The University of Findlay has become the third school in a year to announce its intention to drop its hockey program, joining Fairfield and Iona. At the end of this season Findlay will revert its program to club and intramural status.
“Strong colleges and universities look to the future, plan ahead, and establish priorities,” said school president, Dr. DeBow Freed, who was just hired this past summer. “The University of Findlay has excellent academic programs which need support and budgets which need to be balanced.”
Athletic director Steven Rackley said the choice was difficult, but necessary.
“We did what we could to make hockey a successful program here at The University of Findlay,” said Rackley. “Considering our current academic push and the economic impact hockey had on our University, it became clear that we needed to make this change.”
Findlay moved its entire athletic program from NAIA to NCAA Division II prior to the 1998 academic year. In so doing, it announced its intention to add a women’s program and play Division I hockey. This coincided with the construction of a new on-campus facility, Clauss Arena.
But speculation that this move was forthcoming heated up in August when Craig Barnett, the only coach the program had ever known, announced his intention, just as the school year began, to leave and take a position at Lake Forest Academy, a prep school near Chicago. This followed the departure of his father-in-law as president at Findlay.
Former Wisconsin player and assistant Pat Ford was named the team’s head coach.
When asked at the time, Barnett said he was hopeful this day wouldn’t come.
“We don’t think we’re in trouble,” said Barnett in August. “The administration made a commitment to the program, built a rink on campus, made a big commitment to the CHA. I would hope the new administration would live up to that.”
But the new administration decided otherwise.
“The hockey program has brought many good features to the campus, the city of Findlay, and the area,” said Freed. “Hockey players and coaches have represented the University well. It would be great if the program could be continued; unfortunately, it cannot.”
The decision top drop the program leaves the future of Findlay’s hockey conference, College Hockey America, in doubt. With just five teams set for next season, the CHA could lose its automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, which it enjoyed for the first time in 2003. According to NCAA by-laws, six teams are required for a conference to be eligible for an automatic bid.
Speculation has already begun in earnest, however, about the possibility of the CHA bringing in another program, such as one from Atlantic Hockey, in time for the 2004-05 season. Jack McDonald, athletic director at Quinnipiac, didn’t rule out the possibility his school would seek entrance in the CHA, but with Vermont making moves towards Hockey East, the college hockey jigsaw puzzle is still too difficult to figure out.
“There’s not an athletic director in this country that hasn’t thought about a different league,” said McDonald. “We’re all keeping our eye out for what’s best for our institution. But we don’t know what college hockey is going to look like in a few years, so there’s a lot of dominoes that still can and will fall out there.”
Robert Morris, which is currently set to begin play in 2004-05 as an independent, is another possibility.
In fact, Findlay went through a similar process, which led to a host of issues over the years.
In September 2000, the MAAC refused to allow its schools to play Findlay, because of a provision in its own by-laws that prohibits league members from play provisional D-I opponents. The move was widely criticized at the time, particularly because it cut eight games from Findlay’s schedule, dropping it below the 25-game threshold required for that season to count as one year of its provisional status. The hockey community scrambled to help Findlay add enough games to its schedule.
“This is really a short-term issue for Findlay. [But] the hockey community is still a minority in the ranks of the NCAA, and this is an unprecedented approach to the sport,” said Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna at the time. “We usually help one another in the hockey community.”
Later, when the CHA was applying for an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, there were questions surrounding the validity of Findlay’s full Division I status. Just after gaining acceptance in the NCAA as a Division II institution, Findlay announced its intention to move to Division I hockey. But the NCAA had just passed a nine-year moratorium on teams playing up. Findlay asked for a waiver to play up in hockey, and got it. But when the time came for the automatic bid, there were questions over Findlay’s paperwork regarding that waiver. Without Findlay, the CHA would not have received the auto-bid.
Again, the hockey community rallied to help Findlay’s cause, the waiver was retroactively granted, and the CHA received the automatic bid.
It is because of this that today’s announcement was greeted with such consternation from the hockey community.
“A lot of the hockey world went out of their way to support Findlay, the newer teams and conferences, to play them, to help them out,” said Bruce McLeod, WCHA commissioner.
“It hurts on many levels. Some of these things are hard to take. Some of the ramifications are that the CHA may lose their bid, and on the personal level, Pat Ford and his family and all the others who have made a commitment to the Findlay program. Sometimes you can’t control those outside forces that come in and affect our world of college hockey.”
Meanwhile, McDonald forsees another opportunity for the college hockey community to rally and figure out a solution that’s best for the sport as a whole.
“To panic, wouldn’t be right,” McDonald said. “To plan is the right thing to do. If the ACC and Big East can re-look at their alignment, there’s no reason college hockey can’t do the same.
“I think a hockey summit conference is something that should happen. Nobody works better than the hockey fraternity and right now we’re at a crossroads.”
After Findlay moved its athletic program to Division I, then-athletic director Mary Beth Kennedy, was filled with optimism.
“The success of the men’s hockey program over the past three years has been phenomenal,” she said in the summer of 1998. “The positive financial impact of the athletic department and the university has certainly contributed to this decision, as well as the opportunity to attract institutions like Army and Air Force to the UF campus.”
But the tune was very different today.
“Athletic costs need to be in keeping with what the University can afford while supporting other programs well. The conversion of hockey will help a great deal in constraining total athletic costs and bringing them more in line with University goals to further satisfy programs in several areas,” said Freed.
The school said that Clauss Arena will remain open as a 24-hour public-use facility.
Jim Connelly and Jayson Moy also contributed to this article.