April 26, 2001

The Tangled Web of Club & Varsity Sports

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While Cornell’s varsity sports receive the majority of the recognition, the press and the adulation, there is a another athletic community on East Hill that thrives only through its own blood, sweat and tears: club sports. In this three-part series, The Sun will chronicle just what goes on in the world of club sports. Today’s third and final installment examines the relationship between club and varsity sports.

F ormer men’s gymnastics head coach Phil Rach picks up a now dusty Ivy League championship trophy and removes it from a chair in his office so I can sit down. Rach may be the most successful coach in Cornell history . . . but chances are you’ve never heard of him. He was appointed coach of the men’s gymnastics team in 1983 and won eight league crowns during his nine-year tenure. Unfortunately, he will not have an opportunity to add to his hardware collection. That’s because the Athletic Department, in the face of enormous cost pressures in the early ’90s, slashed men’s gymnastics along with three other sports: women’s gymnastics, and men’s and women’s fencing.

The relationship between club sports and their varsity cousins is one marked by passion, hostility at times and unity in other circumstances.

During the late ’80s and early ’90s, athletic departments across the nation were struggling to deal with increasing financial burdens.

The snowball effect began, however, in the early ’70s when a push for gender equality was enveloping the nation. Title IX had just been passed and as interest in female sports was rising, administrators were struggling to ensure equal opportunities for all student-athletes.

So when former Cornell athletic director Laing Kennedy decided to drop the axe on women’s gymnastics and women’s fencing, the squads got together and sued the University. They won and were reinstated as full varsity sports. Their male counterparts on the other hand did not share the same fate and were relegated to club status.

Men’s and women’s fencing head coach Al Peters came to Ithaca in 1995, after a stint as an assistant at Princeton. He inherited one of the most tradition-rich sports on East Hill — men’s fencing predates the 20th century, having begun in 1894 and was later joined by a women’s team in 1927.

Peters also was faced with a program riddled with fractures. After decades of having two varsity teams, he found himself juxtaposed between a women’s varsity team and a men’s club team. He was charged with the unenviable task of organizing and coordinating a club for men who had been recruited to fence at the intercollegiate level; some had made their decision to come to Cornell largely on the reputation of the fencing team.

“Both the men and women were shattered. They had been former teammates. One of my biggest goals when I first came here was to get them to work together. It’s taken me nearly six years to do that,” Peters explained.

These days, relations between the two squads are much healthier. Friendships have been forged between club and varsity members.

“They cheer for each other and really have been almost one big group. They just have to compete separately,” the coach observed.

Senior John Osborne, a four-year member of the men’s club team, affirms the sentiment.

“We have a good relationship with [the women’s team]. We practice with them everyday,” he said.

Osborne believes that having the resources of a varsity coach to draw on gives the Cornell club a competitive advantage over other university clubs.

“In my mind, we are about as close to a varsity sport as we get without having varsity status,” he observed.

Some have attributed the downgrading of former varsity sports like fencing to Title IX. These coaches and administrators explain that in creating a balance between men’s and women’s sports, often times, men’s sports are cut.

Former Associate Athletic Director and current University of Denver Athletic Director, Dianne M. Murphy, cautions that there are several ways to comply with Title IX and that it should not be viewed as a scapegoat for eliminating certain men’s teams.

Murphy believes that Cornell faces funding obstacles that often times result in the downgrading of certain varsity sports, for many reasons beside the oft-cited legislation.

“There is significant competition for funding between all of the schools at Cornell. There is no big fan base in Ithaca or much opportunity for corporate sponsors,” she reasoned.

As a result, many sports, particularly those at the club level, must turn to individual fundraising efforts to sustain their programs.

For Peters and his fencers, such efforts were far from futile. In 1996, thanks to a generous gift from the families of Andrew Stifel ’91 and Nina Farouk ’97, the team unveiled the Stifel Fencing Salle. Most unique was that it represented the combined drive of both the club and varsity teams who just years earlier had had a stand-off relationship at best. Indeed, the former schism was readily apparent through the condition of the gift — that the men’s club team be allowed to practice in it.

The Salle has become a source of pride for the squads and alumni to unify around, and Peters enthusiasm for the place is palpable.

“That used to be where the outdoor education people had the canoes. It was filled with cobwebs,” he said, as he gestured to a part of the room now adorned with electronic scoring devices.

