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Leistikow: Their sport eliminated, Iowa men's tennis vows to keep fighting for each other


Chad Leistikow   | Hawk Central

Gary Barta has long used a three-pronged mantra to outline how he wants his sports programs at the University of Iowa to function. If you follow Hawkeye sports, you’ve probably heard this before.

“Win. Graduate. Do it right.”

The Iowa men’s tennis team was 12-2 and had risen to No. 20 nationally (out of 245 Division I teams) before the spring season was shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The team GPA in the spring was 3.84, the highest of any of Iowa’s 24 sports.

Under coach Ross Wilson, men’s tennis had earned a high-character reputation off the court that was also ascending on the court as one of the Big Ten Conference’s scrappiest teams.

On top of all that: After golf, men’s tennis is the cheapest sport to operate on campus — either gender — with $857,787 spent in fiscal-year 2019. That represented 0.59% of the athletic department’s $146.3 million budget.

Yet the sport was among four discontinued by Barta, Iowa's 15th-year athletics director, and university president Bruce Harreld in their staggering decision announced Aug. 21 that some athletes feel was not only misguided but cold-hearted.

Hawkeye men’s tennis, which officially began in 1898, will be done after the spring of 2021.

“It just seemed like they were gunning to get rid of us, to be honest,” said Oliver Okonkwo, one of the team’s top players. “… I still don’t understand it.”

The news came quickly and coldly.

Okonkwo is a native of Berkshire, England, and over the summer was in discussions with his family back home about whether to wait until the second semester to return to the U.S., where he understood the COVID-19 pandemic was far from controlled.

One of eight international players on a 12-man roster, Okonkwo wanted to be with his teammates, who had developed a tight bond and assembled the best team in Hawkeye men’s tennis history. He chose to fly here — airfare, international athletes say, was in the $1,000 range — and then began a 14-day, government-recommended quarantine. While waiting in isolation, he and all the athletes from the four eliminated sports received an ominous 7:30 a.m. notification on Aug. 21 to be present for a 10:30 a.m. meeting in the Carver-Hawkeye Arena practice gym.

At the socially-distanced meeting, Barta spoke for a few minutes to deliver the news, then left.

“Just like that. It was kind of nothing,” Okonkwo said. “A little bit insensitive, to be honest.”

Teams were sent to side rooms in Carver-Hawkeye, where questions could be asked and tears and emotions flowed.

“We had to quarantine for two weeks,” said Will Davies, another Brit who has embraced Iowa City as his home, “just to be told that our tennis program is going to get cut.”

Among Wilson’s first comments to his athletes: This isn’t your fault. You did everything right. 

“There are so many opportunities lost, and the stories are heartbreaking, if you’re living it like I am,” said Wilson, who will be let go in June. “I feel awful for the parents and the guys on the team.”

In the wake of the decision, good explanations are lacking. 

Wilson has had a difficult time explaining why tennis was cut, and the conversation gets trickier for parents overseas (where major-college sports aren't a thing) when Title IX is brought up.

And even if you generally understand Title IX — the law that requires that there can be no discrimination based on gender (aka equal scholarship dollars spent among men and women) to accept federal money — the numbers don't add up in this case. The men’s gymnastics and men’s swimming/diving teams can offer a combined 16.2 scholarships vs. the maximum 14 of women’s swimming/diving.

By that logic, the mere 4.5 scholarships afforded to men’s tennis on the Division I level weren’t necessary to cut to maintain Iowa's Title IX compliance.

So why tack on tennis? Davies wondered if the team's large international presence made it a target. But, as he said, "Why should an international student’s money be any different than someone who lives locally?"

Five players are from England; there is one each from Ireland, Canada and Dubai. None are from Iowa originally.

“These guys are here 11 of 12 months a year,” Wilson said. “This is their life. This is their home.”

Of the 12 factors detailed by Barta and Harreld in how they mulled sports-program cuts, the only one that could arguably be applied to men’s tennis was "historical competitive success."

Iowa has contested 105 seasons of tennis; its lone Big Title occurred in 1958 under Don Klotz.

However, Steve Houghton — who spent 46 years in the program, including 33 as head coach from 1982 through 2014 — said that tennis was one of those sports the athletics department under Bump Elliott and in Barta’s early years was told to focus on “graduate” and “do it right.” The “win” part, he said, was viewed by administration as gravy.

“It was graduate your guys, do it right, don’t break any rules,” Houghton said. “And then have decent teams. … That’s what I did during my time, and Ross is right for the situation now. He’s really done an unbelievable job.”

