook has generally been a very, very valuable resource because it’s one of the few ways everyone’s interconnected. People underestimate just how many alums are actually in this area from this program. If there’s something worth knowing, everyone will know within an hour or two. It’s been very, very easy to keep track of what’s been happening because everyone is invested in what’s going on.”
Waters is now an assistant coach for the men’s crew team at Bucknell. He said he was “speechless” and in “complete shock” when he found out the news of the cuts.
“My boss, the head coach, who rowed for Roman Catholic, saw his phone and said, ‘I can’t tell you this. Look online,’” Waters said. “I saw a friend of mine on Facebook say, ‘Did you hear the news from Temple?’ I just Googled ‘Temple University’ and I saw the article saying Temple was cutting seven sports.”
“At that point, I really didn’t know what to do,” Waters added. “I still had work to do that day, even though I didn’t really want to do anything. I got out of my desk chair and sat on the couch in the office and didn’t do much of anything for the next three hours.”
At one point in the rally, crew coach Gavin White addressed the crowd, telling them the next step would be to contact state representatives to see what they can do.
“Our central leadership have been formulating their approach for what they want to do,” Waters said. “However, at the same time, I feel like the powers that be, as in the president and the AD … I don’t think they really understand what these people are like. How we are. What this community really, really is. That’s something that’s not going to go away.”
Finals were done, the semester was over, but the men’s gymnastics team still had plenty of work to do.
On a rainy Tuesday afternoon in late December, sophomore Evan Eigner, freshman Misha Kustin and senior Charles Baldi were at the gym inside McGonigle Hall working on their routines. Many of their teammates were home for break, where they worked out in their local gyms continuing to train for the start of the quickly approaching season.
“It’s 100 percent every single day,” Kustin said. “We all dedicate so much time and effort. Every day we’re trying to get better and doing everything we can.”
“It’s part of the sport,” Eigner said. “You really can’t take a break. One day you’re not in the gym, one of your competitors is in the gym getting stronger, learning a new skill, they’re getting better too. With us it’s a year round sport. It takes hard work day in and day out, every day.”
More than three weeks had passed since the athletic department announced the elimination of seven sports teams, including men’s gymnastics.
Each cut team was making efforts to save their programs, and the men’s gymnastics squad was at the forefront of those efforts. A petition was created that quickly garnered more than 12,000 signatures, as the team reached out to many students and others connected with the university.
Reaching the Board of Trustees was a different story. Thirty-eighth-year coach Fred Turoff acknowledged that the petition signatures were nice, but he would rather have the alumni and supporters behind it send letters to trustee members.
“I would like that and I encouraged my people not to let up,” Turoff said. “I want them to be sending letters in January and February as well, until we get some sort of communication from them and get a chance to plead our case.”
But the gymnasts’ efforts did little to sway the trustees.
A majority of the team, along with student-athletes from other programs, were present at a meeting of the general body of the Board of Trustees the week after the cuts. The student-athletes were not given a chance to offer public comment, though the cuts were discussed briefly by President Theobald.
The men’s gymnastics program is allotted a $60,000 operating budget, and the team says it is tasked with raising at least $29,000 of it every year. This past year, the team says it raised nearly $59,000 in donations.
The team is also given four scholarships, but Turoff has the ability to divvy them up as he sees fit. Eigner, who is Turoff’s son, receives tuition remission – not a scholarship. Still, a majority of the 19-man roster is paying for some part of their tuition.
“We’re really a positive cash flow situation for the university,” Turoff said.
The men’s gymnastics team has been one of the most successful at the university. Turoff’s squad has won four Eastern College Athletic Conference titles in the last eight years and 15 since 1990. The program has also run a youth squad for the past 11 years and hosts a Sunday clinic, which gets Philadelphia youth competing and, in some cases, even attracting them to come to Temple.
