Thursday, February 2, 2023

Former AD: Swim and dive team was on chopping block in fall 2019

January 20, 2023
Junior freestyler Sophia Balow and junior breaststroker Travis Nitkiewicz prepare themselves for speaking in front of MSU administration at the Board of Trustees meeting on Feb 11, 2022.
Junior freestyler Sophia Balow and junior breaststroker Travis Nitkiewicz prepare themselves for speaking in front of MSU administration at the Board of Trustees meeting on Feb 11, 2022. —
Photo by Audrey Richardson | The State News

On Oct. 22, 2020, Michigan State University announced that its varsity swim and dive teams would be dissolved following that NCAA season. The release – which was jointly signed by then-President Samuel L. Stanley Jr. and then-athletic director Bill Beekman – attributed the decision to the athletics revenue crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“MSU Athletics is facing a financial crisis unlike any we've ever seen in college athletics,” Beekman and Stanley said in the announcement. “Our best-case scenario this year projects a revenue shortfall in excess of $30 million. Our worst-case scenario would more than double that number.”

But, according to Beekman, MSU was set to cut the team as early as fall of 2019, months before the first case of the virus was detected in Wuhan or MSU tickets were going unsold.

While the athletics department began looking at reducing the number of teams in 2018, Beekman said in an email to The State News that information “coalesced” in late September or early October 2019 so that swim and dive would be the team cut.

Beekman said facilities costs caused MSU to “focus on swimming and diving for potential elimination rather than other sports that may have been previously considered” and “to emphasize the point, the decision to narrow the sports under consideration was made in the fall of 2019.”

Beekman was asked to explain the facilities issue in the recently settled Title IX lawsuit against the university.

In his deposition, Beekman said the cost of repairing the outdoor 50-meter pool sometimes used by the team was the “straw that broke the camel’s back.”

He cited a conversation with then-head coach Matt Gianiodis, where the coach told him without the outdoor pool, the team would not be able to function successfully.

Gianiodis said the discussion he had with Beekman was about the pool’s overall value to the university for student recreation and summer camps. On the assertion that losing the outdoor pool would be “detrimental” to the swim and dive program, Gianiodis said “that would not have come out of my mouth.”

A report by the Board of Trustees’ finance committee which found no “viable path” to reinstatement of swim and dive also cited facilities issues. The university was unable to provide documents or calculations supporting that conclusion.

Gianiodis and his staff weren’t informed the team would be cut until October 2020.

Through that summer, there was a sense of worry given COVID-19’s effect on the athletics budget and the University of Iowa’s August 2020 decision to cut its swim and dive teams.

Gianiodis said when he heard of Iowa’s cut, he “​​asked Beekman directly, ‘are we going to drop sports at Michigan State?’ And his answer was no.”

“Everybody associated with the swim and dive program was in a really awkward position when it was all announced,” Gianodis said. “We had people who donated money, even dedicated endowed scholarships to dead relatives … I guess for lack of a better term, the rug was pulled from underneath us, and if it was a two-year plan, I wasn't told anything about.”

Gianiodis says he spent much of 2020 doing Zoom events to raise cash for the struggling athletic department. Between October 2019 and October 2020 when it was announced, swim and dive alone raised $109,740.33 in expendable cash gifts.

MSU athletics spokesperson Matt Larson explained in an email those funds were “used to help support current season operational expenses.”

Wally Dobler, who swam with MSU in the program’s only Big Ten championship in 1957, says he donated $50,000 to swim and dive in 2020 – and would have liked to know the program was in its final days.

Dobler says in his frustration, he went to MSU’s “Winter University” conference in Naples, Florida in February 2022 to speak with then-President Stanley.

“I had a big confrontation with him,” Dobler said. “Stanley says, ‘Well, it costs more to give a swimming scholarship than it does a football scholarship.’ I looked at him and I said ‘what?’ So my question was ‘does the golf team pay for the maintenance of the golf course? Why would the swimming team pay for the maintenance of the swimming pool?’ ... They've got so many screwed up things at the university, I can't believe it.”

Dobler said he would be giving “absolutely zero” donations moving forward.

Aside from straightforward donations to the team, many alumni chose instead to support the program with endowments. These invested funds were designed for long-term support of the team, and many of them are still tied up today.

When the Iowa cut sparked fear, Tom Munley, a swim and dive alumnus and large donor to the program, said he emailed Beekman to ask if there was any intention of cutting the team. Munley also asked if a fundraising drive would keep that off the table. Beekman thanked him for his support, however, but didn’t address the possibility of a cut or what donors could do. 

Munley and his younger brother John swam at MSU in the late 90s. When John died suddenly of a heart attack just after finishing his senior season, Munley set up an endowment in his name which would provide scholarships to swimmers at MSU.

According to university documents, Munley’s and twelve other endowments to swim and dive held $1.2 million shortly after the announcement of the cut. Unless the program is reinstated, those funds will be redirected into other parts of MSU athletics when the last members of the team graduate.

Following the cut, a group of athletes, parents, and alumni have fought to reinstate the team through donations. They’ve raised significant funds in casual commitments from alumni and parents, but have been stonewalled by MSU’s board, administration and athletics department.

Gianiodis, who coached at MSU for over 20 years, said he can’t be impartial about whether cutting swim and dive was the right choice.

“Look, whether or not you argue that it was a good decision, I don't really want to get into that. I don't think it was a good decision, but I have a big personal stake in this deal,” Gianiodis said. “But, the way it was executed has been terrible. ... Every time they've been given an opportunity to use Spartans to help them through the decision, they just don’t take it.”

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