Sports, University News

Women’s ski team loses head coach

Head coach leaves as team risks varsity status due to lack of donations, budget constraints

Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The women’s ski team is once again facing the possibility of losing its varsity status and also finds itself without a head coach as the start of its winter season draws near.

Former Head Coach Michael LeBlanc — recognizing that the team would likely lose varsity status after the 2016-2017 season — officially stepped down to become the program director of the Mount Washington Valley ski team, he said. “I’m leaving with a heavy heart — I don’t have sour grapes towards Brown,” he added. “But I can’t sacrifice my career.”

The team has faced financial pressure and scrutiny from the University dating back to a 2011 Athletic Review Committee report. The committee, formed by then-President Ruth Simmons, recommended that four programs — women’s skiing, men’s wrestling and men’s and women’s fencing — be cut because the University’s “overall budget for athletics is the lowest in the Ivy League, and yet the number of programs being supported is among the highest.”

Instead of cutting the four teams, Simmons gave them “the chance to demonstrate that their supporters are able to endow their sport at the level deemed necessary by the University,” according to her letter responding to the Athletic Review Committee.

“These sports should demonstrate over the course of the year that they have assembled gifts and pledges that, when combined with existing team-designated support, constitute an income stream sufficient to generate no less than 100 percent of the current annual budget for that sport,” Simmons wrote.

After Simmons disclosed this decision, the issue seemingly faded away. LeBlanc “didn’t hear a peep” about further financial matters until March 2015 when Director of Athletics Jack Hayes called LeBlanc into his office and shared concerns about the program. Hayes afforded the team two years to ramp up fundraising and meet the University’s expectations for its endowment.

LeBlanc ardently tried to raise enough money to satisfy the University and ensure that the skiing program can continue, he said.

But because the varsity women’s ski program was not started until 1993, it relies on a relatively small and young alumni base and has struggled to procure enough donations to meet the University’s desired endowment, The Herald previously reported. As the end of the two-year period draws near, the future of the team hangs in the balance.

“It’s really disappointing,” LeBlanc said, having coached the team since October 2004. “I worked so hard and for so long to build this team.”

“Basically, at the end of the year our existence is up in the air,” said Natalie Pearl ’17, a member of the team.

“It’s going to be really difficult for the team. It’s not looking good at all,” LeBlanc said. “They aren’t treated fairly.”

Skiing has been one of Brown’s most successful athletic programs in recent years, even with the financial issue looming. The team placed second at the United States Collegiate Ski and Snowboard Association Championships last season, fifth in 2015 and third in 2014.

The University has begun the search for a new head coach. Several members of the team said they hope the new coach will be adept at fundraising for the team.

In the meantime, the team is continuing to fundraise in hopes of making a dent in the total funds required.

“It’s a little bit unclear where the burden is supposed to fall,” said Ali Gunesch ’17, a member of the team. “We have some current team parents who are doing a lot of work, which we really, really appreciate.”

“It would only be possible if someone drops half a mill(ion) in our pocket, which is unrealistic since we’re a pretty young team, and our alumni base isn’t that big,” Pearl said, adding, “As students and athletes, we don’t have the time or connections at this point in life to find that sort of money.”

“We are conducting the search for a new ski coach in the same manner in which we conduct all our job searches,” wrote Meredith Scarlata, associate athletic director for finance, in an email to The Herald.

“The captains (of the ski team) have been meeting with (Scarlata) once a week to make sure things are going smoothly,” Pearl said.

“We’re getting a decent amount of input,” Gunesch said, “which we appreciate a lot.” She added that administrators told the team they would try to hire a new head coach by Thanksgiving.

Meanwhile, the members of the team remain focused on the upcoming season. “As far as team morale, I think we’re good; we’re a pretty old team,” Gunesch said. “We know what we’re doing.”

Still, “it’s hard with freshmen to say, ‘Welcome to the team. We don’t have a coach,’” Gunesch added.

Christopher Humm, director of athletic communications, declined to comment on the situation, citing the confidential nature of the hiring process.