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Unsuccessful teams reflect institutional athletic changes

Recruiting spots, budget, facilities, high academic standards hurt Bruno relative to Ivy competitors

This story is the second in a three-part series about Brown athletics.

The ’90s were arguably the most successful era for Brown athletics, as its teams won 47 Ivy League titles in the decade. Since 2010, Brown teams have won five, placing them last in the conference by a large margin. Harvard won 14 in the 2013-2014 academic year alone. In the fall and winter seasons this year, only three of 12 Brown team sports — men’s soccer, men’s water polo and women’s rugby — had winning records.

So what happened?

In 2011, Brown’s Athletics Review Committee released its report recommending a wide array of changes to the Athletics Department. The final report recommended that Brown pay coaches a more competitive salary, increase investment in improvement of athletic facilities, reduce the number of admission spots for recruited athletes by 13 percent and cut four varsity teams: wrestling, men’s and women’s fencing and women’s skiing. The men’s skiing team is a club sport and was therefore not under consideration to be cut.

Two criteria that the ARC focused on when making its recommendations stuck out as significant, especially when looking at Brown athletics today: “Is a given sport important to Brown’s sense of community in terms of active and broad-based interest?” and “Does the sport provide adequate opportunities for achieving excellence at the Ivy or national level?”

Attendance numbers in 2015 put into question the “broad-based interest” in Brown sports as a whole, and the records of the overwhelming majority of Brown teams put the latter criterion into similar doubt.

In response to the ARC in 2011, former President Ruth Simmons called for an effort to streamline the athletics department without sacrificing the success of the teams.

But a question remains: How have the changes under Simmons truly affected Brown teams, and is Brown bound to see any change in the future?

The numbers game

In Simmons’ response, she announced that the proposed team cuts would not be adopted. But a reduction in admission spots for recruited athletes from 225 to 205 was approved, representing a 9 percent cut. Without four teams being eliminated and with the adoption of women’s rugby as a varsity sport for the 2014 season, Brown’s athletic department actually grew. Brown boasts 36 varsity sports now, making it one of the largest departments in the country.

“It’s an expensive operation to manage,” said Director of Athletics Jack Hayes.

With 205 admission spots divided among 36 sports, the impact of teams’ limited recruiting ability becomes clear when looking at the roster size of Brown teams.

The women’s hockey team had 21 players for the 2015-2016 season, making it the second-smallest women’s ice hockey team in the Ivy League.  The team finished 3-23-3 this past season and has not finished with double-digit wins since 2007. The roster’s size has steadily decreased since the 2000s, when the team was a national powerhouse under former Head Coach Digit Murphy. The 2001-2002 team, which finished as national runners-up, had a roster of 27 players.

“I never shied away from a big roster. Because you know what a big roster means? It means more opportunity,” Murphy said. “You need four lines to practice with, and you need reserves.”

Because of injuries on this year’s team, the Bears were often unable to practice with a full team and had only one reserve spot on game days.

The trend certainly is not confined to women’s hockey; the baseball team, which has not had a winning season in the past five years, is also the second-smallest in the Ivy League at 28 players. Harvard has a roster of 35 players.

Based on the increasing undergraduate population, the number of admission spots for recruits will increase to 215 starting fall 2017, Hayes said. Having 36 sports with various needs and roster sizes may present another challenge when delegating these new spots going forward, and only time will tell what criteria will be used to determine where those spots will go.

“You’ve got to look at everything from what sports have been successful, what sports are supported throughout the league — some sports that don’t have as many (spots),” Hayes said. “It’s important for us to see outcomes and to see productivity in the places where we put these spots.”

Women’s rugby, Brown’s newest team, currently has no spots but has managed to remain an outlier among Brown teams in terms of its Ivy success. Under Hall of Fame coach Kathy Flores, the team transitioned from club to varsity with an Ivy League championship in its first season, followed by a second-place finish in 2015. But as other Ivy League teams enjoy more recruitment spots, the team could struggle to continue its success, said co-captain Oksana Goretaya ’17.

“Give it a year or two, and we won’t be able to compete anymore because other teams have a full side of recruited players, and we’ll have walk-ons,” she said, noting that new rugby teams at Harvard and Dartmouth were given recruiting spots immediately after becoming varsity sports.

But what is perhaps the most crucial aspect to recruiting may also be the simplest: dollars spent.

Brown has consistently found itself in the basement of the Ivy League in recruiting spending over the past decade. Brown spent $749,571 on recruiting in the 2014-2015 academic year, ahead of only Penn, while four other Ivy League schools spent more than $1,000,000.

