CLOSE SportsPulse: As Christine Brennan points out, the Ivy League’s decisions have often been a tell tale sign for all college sports and it’s time to prepare for a fall without college football. USA TODAY
A strong start to Mid-American Conference play during a weekend series against perennial league baseball powerhouse Kent State had University at Buffalo players and coaches “actually feeling good about ourselves,” former head coach Ron Torgalski recalled, as vans loaded with bodies and equipment made the three-hour drive back to campus on April 2, 2017.
The text came mid-trip, pinging phones with an ominous alert: Please attend a meeting at 8 a.m. tomorrow in the university’s art center, referred to on campus as the “drama room.” Unbeknownst to the baseball team, athletes and coaches on three other programs — men’s soccer, women’s rowing, and men’s swimming and diving — were being given the same message.
Torgalski, who had been told during a phone call with a university official moments earlier to meet with then-athletics director Allen Greene at 7:30 a.m., turned to one of his assistants and issued a dire prediction: They’re going to drop baseball.
A brief meeting on Monday morning with Greene and university president Satish Tripathi confirmed Torgalski’s premonition.
Buffalo baseball is a thing of the past, a victim of budget cuts. (Photo: Mike Janes, Four Seam Images via AP)
“It was a shock to everybody,” said Torgalski, the Bulls’ head coach since 2007. “There was no warning. Never a discussion about any programs being cut. It caught us all off guard.”
While attention has shifted in college sports to the state of the fall season, the clearest sign of the pandemic’s lasting impact on the NCAA is in the spread of schools, from the upper ranges of Division I through Division III, that have already made the severe decision to cut teams due to the financial uncertainty caused by COVID-19.
On the Division I level, these cuts have impacted hundreds of athletes participating in non-revenue sports such as soccer, wrestling, swimming and tennis. Recent cuts at national athletics power Stanford, which announced it will drop 11 sports after the 2020-21 school year, will affect more than 240 athletes alone.
Baseball programs have also been trimmed: Boise State and Bowling Green dropped the sport, though Bowling Green’s program was reinstated after a fundraising drive keyed by baseball alumni and donors committed $1.5 million over the next three years.
As hundreds of coaches and players confront an uncertain future in athletics, the members of Buffalo’s disbanded baseball program represent the sort of collateral damage left by the difficult decision to cut individual teams: coaches and athletes who were forced to continue their athletic careers elsewhere or, in the worst case, leave the sport behind altogether.
“It derailed a lot of lives, a lot of plans,” Torgalski said.
In the immediate aftermath of the university’s decision in 2017, players and coaches met to discuss whether to complete the rest of the season. On one hand, the emotions of the moment — a mix of anger and grief — lent themselves to the dramatic statement of forfeiting the final two months of play.
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“The big deal with me and a lot of our teammates was the way they handled it,” said shortstop Ben Haefner, then a redshirt junior. “Just not telling anyone. Not giving our coaches a chance to talk to us. That’s not a decision you make overnight. It was more so the way they handled it that rubbed us the wrong way.”
Many players spent the entire day in the team’s locker room. Later, during a meeting, Torgalski gave players the option of calling the season, saying he’d support any decision they made. As a group, Haefner recalled, players chose “to play for each other.”
“I think a lot of it was, instead of saying, ‘[Expletive] the school, let’s go home,’ it was, ‘[Expletive] the school, let’s show them what we can do,’” said then-redshirt freshman pitcher Andrew White. “We wanted to keep playing.”
But there was still this unanswered question: Why cut baseball at all? Not including just over $200,000 in severance pay, sponsoring the sport cost Buffalo $735,729 in 2017, according to UB’s financial report to the NCAA that was compiled by USA TODAY Sports in partnership with Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.
That’s a relatively paltry sum not just viewed against the cost of sponsoring football and men’s basketball but when compared with the Bulls’ rivals in the MAC — Buffalo was the lowest-funded baseball program in the conference, according to the schools’ financial reports.
And when compared with the rest of the MAC, the Bulls’ stadium and facilities were dilapidated enough where Torgalski would conduct official visits while hoping recruits wouldn’t ask to tour the baseball field.
