AKRON University of Akron officials have 2020 vision when it comes to the future of their athletic programs.
That’s when the school will add two sports to its existing 17 varsity sports, one of them a familiar name to fans and another that will be part of the UA community for the first time.
Baseball and lacrosse will officially start competition in the spring of 2020 following their official approval by the university’s board of trustees at its October meeting. UA athletic director Larry Williams is one of those tasked with overseeing the process of adding the two new sports, including a baseball program that was dropped in 2015 in a controversial decision by largely unpopular former university president Scott Scarborough.
Scarborough, who stepped down abruptly at the end of the 2015-16 school year, was succeeded by current UA president Matthew Wilson, who has been a regular at sporting events around campus since taking over.
"When I came on board here in the fall of 2015, baseball had just been dropped and so, as you’d expect, there was a large contingent of former baseball players that were very vocal and desirous that I’d consider bringing it back," Williams said. "That wasn’t going to be an option under the former administration that was in place, but when (current UA president) Matt (Wilson) was hired in the summer of of 2016, one of the first things he said to me was, ‘I’m a baseball guy, I coach my kids, I love baseball.’ Through the course of our early relationship, he would relay to me that every time he met somebody in the community, every one of them mentioned to bring back baseball."
Wilson expressed support for the decision in a statement shortly after the vote by the trustees.
"We have heard loud and clear the community's desire to bring baseball back to UA and we have been examining ways to do that in a financially responsible manner. Prospective students have voiced the same desire. We also want to offer an additional avenue for female student-athletes to simultaneously benefit from a quality education at the University of Akron and on-the-field Division-I competition," Wilson said. "After much discussion and planning, we believe that we have identified some creative ways to achieve our objectives while focusing on student-athletes from Ohio. Now, we hope that the community will come forward and assist the university in restoring baseball and adding women's lacrosse."
According to Williams, he and Wilson began discussions about how to bring back baseball, but with the knowledge that, as the athletic director put it, "the university was under incredible financial strain, having been built for 30,000 students, but now only having 23,000 students enrolled."
Williams raised the approach often used by Division II and III schools, which sometimes use sports as a way to boost enrollment by offering chances to play at the college level to those who may not have had a chance to play at the Division I level. The idea was to give students "a reason to come and to stay," Williams noted.
The idea of bringing back baseball, which made its two deepest runs in program history in the Mid-American Conference tournament in its final two seasons before the program ended - including reaching the MAC championship game in 2014 - was helped by what Williams deemed a good year for the university from a financial standpoint in 2015-16.
He said that by taking a more frugal approach, the school was able to do well against its projections and with an overall positive vibe surrounding the campus, he made a presentation that gave the board of trustees a deeper look into the financial side of college athletics and how the benefits of sports aren’t always reflected on the bottom line.
"You have to understand how the finances work in higher education to understand that fund accounting doesn’t necessarily take into account all the benefits that accrue to a university when sponsoring a sport," Williams said, "but everybody sort of understood the concept that Division III does it all the time, so they started to make the connection with how that works and why Division III does it."
Following that meeting, Williams addressed the board again and he and Wilson began putting together a plan to bring back baseball if the board was supportive. That, Williams said, is where lacrosse entered the picture.
Title IX is a familiar term for college sports fans.
It’s a federal law enforced in the United States and is considered a portion of the United States Education Amendments of 1972. Its purpose is to increase athletic opportunities for women at the college level and ensure that those opportunities are comparable to those for men at a college or university.
As it related to UA, that meant working to find a sport that would give a new opportunity to female athletes to pair with the one being created with baseball.
"As it relates to women’s lacrosse, piggybacking on the outcry from the baseball community, we’re always mindful that when we do anything here in the office, about making sure that our opportunities and benefits are equal across genders and so when the conversations even first started, there was the understanding that what you do on the men’s side, you do on the women’s side," Williams said. "That’s what got us talking about lacrosse. Lacrosse fits so well because it’s a really good, up and coming sport for young ladies to participate in. The numbers can be large, so we can attract a lot of students and we have a facility."