“This is something I would like the president and the board to know,” Turoff said. “That we’re not just an athletic team and we don’t cost them anything. We produce great products. We represent the school well.”
A pile of purple bats sat on a couch in Joe DiPietro’s office. There were about 20 of them, half of the amount that were donated to the softball team. Enough were given that every player got two Louisville Sluggers, which retail for $350. Temple didn’t pay anything for them.
The bats aren’t the only pieces of equipment the softball team has had donated. DiPietro said the team has received $35,000 worth of free equipment in the past year.
That number was one of the sixth-year coach’s main points in a face-to-face meeting with administrators held in January. The biggest point DiPietro made, though, was regarding the administration’s position that traveling to Ambler Campus to compete provides a bad student-athlete experience.
“My argument was ‘Well, how come no one asked me about their student-athlete experience?’ DiPietro said. “Better yet, how come no one asked the players what their student-athlete experience or dignity was?”
DiPietro said he suggested the use of SEPTA’s Regional Rail service as a way to quicken the commute to Ambler.
“Ambler seems to be a big stumbling block with the administration,” DiPietro said. “It’s not a stumbling block for the teams that have to go there, at least for us … It’s not a big deal for us.”
Baseball coach Ryan Wheeler said he has been looking into other potential playing venues. He said he would like to consider more games at Campbell’s Field in Camden, N.J., where the team had scheduled all but one conference game this season. He said he also suggested finding a field in Fairmount Park or partnering with MLB’s Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program, among other ideas.
“There are solutions,” Wheeler said. “They would take time to solve and some money, but they’re very practical and I think they’re solutions that would benefit our programs.”
Crew coach Gavin White said he stressed that his sport has more value to the university than the amount of money it brings in.
“We talked about how crew is not a bottom-line sport,” White said. “Of course, we don’t raise that money, we don’t get any income from attendance … this can’t be about bottom line. We travel all over the world, racing Russians, Germans. I think we bring ambassadorship to Temple. I have kids from Ireland. Fergal [Barry] was in there talking about Ireland. Kids from all over the world come here.”
Men’s gymnastics coach Fred Turoff said his presentation was mainly based around the academic and athletic success of the team.
“Certainly the fact that we have represented Temple honorably and quite well in both the academic and the athletic areas speaks favorably to our program,” Turoff said. “I’d certainly like to continue being here. I’ve been here for 49 years.”
“I’d certainly like to continue being here. I’ve been here for 49 years.”
Gabe Pickett, a senior jumper and team captain for the track & field team, said his program’s presentation took a different approach than the other teams. He and his coach, Eric Mobley, talked about how eliminating the team will result in lost opportunities for African-American men.
“Men’s track & field is very popular with African-American males,” Pickett said. “If you get rid of that, especially in a prominent African-American area such as North Philadelphia … you’re eliminating that group.”
Pickett said he wanted to help the administrators understand what the coaches and players were going through, rather than listing numbers and statistics.
“I talked about the opportunities that track & field have provided me,” Pickett said. “Not just competing, but education, camaraderie with my teammates. It’s opened up a lot of doors, like being vice president of [Student-Athlete Advisory Committee]. I’ve been able to give back to the community with a lot of volunteer efforts to be an influence to those around us. It’s done more than just allow us to compete.”
When 34th-year coach Gavin White first learned of the crew and rowing teams being reinstated, his initial thoughts involved the other five teams that weren’t.
“I feel bad for gymnastics, baseball, softball and track,” White said. “We’re all in this together.”
In an unprecedented move, the Board of Trustees in February approved a motion to reverse the university’s decision to eliminate the crew and rowing teams, effectively maintaining the programs’ Division I status that was slated to be reduced this summer.
At a public meeting at Sullivan Hall, the board passed a recommendation made by Theobald to reinstate the teams, two of seven programs included in the university’s December decision to cut sports.
