When Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia announced it was cutting its Division I wrestling program on April 2, requests for communication from the school's athletic administration were initially refused. Requests from this outlet and numerous outlets from local news media to national wrestling websites were summarily declined, as the school cited its press release as the only statement it would make.
Since this announcement was made, requests were made for ODU Athletics Director Dr. Wood Selig to come on to either the Short Time Wrestling Podcast or the ODU Wrestling Monarch Matcast, a podcast paid for by the Old Dominion University wrestling program as part of the Mat Talk Podcast Network. Those requests were also denied. After a phone conversation with Mike Hermann, the Senior Associate Athletic Director for External Relations on April 5, the ODU administration said they would allow me to “get some answers” regarding the questions surrounding the drop. I again asked for an on the record interview for the show. ODU was willing to answer “six or seven” e-mail questions.
There's obviously still many questions that need to be answered, but I settled on and sent 10 questions I felt that were fair and offered ODU administration the chance to answer for what it had done and why it took the route it did. Those questions were submitted on April 8 and the answers were supplied to me (and forwarded to Earl Smith of TheOpenMat.com, who had requested interviews every single day since the announcement) for national publication on April 13. During this time, Old Dominion University's women's basketball coach, Nikki McCray-Penson announced she would be leaving the school to accept the same position at Mississippi State, slowing down the response time.
The editorial commentary on this Q&A will be posted on other platforms. This blog post simply serves as the vehicle for these responses, which the fans, parents, wrestlers and alumni have sought. To be clear, this is not good enough, but this is the best the administration would offer. These are not the only questions that needed to be asked. Hopefully this can also kickstart more localized media outlets to get more of their questions answered.
The questions are bulleted, in bold. Dr. Selig's answers are in italics. – Jason Bryant
Many of these questions are derived from a look at the Strategic Review from hired outside consultants.
Q&A with ODU Athletic Director Wood Selig
As you know, you are the only member of the media given the opportunity to ask follow-up questions. They have been answered honestly. Although we don’t have control on what you do with the answers, we hope you will treat your university fairly and give your followers the chance to see both sides of the issue.
- A review of the study Old Dominion paid consultant Dr. Richard Sander, a former Athletic Director at VCU from ODU’s former conference, the CAA, shows there was a 12-question survey submitted to members of the department, coaches, staff, donors and athletic constituents. What are/were those 12 questions and when were they distributed?
(Answer only if the 12-question survey is not provided)
As it relates to the 12-question survey, how many of those coaches, staff, donors and athletic constituents were actually representative of wrestling, men’s soccer and baseball programs and was the idea their program was SPECIFICALLY in danger ever outlined in any of those questions?
WS: The survey was an initial tool utilized by Dr. Sander to get a sense of the department on several issues and did not play a major role in the ultimate decision-making process. Rather, it was a first step to get to know the department better and gain staff insight. Every athletics staff member was invited to participate. The survey focused more on strengths and weaknesses and did not include questions about sport sponsorship.
- The only time the word “academic” was found in the consultant’s study came with the term “academic year” and as a condition of wrestlers maintaining their financial aid. Why would Old Dominion even consider a study’s findings if the academic welfare of the student-athletes and their academic performance not be even factored, discussed, researched or displayed in any manner? The purpose of higher education is a degree, and this study only seemed to focus on the financial aspects of college sports and not the academic implications of the students-athletes, who are ultimately the responsibility of the administration.
WS: Yes, the academic performance of student-athletes is the top concern of the department. As you may know, the student-athletes had an average GPA of 3.01 in the most recent semester. Graduation success rates, average APR and average GPA data is shared regularly among senior staff and has been trending upward. Plus, since we knew the consultant report might be circulated widely, we were careful to exclude data that may be FERPA protected.
More to the point, the review was focused on the financial health of the program, not the academic performance or support. There are other mechanisms that review those processes. This report focused on the designated topic of the financial future of the athletics program.
- In an e-mail to ODU Sports Hall of Fame inductee and two-time wrestling All-American James Nicholson, Dr. Wood Selig gave the figure $25 million dollars and cited he didn’t believe it could be raised. If constituents of ODU sports were given a survey, why wouldn’t you offer the courtesy of giving the wrestling program (or soccer or baseball) programs the opportunity to fundraise in order to endow their programs?
WS: The ODAF fundraising team is working to build overall athletics endowment for all programs, whenever possible. Regarding the wrestling program, we made the decision to discontinue the sport without advance notice to the staff, student-athletes and alumni for several reasons. First, once a university announces that a sport program is dependent upon fundraising for its future survival, it creates negative momentum for the program, including difficulty to attract quality recruits and to retain student-athletes and coaches. Second, internal research and projections based on previous Old Dominion fundraising history indicated that fund raising substantial contributions to endow the wrestling program was not possible, especially in the urgent time frame to raising those funds prior to the 2020-21 year.