One of the biggest positives for lacrosse in particular was that the school had an existing facility, Infocision Stadium, that is largely unused in the spring, when lacrosse takes place. Outside of the short time of spring football, the stadium is largely empty during the spring and having a place to house a potential lacrosse program was appealing, according to Williams.
Fitting lacrosse into the Infocision Stadium setting is just one part of the puzzle.
The plan, Williams said, is to create locker room and coaching space for the lacrosse team in the stadium. Baseball presents a more complicated equation even though Lee Jackson Field’s baseball diamond remains intact on campus.
A less-than-ideal outfield wall, an odd bullpen setup and general maintenance issues that include an outdated press box with windows so cloudy that it’s impossible to keep them down and see the action on the field mean that upgrades will need to be made for the Zips to play home games. That’s where a local baseball neighbor comes in, Williams said.
"We’re still sort of analyzing how much we have to do to make that field more playable. Fortunately, our former mayor and (Akron RubberDucks owner) Ken Babby entered into a lease agreement that recognized that the University of Akron, through the city, should have the opportunity to play games at Canal Park, so that was a big part of the conversation as well," he explained. "That relationship that the city and Ken Babby had relative to our participation down there. We were able to enter into conversations with Ken and Dan Horrigan, who are great and all for baseball, and there’s a lot of momentum there. So factoring into our conversation about what we do with our facility, we have to understand that our ideal is to play down at Canal Park."
As Williams tells it, there will be games played on campus and the work to upgrade the baseball field will ideally be donor-driven. The complex contains a modern field that brought the softball team to campus more than a decade ago and a soccer stadium that has seen massive upgrades in recent years.
FINDING THE FACES
Having facilities is important, but having the players and coaches to use them is just as vital.
The baseball program, while having played as recently as 2015, will essentially be starting from scratch. The athletes who populate the roster will have little or no connection to the program that existed before. Lacrosse will have no foundation at all, so getting coaches in place to start building the program and allowing those coaches to begin building their program and start recruiting is a vital early step.
"The one thing that our peers at the Divison II and Division III levels have demonstrated is that there are a number of young men and young women that want to continue to play their sport at the college level, and so there’s always a supply that’s going to be there. The question is how competitive we can be and do we have a coach that can recognize the weaknesses that we have to admit we have as we start the program," Williams said. "Just as there’s a number of potential student athletes for us, I think there’s a lot of coaches that would like to take on that challenge as well. Since making the announcement, we’ve heard from scores of young men and young women that would like to take on the challenge."
He added that school officials intend to be by the new coaches’ sides as they begin the process and expressed hope that while the 2019-20 school year will be the first for competition for both new programs, there is a belief that some of those athletes could be on campus before then, training and preparing.
Lacrosse will also have a unique league arrangement, as the MAC does not sponsor women’s lacrosse because only Kent State and Central Michigan currently offer it as a varsity sport. As a result, the new Akron program will likely play in a joint league sponsored by the Southern and Atlantic Sun conferences along with schools such as Kent State and Detroit Mercy. Williams said UA officials have already had preliminary talks about joining the conference and expect to have more going forward.
Ultimately, he and the rest of the school’s administration are excited about being able to add sports at a time when other MAC schools are eliminating programs, such as Buffalo, which recently eliminated its baseball program.
"I can’t speak to all of the considerations that Buffalo went to, but it does feel good to be able to communicate that we’re going to make a commitment to these student athletes to give them the opportunity to play at the Division I level. Any time we at the administration level get the chance to give a playing opportunity, it’s really invigorating, it’s really fun and that’s what it’s about for us," Williams said. "So many of these young men and young women have some of their identity associated with their participation in those sports, and to provide them the opportunity to continue that is really gratifying. It’s one of the best things I’ve been able to do."
Reach Andy at 330-580-8936
On Twitter: @aharrisBUR