The Hawkeyes have become more competitive nationally under Wilson, an Ohio State all-American who met his wife, Jaime, here and embraced Iowa City as home. When Wilson arrived, the Hawkeyes were ranked No. 177 in the country. They were No. 20 before spring sports were canceled March 12 — having just four days earlier knocked off 16th-ranked Cornell.

“The trajectory of this program is not up for debate,” said Jason Kerst, a fifth-year senior who has served as president of the Iowa Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. “It’s an unrecognizable program from when Ross came in seven years ago, and even when I came in June of 2016.”

There’s no denying Iowa’s overall financial picture is gloomy.

Barta said that eliminating these four sports will save the athletics department about $5 million a year. With only $4.5 million in reserves, the athletics department was poorly prepared to withstand the loss of fall football. (By regional contrast, Wisconsin athletics reportedly has $190 million in athletics reserves.) Barta's plan is to borrow $75 million to cover this year's expected losses, then repay the loan over 15 years. That math — $5 million in savings over 15 years — does add up to $75 million.

But the math conversation can shift another way, too.

With 4.5 scholarships available for 12 players, that means the equivalent of 7.5 tuition-paying students in men's tennis. Wilson estimated that his athletes are responsible for pumping $200,000 a year in out-of-state tuition and other expenses to the university.

“I know the athletic department is separate,” Wilson said. “But there is no athletic department without the university.

“These guys aren’t on full rides. If you’re a junior, think about how much money you’ve given to the University of Iowa at this point to not get a degree from the University of Iowa. And the promise when these guys signed was … five years to play four, and we will get you your degree. That was part of the guys’ frustration.”

Another angle that players brought up during their venting session at Carver-Hawkeye: In 2018, a $2.4 million gift from Kirk and Diane Mellecker was provided to fully endow the Iowa men’s tennis head coaching position. The annual interest from that gift covers Wilson’s salary — which in fiscal year 2019 was $86,145, among the lowest-paid head tennis coaches in the Big Ten. There was a gathering to celebrate the first and only endowed coaching position at Iowa.

“Gary was there,” Wilson said, “and said this endowment is going to help tennis live on for another 100 years at Iowa.”

The events of the past few weeks has certainly revealed an unsavory side to not-for-profit Division I college athletics and served as a reminder that football is king. Barta, who affirmed that the decision on all four sports was final, said Thursday that it would take a $20 million endowment to save men’s tennis. By comparison, the largest private fund-raising total in Iowa athletics history was $38.3 million for a new football facility.

Reached by e-mail, the Melleckers (who live in Park City, Utah) said they were “heartbroken” about the tennis news.

“All the hard work and commitment to bring Iowa tennis to national prominence, all dropped,” Kirk Mellecker wrote. “To see the dreams and aspirations of these young men put aside is very painful. For Diane and I, what will be missed the most is the personal connection acquired with these kids and coaches. They became an extension of our family.

“We are Hawkeyes for life and will get through this. However, it is going to take some time.”

Perhaps there can still be an inspiring conclusion to this story.

In March, Iowa was on course to reach the 64-team NCAA championships for the first time in school history until spring sports ended over COVID-19 concerns. The Hawkeyes were six weeks from achieving their breakthrough, and it was taken away. 

That disappointment made the Aug. 21 bombshell heavier.

Wilson expressed his support for any decision his players (four of them new freshmen) made — play on, transfer, redshirt, return home. Days later, all 12 knew their plans.

All 12 were staying. They want to make one last run together, for each other and for their coach.

“I’d love to have a very good season with the boys,” Davies said. “We’re going to keep our heads held high and keep fighting.

"We’ve never had it easy here. We like to do things the hard way."

Kerst, a native of Ann Arbor, Michigan, remembered speaking to the team last spring about setting higher goals than the program's first NCAA tournament. He believed the Hawkeyes had enough firepower to be chosen as a host team (at their sprawling 20-court complex, completed in 2006) and could reach the Sweet 16.

He recalled looking around the room and seeing heads nod. The players know where this program has been, and where it could have gone.

“While it’s been greatly, greatly delayed, that vision is still alive,” Kerst said. “That’s why I’m coming back, and it’s a huge part of why the guys are sticking around.”

Now, they just need coronavirus cooperation and a spring season for one more shot.

They’ll likely go down as the last men’s tennis team in Hawkeye history.

But they aren't yet out. They can hopefully leave a final, unforgettable mark at a place they grew to love.

“While we hate what’s happening, we love the University of Iowa,” Kerst said. “That’s a fact. That’s a huge part of why this decision is so painful.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.