The program expenses including scholarships, salaries and operations is approximately of $1 million. The Old Dominion Foundation policy permits four percent of endowed funds can be used for annual operations. Therefore, it would require a $25 million endowment to generate the $1 million necessary to operate the wrestling program annually. As a comparison, the effort to raise $8.5 million for the ODU men’s and women’s basketball practice venue took more than six years to complete.
- Several years ago, Old Dominion Athletics started to raise money for the new basketball practice facility. Before, during and after its completion, alumni were told the addition of volleyball would also lead to a shared competition space with the wrestling team at the Jim Jarrett Building, which was to be renovated. In Harry Minium’s story about the volleyball facility in January 2020, there is no mention of wrestling’s use of that facility as a competition venue. When was wrestling’s use of that space removed from the athletic department plan?
WS: The purpose behind the January article was to drive interest in the new women’s volleyball program so the article focused on that sport. The venue was designed as a multi-use facility that could be used for other events, including wrestling matches. Volleyball is planning to practice and compete in the new facility so naturally that program would be the dominant user and the focus of the article. It was planned that wrestling would use the renovated facility for home competitions until it was determined that the sport would be discontinued.
Editor's Note: In phone call to the author of that story, Harry Minium, last week, Harry told me he didn't have have any knowledge that the renovated Jim Jarrett Athletic Administration building that was going to house the new volleyball team's competition venue was to be a shared with wrestling when he wrote the story.
- The study states all programs could not be trimmed across the board because it would put them at a competitive disadvantage, except for football and basketball, which the study claims could not have resources removed. If being competitive was a reason for not trimming the budgets universally, why was wrestling’s success, creating 10 All-Americans since 2008, not considered. This is validated by a wrestling supporter being told by Dr. Selig it wasn’t about who had the most All-Americans.
WS: Many might not be aware, but over the past three years, the athletics program has consistently made budget reductions across many departments, saving $1.2 million over that time frame. Even with those reductions, actual expenses exceeded actual revenues in several of those years, depleting the state-mandated athletics reserves to a point of concern. The university CFO commissioned a financial review of the athletics program several years ago in an effort to protect the reserves from further erosion and stabilize the financial future of the intercollegiate athletics program. As a result of this review, numerous strategies were recommended, including considering the reduction of the number of sports sponsored. Following this discussion, athletics began working with Dr. Sander’s firm for an outsider’s perspective on the financial plan for ODU athletics. The conclusion of Dr. Sanders’ report supported the reduction of the number of sports sponsored by one program, moving to 16 NCAA sports and meeting the minimum required by NCAA FBS institutions.
When it came time to evaluate each sports program to determine how to reduce the number of sports sponsored, a number of factors were considered, including the overall cost of the sports program (had to be significant enough to close the revenue-expense gap), the impact on Title IX compliance and the conference and national landscape of each sport. The number of All-Americans each program generates was not one of the strategic criteria.
- The wrestling program’s elimination was also referenced in regards to conference affiliation. The winningest program in school history, field hockey, with nine NCAA championships, was also placed in the same situation. As was a new rowing team. Neither of those teams participate in Conference USA. How can a criteria be established to eliminate one successful team when a school put its most successful NCAA women’s sport in the same position and why should the of decisions from the administration that the wrestling team had no control over be used as a punishment to those athletes?
WS: Conference affiliation and each sport’s national landscape was one of the criteria used. The impact on Title IX compliance was another. You are correct that wrestling, field hockey, women’s lacrosse and rowing participate in conferences other than Conference USA. The three women’s sports are critical to our institutional commitment to Title IX compliance.
- It’s clear the study doesn’t adequately research the landscape of college wrestling or Division I wrestling, failing to cite anything other than publicly available participation and sponsorship statistics that any fan can find on the NCAA website. Zero mention of the NCAA wrestling championships being one of the championships makes the NCAA money (men’s basketball, baseball, men’s hockey, wrestling, lacrosse) and the NCAA championships for Division I men’s wrestling sold more than 40,000 tickets PER SESSION at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis before the postseason was cancelled. With that in mind:
Do you believe the criteria in the study that eliminated wrestling were created fairly and not specifically designed to eliminate the wrestling program, since the school and the consultants clearly knew from the onset that wrestling was not a C-USA sponsored sport and did very little to explore the landscape of the sport beyond surface numbers?
WS: As you state, the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championship is an outstanding event and is well attended. However, it has no direct impact on the finances of Old Dominion athletics program as there is no revenue sharing from that event, like there is for men’s basketball. ODU generates less than $10,000 annually in gate receipts for wrestling. Annual contributions specific to wrestling are minimal.
Many of our regional rivals no longer wrestle. ODU once enjoyed wrestling rivalries with VCU, William & Mary, James Madison, Norfolk State, East Carolina, Hampton, Richmond and Liberty. All have either discontinued the sport or moved it to club status.