According to coaches and athletes in attendance, Greene and Tripathi did not say during that April meeting that funds diverted from baseball and other eliminated sports would go solely toward supporting football and men’s basketball. At the time, Buffalo’s long-suffering football program had invested in a new coaching staff and was raising funds for a new football facility, which was completed in 2019.
“We always knew that football and basketball were the big things there,” White said.
The athletics department’s financial picture has changed considerably during the past two fiscal years, according to its financial reports to the NCAA. In 2017, the department claimed $35,892,211 in revenue and $35,883,884 in expenses. In 2018, the first year after trimming baseball and other sports, those numbers climbed to $40,834,648 in revenue and $40,763,071 in expenses. The totals took another significant increase in 2019, to $45,977,952 in revenue and $45,933,053 in expenses.
UB officials declined to comment on its decision to drop baseball in 2017 and on the factors behind the athletics department’s increases in revenue and expenses. Greene, who now holds the same position at Auburn, declined to comment.
The Bulls’ baseball program spent several weeks after the university’s announcement in a blur, going through the motions of the season while navigating through a tricky balancing act. While weaving through the heart of conference play, the non-seniors on Buffalo’s roster were also evaluating options for the future — nearly every underclassman wanted to keep playing, Torgalski said, but the trick would be finding landing spots at a time when most teams have already filled roster spots and scholarships in recruiting.
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“That was pretty much all I thought about for two weeks,” said Haefner, who wanted to complete his final season of eligibility elsewhere but was unsure if he’d be able to defer his enrollment into Buffalo’s graduate program in physical therapy.
“And I kind of regret that looking back, because I wish I’d spent those two weeks focusing on my teammates and my relationships with them, just knowing that it would work itself out.”
Despite the program’s financial limitations and small recruiting blueprint, Torgalski and his staff had sent several players into the MLB draft, including at least one in each of the previous five years. The Bulls’ projected signing class was the staff’s best yet, Torgalski said. Major programs, including teams from the Big 12, Big Ten and ACC, were calling for recommendations on his current players and incoming recruits, layering additional pressure onto an already unique scenario.
“At that point, it was almost like baseball was secondary. You’ve got 32 kids’ lives who have just been turned upside down. Ten recruits’ lives that have been turned upside down,” Torgalski said.
“It was a rough time. You become more of a counselor than a coach at that time. My priority at that point, my assistants’ priority, was to get our guys focused enough to finish the school year and help them and try and place them at different places.”
Unsurprisingly, the season would limp to its conclusion: Buffalo would lose nine of its next 13 games and finish the year at 17-34 overall and 8-16 in MAC play. The baseball program would play its final games in late May during a rain-soaked weekend at Western Michigan, fittingly downbeat conditions given the sense of doom and uncertainty that followed in the wake of the university’s announcement.
There is one notable difference between the demise of the baseball program and the sports cut due to the coronavirus pandemic: namely, that the Bulls were able to keep playing as a team, if only for the rest of the 2017 season. Athletes participating in sports cut in the middle of the summer won’t have that chance.
And while players on Buffalo’s roster who wanted to continue playing were largely able to find landing spots — Haefner at Sam Houston State and White at St. Bonaventure, for example — the same opportunity might not exist for current athletes in non-revenue sports.
Buffalo was alone in eliminating its baseball program in 2017, for example, while many non-revenue programs, such as men’s and women’s tennis, have recently seen nearly a dozen cuts across Division I and Division II. It’s likely that even more sports will be cut should COVID-19 impact the fall season, robbing athletics departments of the sizable chunk of revenue provided by football.
For universities experiencing or predicting a financial shortfall due to the pandemic, cutting programs can help bridge the gap until a return to normal conditions. The coaches and players impacted illustrate the hidden costs behind these difficult decisions.
“I will always say that I’d have rather finished my whole career at Buffalo,” White said. “I loved everybody on that team. That was the hardest part. It wasn’t that I had to give up baseball or anything like that. It was just that I wasn’t go see them anymore. You lost 30 best friends. They’re all across the country right now.”