For some, the wounds from the relegation to club status are still present. Since Rach’s squad lost its varsity standing, it had been all but completely isolated from the women’s varsity team. Practices are held separately and there is little mixing between the teams or coaching staffs. Perhaps one of the reasons for this divergence stems from the fact that each gymnastics team has a separate coach.

Rach explains that part of the reason for the separation is rooted in liability issues. Club sports are not provided with a trainer so the men may not practice at the same as their female counterparts. Despite being the most successful team on campus at the time it was voided, the men’s squad has yet to make the recovery that the other three programs have undergone. Rach also touts his squad as having had the highest team GPA on campus prior to it being cut.

There have been murmurs of a movement among alumni to reinstate the sport at the varsity level, but at this point it seems unlikely that a change would occur in the near future. Rach reasons that keeping the club would have caused the university to incur little costs and reap the benefits of having a perennial Ivy League championship contender.

Al Gantert, Director of Physical Education, sees the issue in a different light.

“Another criterion was how many Ivy League schools had the sport. The fact that only a few other peer institutions had men’s gymnastics preempted the success of our team. [We had to ask the question]: how invested was the Ivy League in this sport?” he questioned rhetorically.

Gantert attributed the divergent fates of the sports to their dissimilar nature. Men and women can more easily train together for fencing because the weapons are uniform, while in gymnastics equipment differs by gender.

But the flow between varsity and club sports has been a two-way street. The administration has elevated some successful clubs to the varsity level. One need not look far to find success stories.

Softball transitioned in 1994, the same year as Ivy League rival Dartmouth upgraded its squad. For several years ,the team had struggled financially as a club sport, but however scar
ce money was, interest in a varsity team was high. Thanks largely to the support of Murphy, the team which before was forced to limit travel and often spend nights sleeping in host schools’ field houses, would just four years latter have a state of the art softball-only stadium to play in. Formerly, as a club, the group needed to make a nearly half-hour trip to its field.

Current head coach Dick Blood is quick to credit the support of the administration. He recalled former Athletic Director, Charlie Moore ’51, asserting to him that, “Gender equity isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the only thing to do.”

The commitment of Moore and others in the administration bore fruit nearly immediately. Under Blood’s capable tutelage, the softball team has garnered two Ivy League title in the last three years — a feat unmatched by any sport on campus. And consider this: Blood took a team that went a dismal 6-35-1 in 1995 and made it into a league contender in just three years. In 1998, it sported a blistering 37-9 mark.

“We looked at the fact that there was strong interest on campus for softball. We [are] committed to enhancing gender equity,” Murphy said, explaining the decision to make softball a varsity sport.

Blood sees the transition as a natural extension on the heels of a growing interest in females in athletics.

“Women’s sports are growing fast,” he commented, adding that wait-lists for softball summer camps and local young fans asking for autographs from players after games signal the increasing share for females in the world of sport.

Gantert notes that the history of collegiate athletics began with club level football teams in the 1860’s.

“[Club sports] were the embryo stage of college athletics,” he offered.

The biggest success story of all may be the polo squads. The women’s team has captured two national championships in as many years. Head coach David Eldredge ’81 says the team was granted full varsity status about a decade ago. Prior to that, both the men’s and women’s squad operated as club sports with limited varsity standing.

“That basically meant we received limited funding but had none [of the other amenities of the other varsity sports] like trainers or weight room passes,” the coach explained

Eldredge also found the teams’ new found status to be of some use in his recruiting efforts.

“It helped to make an impression to tell students that we had a full-blown varsity program,” he offered.

Despite being listed as a varsity sport, polo still has to supply a significant portion of its funding through its own efforts. Its pony string, considered to be in the upper echelon of collegiate polo teams, is exclusively based on donations from alumni.

Gantert is quick to point out that the notion that club sports should have an ultimate goal of varsity status is a flawed one.

He cites the drastically different commitments associated with each sport as a reason for the utility of having programs available at the club level.

“In the club sports, the individual largely sets the time commitment. With varsity sports the amount of time needed is largely defined by the coach,” Gantert noted. “It’s not universally a good idea to say club sports have to move up. Club sports should be here and shouldn’t strive to be more.”

Archived article by Gary Schueller