Hayes said that the department doesn’t act based on a goal to rank in a particular spot within the league on recruiting spending.

“You get better by being able to cast a wider net on prospective students,” he said. “Casting a wider net means traveling to more places, going to more events, sending more coaches on the road.”

But Brown coaches have felt the pinch when it comes time to hit the road looking for future talent.

“To me, the outlay into recruiting is absolutely a must,” said men’s lacrosse Head Coach Lars Tiffany ’90. “Can our coaches find these athletes without having to fly as much? Can we find these athletes without being on the road as much? Sure you could, but if your competition isn’t holding back, if they’re not cutting corners — they’re on the road more, and they’re seeing more people.”

“Let’s just treat the whole thing like sales in a business. If you spend less money into going out and having less salespeople on the road with less money, are you going to sell your product?” Murphy said. “The answer is no. Times have changed, you can’t just say ‘Ivy League’ anymore.”

Academically speaking

Another recommendation from Simmons’ response was that Brown raise its target academic index for recruited athletes. The academic index is a score given to all prospective Ivy League recruits and is calculated using high school grade point average and standardized test scores. The Ivy League requires that a class of recruited athletes have an average academic index no lower than one standard deviation below the average of the school’s last four enrolling classes. But Simmons recommended that Brown raise its average above the Ivy minimum in an effort “to increase the representativeness of athletes at Brown.”

The positive impact of Brown’s AI standards for athletes shows itself in the classroom, as 21 teams met the NCAA’s measure of “academic progress rate” in the 2015-2016 school year, the most of any school in the country.

But raising the standards can have repercussions for recruiting and competitiveness, especially within the Ivy League.

“Sometimes the frustrating part for coaches is when a student-athlete they have been recruiting for a year or two isn’t admitted and they end up getting into a Harvard, Yale or Princeton,” said women’s ice hockey Head Coach Bob Kenneally ’90. “Especially if that student-athlete wants to come to Brown.”

Fields and facilities

For prospective athletes, the facilities where they will spend four years practicing and playing become a huge deciding factor, especially among Ivy League schools that all provide top-tier academics. The decision by the ARC and Simmons to invest in facilities has resulted in increasing returns for the teams who reaped the benefits of that investment.

The renovated Stevenson-Pincince Field, home to Brown’s soccer and lacrosse teams, has undoubtedly played a part in the men’s lacrosse team’s explosion onto the national scene.

“I’ve been here during an era where it didn’t feel like there was much support for facility enhancements,” said Tiffany, who has been at Brown for 10 years. “It’s wonderful to know that the administration is behind us coaches, providing us with the very best that they can, so that we can compete at the highest level.”

“The facility improvement process — it’s never-ending,” Hayes said. “It’s never-ending because you want to make sure that your facilities help attract the best student-athletes.”

Future projects on the docket include a new turf baseball and softball complex, as well as renovations to the boat house, Olney-Margolies Athletics Center and locker rooms in the Paul Bailey Pizzitola Memorial Sports Center.

“A brand new facility is going to be incredible, not only for our current players and staff, but for recruiting and showing around prospective players,” said baseball Head Coach Grant Achilles.

But 36 teams cannot all enjoy new facilities, and those sports which have not yet seen their spaces upgraded are some of the same ones struggling to compete every year. Take the men’s and women’s hockey teams, which won a combined eight games this year.

“That’s certainly another facility that we need to look at,” Hayes said of Meehan Auditorium, the home of both teams. “There’s work that needs to be done in there.”

“Facility upgrades (make) a huge difference, and for us, the ice rink is quite old and a bit run down,” Kenneally said. “It definitely needs an upgrade.”

The rink has presented hockey teams with an extra recruiting challenge, as other schools in the league and in the region boast newer, larger facilities.

“If they come into our building, they may say, ‘well, maybe hockey is not as important here because they’re letting their rink get run down,’” Kenneally said.

“When you’re in our position — second to last in the league — it’s hard to get these kids to commit if you don’t have the facilities,” said women’s hockey captain Alli Rolandelli ’16. “Coming through Brown … it’s like, ‘Here’s our carpet with a B, but that’s all we’ve got.’”

With a lack of focus on closing the gap in recruiting spending, it remains to be seen whether Brown teams will find more success in the wake of the changes instituted by Simmons. But new teams and less successful teams may continue to suffer, as an athletic department that fields the second-most teams in the country must subsist on a budget that pales in comparison to those of its Ivy League counterparts.


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