As the contracts for coaches in UC Santa Cruz NCAA athletics approached their annual renewal in June, most of the staff was optimistic for the future. The student body had just passed a referendum, Measure 68, to provide student fee funding for the program and end a three-year threat from the Chancellor’s Office to eliminate NCAA athletics because of increasingly unsustainable costs.
But on June 28, just days before the coaches’ 2016-17 contracts expired, two head coaches, women’s soccer head coach Emily Scheese and cross country and track and field head coach Jamey Harris were dismissed. Head swim and dive coach, aquatics director and PE instructor Kim Musch retired early after he was given an ultimatum: receive a 33 percent pay cut and be restricted to only coaching or retire from the program he served for over 19 years. The department sent an email to all 10 assistant NCAA coaches alerting them they would need to reapply for their positions.
Andrea Willer, the executive director of the Office of Physical Education, Recreation and Sports (OPERS), explained the decision to make these staffing changes was based on employee evaluations, an effort to align UCSC athletics with other comparable Division III athletic programs and, in the case of Kim Musch, changes in UC policy that redefined how employees can divide their work load.
“After careful consideration, I decided it was in our program’s best interest to make a coaching change,” Willer said in an email. Willer has also served as acting athletic director for just under a year.
Scheese and Harris’ dismissal was based on the department’s “comprehensive review,” according to Willer, which assessed the relationships between coaches and athletes, compliance with NCAA and university regulations, fiscal oversight, fundraising and administrative performance.
The formal employee evaluations conducted by the athletic department in the 2016-17 school year were online self-evaluations that started on July 1, three days after the coaches’ dismissals. Student athletes were not solicited for any formal evaluation of their coaches’ performances.
Willer emphasized no assistant coaches have been laid off but all of them are required to reapply for their positions. This time, their contracts will last for six months, as opposed to nine, and their benefits will be based on eligibility instead of a guarantee.
Though Willer has not offered further justification or explanation for restructuring assistant coaching positions, a report conducted by the Special Committee on Athletics in the Academic Senate last year found that UCSC NCAA assistant coaches made slightly more than other Division III coaching staffs and recommended a review of assistant coaching costs.
“This change will bring our program in line with the structure of other NCAA Division III programs and support the long-term health of the program,” Willer said in an email.
While many understand the need for a more sustainable budget, some assistant coaches insist the abrupt changes don’t reflect a fair working environment. Four of the assistant coaches have since filed grievances with the university, claiming OPERS did not offer the expected 30-day notice for layoff. However, it is unclear as to whether their grievances will be heard due to their contracts, which don’t require any notification upon termination of their annual contracts as long as it is prior to the contract’s expiration date.
For coach Emily Scheese, the sudden change up in staffing was not just a question of fairness to the coaches, but also a difficult blow to the program.
“Three fall sports programs are in this situation and we have no athletic director […],” Scheese said. ”We have no assistant coaches in place to be interim heads if it came to that situation. I’m really wondering what was the plan? What is the plan? A coach can’t just land on their feet and be successful […] two days before the season starts.”
Women’s soccer, cross country, swim and dive all start practice in a month’s time and have no coaching staff. The process to fill the vacant coaching positions began July 10 with an application review process starting July 24.
The Measure 68 Conundrum
Given that Measure 68 was intended to save athletics, these staff change-ups have raised serious questions from students and faculty about the need for restructure and how this restructure reflects what students voted for
UCSC politics professor and former athletic faculty adviser Dan Wirls served on the Special Committee on Athletics that offered recommendations for athletic funding models. He explained that the committee never suggested layoffs, especially not with Measure 68’s passage.
“It wasn’t as though there was some kind of crisis with the budget,” Wirls said. “There was pressure on the budget, costs had gone up, but given that Measure 68 passed, that took a lot of pressure off of the budget, at least for a year, to look into what was the best way to move forward.”
With the passage of Measure 68 in spring 2017, students will pay $38.50 every quarter to fund athletics, totalling about $2 million every academic year. The university will also commit $500,000 annually to support the program starting the 2018-19 school year. These funds were intended in part to ensure a fully staffed model for athletics and to pay salaries for currently vacated positions like athletic directors, associate athletic directors and athletic trainers.
“The referendum pulled us [student athletes] together because we were fighting for a common goal to play sports and represent our school,” said Student Athletic Advisory Committee (SAAC) president and junior women’s soccer player Kayla Mccord. “Doing this is torture because the people that are on our side and are supposed to be doing this with us seem to be holding us back.”
The loss of coaching staff has also led to the cancellation of summer camps that were included as part of the athletic department’s new budget projected on last year’s referendum ballot. With women’s soccer coach Emily Scheese now gone, the team’s high school recruitment sessions, intended to run July 25-July 27, have been cancelled. Participants prepaid $695 and the funds were intended to act as part of the athletic program’s goal of generating $40,000 annually from summer programs.
For now, the same students who campaigned for Measure 68 to secure the athletic department’s future are anxiously planning fall’s preseason schedule with a short coaching staff. By NCAA compliance, women’s soccer season starts August 19. For cross country, the team is expected to hold a tryout and physical fitness camp on August 21 and swim and dive’s preseason training starts September 6. This leaves little time for the hiring process, let alone time to accomplish necessary preseason tasks.
Even before practices start, any prospective coach would need to manage preseason tryouts, secure housing and meal plans for incoming students coming to summer practice and tryouts, manage NCAA compliance and secure travel plans for the entire season.
“My fear right now about having a season [is] because we need to get a coach hired ASAP and there is a lot that goes into a season before school starts,” McCord said. “We basically have less than six weeks to get this all figured out.”
The Scramble to Save the Season
Andrea Willer is trying to hire new coaches by early August, prioritizing these positions above a new athletic director or any other administrative positions.
OPERS created a hiring committee to fill the vacant coaching positions that includes student representatives from the Student Athletic Advisory Committee (SAAC) and each affected team. While there is still concern over the short timeline for rehiring and an initial lack of transparency in the department’s personnel decisions, some athletes are happy to have a seat at the decision-making table.
“After a lot of backlash, [OPERS] decided to include us and I was contacted by [Andrea Willer] to be part of the committee hiring the new coaches,” said senior women’s swim captain and a member of the hiring committee, Kristin White. “Now they’re trying really hard to get the student athletes back on their side by having them become part of the process.”
In the wake of no coaching staff, student athletes are doing their best to contact incoming recruits and manage whatever administrative tasks they can to minimize setbacks to their seasons.
“Right now we are doing the leg work that a coach would be doing for our team to have some chance of survival,” McCord said.