Dozens of student-athletes and coaches from the cut sports attended the meeting, but Theobald’s recommendation did not call for reinstatement of the other eliminated sports – baseball, softball, men’s gymnastics and men’s indoor and outdoor track & field.
White said it “really stinks” that the administration only voted to save the crew and rowing programs. Rowing coach Rebecca Grzybowski called the board meeting “bittersweet.”
“We know what it’s like – what it feels like to be in that situation,” Grzybowski said.
The board’s decision came after weeks of negotiations with the city to house the crew and rowing teams on Kelly Drive in the East Park Canoe House, the Owls’ former home until the building was condemned in 2008.
In a news conference at City Hall following the board meeting, Mayor Nutter and Theobald announced an agreement where Temple can share space with the Police Marine Unit after EPCH undergoes a $5.5 million renovation during the next 12–18 months. The city is paying $2.5 million and Temple trustee H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest is donating $3 million. No university money will be used to fund the project.
“When things get cut, that’s when you find out who your true friends are,” White said.
Grzybowski said there were times since the December announcement of the cuts that she thought the program couldn’t be saved from extinction.
White said he’s ecstatic that his and Grzybowski’s programs will continue past this season, although he is unsure if he will continue coaching next year. The longtime coach said he is considering serving as an adviser next season to allow assistant coach Brian Perkins to take over the helm, because as White put it, “he bleeds Temple, too.”
Physical ailments have plagued White this year, but the announcement of the reinstatement could change his plans.
“I’m barely going to make it through this year, but I think this might give me some new energy,” White said.
Some of the rowers cried upon hearing the announcement that their team would be saved. Others kept emotions inside, as many of their fellow student-athletes still face the elimination of their respective teams.
Grzybowski and her rowers didn’t stick around too long after the board meeting, however. They had somewhere to be.
“We have practice at 4 p.m.,” Grzybowski said.
At the Board of Trustees meeting where the crew and rowing cuts were overturned, there was an opportunity for members of the public to voice their concerns directly to the board, Theobald and Athletic Director Kevin Clark.
Student-athletes from the affected sports hoped they would get a chance to state their case and perhaps sway the opinions of some board members.
However, that didn’t end up happening, as all but one present board member approved Theobald’s recommendation to reinstate crew and rowing, but still cut baseball, softball, men’s gymnastics and men’s track & field.
“I feel like they already had their mind made up and whatever we said, they weren’t going to [change their mind],” sophomore baseball player Tim McCarthy said. “They kept on going back to the four situations, with Title IX and all that. I just thought what they did, they haven’t handled this whole process correctly at all.”
The four factors for the cuts the administration has stood behind are inadequate facilities, issues with gender equity, student-athlete welfare and financial commitments.
“They knew they were going to do this the whole time. They never were going to change their minds.”
Baseball coach Ryan Wheeler said to the board that he had been told that facilities were the main reason for the cut of his team. When he asked why the offer from the Camden Riversharks allowing Temple to play home games in Campbell’s Field didn’t change the fate of the team, Theobald said the other factors played a role, eliciting groans from the crowd.
“They knew they were going to do this the whole time,” freshman baseball player Pat Vanderslice said. “They never were going to change their minds.”
“They kept bringing up the same thing over and over,” Vanderslice added. “When we would fix one thing, they would come up with another excuse.”
One of the reasons given in the past for the cut of men’s gymnastics is that the team shares a facility with the women’s team. Theobald has said there is not enough space for both teams.
“It’s kind of a given in our sport,” sophomore gymnast Wayne Conley said. “I don’t know how familiar they are with our sport. I think they don’t know much, if anything at all, about our sport and our situation. It’s a very special situation. The men and women’s team here, we’re like brothers and sisters. We’re all there all the time, and the facilities issue — it’s not even a question to me.”
Both McCarthy and Vanderslice said most baseball players will transfer after the season to play elsewhere.
“It would be hard to go to school and enjoy coming to a school if they screwed you over before,” McCarthy said.