Gilbert: Cutting 4 ECU athletic teams ‘extremely disappointing’

The school shut down its men’s and women’s programs in tennis as well as swimming and diving

A statue of Pee Dee the Pirate watches over ECU's Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium (Brett Friedlander/North State Journal)

Jon Gilbert stepped to the microphone and delivered the bad news at a press conference Thursday.

But it was the 12 seconds of silence, as the East Carolina athletic director fought to compose himself as he was overcome by emotion, that spoke louder than any of his words.

The decision to discontinue four sports — the swimming and diving teams and tennis teams for both men and women — was difficult enough. But what made the cost-cutting measures even worse is the way Gilbert was forced to tell the affected athletes and coaches that their competitive careers with the Pirates were over.

“The decision to eliminate four sports programs today goes against everything that I believe in and was taught in intercollegiate athletics. This is not something that I take lightly,” he said before pausing, removing his glasses and drying his eyes.

“I was extremely disappointed to deliver this news to our 68 student-athletes that were affected. It was difficult because I had to do it behind a computer screen and I couldn’t be in the room with them. I couldn’t feel what they were feeling. I wanted to be with them today.”

In announcing the cuts, both Gilbert and ECU interim chancellor Ron Mitchelson reiterated that the affected athletes “did nothing wrong” and pledged to either honor their scholarships or provide assistance in transferring to other schools.

In fact, the men’s swimming and diving team won its fourth American Athletic Conference championship in February and coach Matthew Jabs was named the league’s Coach of the Year.

The four programs were victims of a projected $10 million shortfall in ECU’s athletic budget for the current fiscal year. That’s nearly $3 million more than previous estimates made before the COVID-19 outbreak that forced Gilbert to deliver the news virtually rather than in person and led to the cancellation of winter sports championships and the entire spring season.

The athletic director, who is within weeks of completing his first year on the job in Greenville, estimated that the cuts will save the athletic department $4.9 million.

“While these decisions have been horribly difficult for us, they are equally necessary,” Mitchelson said. “For much of the Pirate Nation, there is a painful sense of loss, we know that. And for some, there is grief. I say frequently that Pirates are passionate and Pirates are compassionate, and I believe that. We certainly are passionate when it comes to our sports teams. And we certainly have deep empathy for those four sports.”

ECU’s decision to eliminate sports is part of a growing national trend as schools look to tighten their belts in the face of trying financial times that have only been exaggerated by the current pandemic.

Eight other Division I schools have made similar cuts involving 12 sports programs during the past few weeks, including the Pirates’ AAC rival Cincinnati, which was one of the first to make a move when it discontinued men’s soccer back on April 14.

The ECU moves came less than a week after the release of a report by a working group of ECU staff members recommending significant cuts in athletic spending. The release stated that the subject of dropping sports had not come up before the NCAA suspended all athletic activities in mid-March.

“This is a painful decision, but it’s simple. ECU does not possess adequate financial resources to support 20 sports programs successfully,” Mitchelson said. “Please understand the decisions today were arrived at after a very deliberate evaluation. No rock was left unturned.”

Mitchelson said that facilities were a major consideration in deciding which sports would be eliminated. The natatorium inside Minges Coliseum is in dire need of renovation. The tennis team, meanwhile, did not have an on-campus facility of its own, forcing the school to pay for courts on which it could practice and play matches.

Thursday’s cuts leave ECU with just 16 varsity sports, the fewest among members of the American Athletic Conference. Its 20 sports before the cuts were tied for the most in the league.

Because the NCAA requires schools to sponsor a minimum of 16 athletic sports — at least eight women’s and six men’s — Gilbert said that no further contraction of ECU’s program is being considered.

“We are going to continue to support our 16 sport programs,” he said. “But today I want our focus to be on the coaches and student-athletes who are affected by this. I hope everyone will join me in celebrating them and continue to celebrate them in the future.”