As the study indicates, the most consideration was given to wrestling, baseball and men’s soccer as the sport to discontinue. Wrestling has 75 participating programs at the NCAA Division I level. Men’s soccer has 205; baseball, 297. As we evaluated the national landscape among NCAA Division I schools, the total sponsorship numbers and regional trends became significant factors.
- From one perspective, it appears that wrestling is being cut to either offset scholarships required by women’s volleyball and from another perspective, it’s been cut to avoid the school from being forced to add an expensive start-up softball program and Title IX is being viewed as one of the culprits.
Title IX is not a new policy, law or application to college athletics. It’s been enacted since 1972 and no athletic decision can be made without first looking at Title IX compliance. It’s part of the day-to-day operations and job as a college administrator. So why is Title IX being used as one of the reasons when the issue with of Title IX compliance was created directly by the administration? Rowing, women’s volleyball and softball were all announced to be on the horizon with the addition of football, but only two of those sports have been added while wrestling has now been cut.
WS: You are correct that Title IX is not new. Old Dominion has a strong history of commitment to the principles of Title IX, going back to the decision to become the first university in the Commonwealth to offer athletics scholarships to women. We continue to have an active Title IX plan, as required by the federal government. Title IX plans are dynamic. It must adjust to a changing environment. When the university announced that it would add three women’s sports and football in 2007, the funding model for athletics in Virginia was different than today. At that time, the plan was to introduce the new sports through student fee support. A student fee increase funded the start of the rowing program in 2008. When House Bill 1897 was adopted in 2015, the state limited the percentage of student fee revenue that an institution could use for athletics based on its NCAA membership level. Thus, the funding model that was planned in 2007 for the addition of sports had to be adjusted, putting the responsibility on ODU athletics to self-generate funds for any future athletics programs.
The institution was committed to provide increasing opportunities for women, even under the new funding model, so it began the plan to add women’s volleyball three years ago. Volleyball was selected because of the strength of the program in Hampton Roads and the excitement it generates on college campuses in the fall.
It would not be possible to discontinue a women’s sport without negatively impacting the university’s Title IX compliance, which includes the prong of providing increasing opportunities for women.
- In a 2015 interview with Flowrestling titled “ODU AD Wood Selig a huge ally to wrestling,” Athletic Director Wood Selig said Old Dominion’s motto is about Championship Effort. In what way could this survey, unknown to most of the ODU alumni and athletics population, specifically the wrestling alumni and donors, be described as a Championship Effort?
WS: The survey was conducted internally among athletics staff and coaches. It was not intended to be an external research tool.
- Who advised Old Dominion University athletics to cut a sport during the COVID-19 global pandemic when the athletes have no direct access to administrative support, coaching support, academic support other than online video portals? Why would anyone believe this was the time to make this announcement?
WS: It was a difficult time to the make the announcement. It was also critical that the announcement be made at this time. The announcement to the team was planned for immediately following the season in a face-to-face meeting. The timing was balancing two values: we did not want to distract the team from the current season, and we wanted to give them as much notice as possible to find a new program if they wanted to continue to compete or coach. With the NCAA signing date for wrestling resuming on April 15, the timing provided the current student-athletes a window of opportunity to negotiate with other coaches before the coaches make the final commitments on the 2020-21 recruiting class.
When we made the announcement, we were aware that the NCAA had lost significant resources with the cancellation of championships and that ODU would receive $1 million less in funds for 2020-21. We also estimated that the economic downtown would impact self-generated revenue, estimated at another $1.5 million loss.
With revenue decreasing, the need to decrease expenses had become more pressing. It was clear we could not delay the announcement.
During the Zoom meeting with the team, I apologized for both the decision and the method of delivery. I told the student-athletes that I would have preferred to share this shocking news in person. We also took several other steps with a focus on student welfare. We shared counseling information with the student-athletes, which remains available via long-distance delivery. Every student on the team will retain their scholarship through four academic years if they remain at ODU. Incoming students will retain their scholarship for the 2020-21 year, if they desire more time to make a college choice decision. We retained Steve Martin on the staff through the end of 2020 to assist with the transition of each student-athlete and staff member. The assistant coaches were also provided modest support packages. When we shared the news with our athletics staff and fellow student-athletes, we asked them to reach out to the members of the team, providing support. While this was a business-related decision, our staff and students care a great deal about the wrestling student-athletes and coaches.
- Extra Credit: Given the gift of hindsight, what could ODU have done differently to avoid this outcome?
WS: As we have said throughout this process, this was a difficult, painful, last-resort decision made in the overall best interest of the future of the Old Dominion athletics program. I apologize to former and current ODU wrestlers, coaches and fans for the outcome. We did not take this situation lightly and regret that the situations warranted this decision. I don’t expect everyone to agree with the decision, especially those in the tight-knit wrestling community.
Questions submitted by 2004 Old Dominion University alum Jason Bryant, contributor to the ODAF, host of the ODU Wrestling Monarch Matcast, former Editor In Chief of the ODU Student Paper, the Mace & Crown and former sports director at WODU Radio, ODU’s campus radio station.