EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the last in a series of four stories looking into the state of the Eastern Illinois University Athletic Department.
CHARLESTON -- Eastern Illinois has the honor of having the most athletic programs in the Ohio Valley Conference. During a retreat with the EIU Board of Trustees, EIU President David Glassman offers 21 spots, ahead of any team in the OVC. The average number of athletic programs offered by the schools in the OVC is 17. Schools have to offer at least 14 athletic programs to remain an NCAA Division I school.
But it's under debate as to how long EIU will continue to have 21 athletic programs. Even before the state budget crisis, there was a discussion if EIU should cut a sport or two, or three or maybe even four. It's been a discussion that's been ongoing since Tom Michael, who was hired as the AD in July of 2014, interviewed for the job.
"This isn't a new phenomenon at EIU. Today, because of the budget situation, we are thinking about cutting sports," Michael said. "It's been discussed for a number of years as to trying to determine the right number of sports EIU offers. There's been some very intense and deep thoughts. This isn't something that is being done whimsically. There's been some incredibly difficult discussions about how to analyze it."
During an interview back in August, Glassman said he explored the idea of cutting some athletic programs even before the budget crisis. For Glassman, it comes down to if all of the student-athletes are getting the right experience.
"It becomes a question as to do you want to allow the athletic department to provide the best student-athlete experience possible and that would be by having fewer sports," Glassman said. "What the university really desires is that all student-athletes, on whatever team they play for, have the opportunity for a championship experience, a Division I championship experience.
"Right now, we have too many teams to ensure that all of our sports teams have that kind of experience."
However, the situation just isn't as simple as cutting sports to save money. The main sports, such as football, men's and women's basketball and volleyball, are safe from being eliminated. Sports that provide a smaller amount of scholarships, such as the Olympic sports, are in more danger. But those athletes pay tuition dollars and usually don't receive full-ride scholarships. So cutting any of those sports will not only affect tuition numbers, but also the amount of tuition and housing that the university receives.
It's unknown exactly what sports are on the chopping block, but there's been plenty of speculation. During the retreat back in June, an analysis of the tuition, fees, housing, etc., was handed out as to how much each sport that is being considered for elimination brings in.
For example, Sport A brings in $84,160 in tuition, $25,650 in fees and $28,262 in housing. Five sports were listed and the total amount of tuition money that's brought in for the 2016 academic year was $903,440.50. The total net fee revenue of the five sports added up to $1,046,979.46.
"You certainly don't want to reduce the amount of revenue the university is generating because that can be used for targeted investments," Glass said. "It could be used for marketing. It could be used for developing and improving our academic excellence."
Glassman also noted that a conclusion hasn't been reached if all five sports could be cut, if only one or two or three or four sports could be cut, or if any sports will be cut at all.
This isn't a decision that Glassman alone makes. It's not a decision that Michael makes alone. It's not even something Glassman and Michael will make together. The EIU Board of Trustees has to be fully involved in the decision, according to Michael.
"This is an institutional decision and everyone has to be on board with it," Michael said. "If not, we can't go down that road. Everyone has to understand that fully. ... If sports are eliminated, there's a high probability those kids would leave and it would affect the tuition dollars. You don't want to lose the revenue and have them leave because you are making the decision.
"At the same time, when you are told to live within your means, you can't have it both ways, so that makes it difficult."
The reason everyone has to be on board from Glassman to Michael and the EIU board is because of the negative impact cutting a sport can have, not just from a loss of tuition money, but also from the publicity.
Michael did cut women's rugby before the 2015 season, but that wasn't because of budget issues. Michael pointed to the roster and the lack of numbers of the program, which made safety an issue. Former EIU rugby players, which include current Quinnipiac women's rugby coach Becky Carlson, voiced their displeasure at the elimination of the program.
In May of 2007, EIU eliminated the wrestling program. Shortly after, a committee was formed -- Save EIU Wrestling -- but it wasn't enough to bring the program back. According to past reports, the wrestling program was eliminated due to poor academic performance by wrestlers.
Even though it's been a decade since EIU cut the wrestling program, Michael still hears from alumni who wish the program was still around.
"There's many, many years, decades of folks that have participated that are affected by this," Michael said. "That all has to be taken into consideration when you evaluate the decision."
The flip side of cutting sports, even though it may have a negative impact on the student-athletes who would see their program cut, is it would also have a positive impact on the other sports and take pressure off the athletic department as a whole.
"It puts you in a better position to balance the budget. It allows you the opportunity to enhance the student-athlete experience in a variety of sports," Michael said. "It's painful to think about because those kids haven't done anything wrong to say why my sports should be eliminated, but at the same time, you look at this, we have to balance the budget and we are providing the experience that EIU student athletics deserve."
In the form that was provided at the retreat, if EIU cut all five sports under consideration, it would bring a net savings of $180,787.12 to the EIU athletic department. Not every sport eliminated would save EIU money. Of the five sports in question, two would actually cost the athletic department money if EIU cut them. One sport, Sport E, would save the athletic department $206,498.90 if eliminated, but would also cost the university $302,226.50 in tuition dollars.
So where does EIU athletics sit in terms of competitiveness with other OVC schools? The OVC has a Commissioner's Cup that is handed out yearly to the top athletic program in the conference. Each athletic program scores points in terms of where it finished in the OVC standings. Eastern Kentucky has been awarded the Commissioner's Cup the last four seasons. EIU won the Cup for the 2012-13, 2010-11 and 2009-10 academic seasons. The Commissioner's Cup has only been awarded since the 2008-09 season.
EIU finished sixth in the standings last season and finished in second place from from 2013-14 to 2015-16. Last season was the first time EIU's ever finished lower than third place in the Commissioner's Cup standings.
Michael said some programs at EIU have found a way to remain consistently successful and some of the other programs are trying to build back up.
"I don't think there's any question that some have figured out certain niches to be successful and when you are successful, it's typical to build off that success," Michael said. "You look at the track programs and what coach (Tom) Akers has done there -- they have been very, very successful and they are able to recruit because of that success and get that high-caliber student-athlete and that's very helpful and good for them.
"You do have some where it is more difficult for a variety of reasons to be successful. You continue to try and work with these coaches and they are recruiting student-athletes so they can be successful and try and raise the bar."
The EIU men's and women's track and field programs were the highest scorers last season after the men and women swept the OVC indoor track titles and the women won the outdoor title. Since Akers took over as the head track and field coach at EIU, the Panthers have 17 indoor titles and 15 outdoor titles.
Even with all of the success, Akers still has plenty of hurdles, so to speak, to continue to run the program at a high level.
"Obviously we have been successful with what we have. Do we have everything we need to be successful? I think there are things that could help us make it more successful than what we are," Akers said. "I think we have been under some constraints here at Eastern Illinois. If you look at the number of sports and our athletic budget compared to some other state universities, you would see that we are minimally funded.
"Obviously everyone wants more. It would be nice if we didn't have to worry so much about where we are going and getting competition. Over the years, I think tradition has helped us a great deal. I think we've done very well with what we've been given over the history of our athletic department. We are hanging in there. How much longer we can hang in there, only time will tell."
Akers said the scholarships the program receives have stayed at the same number over the past few seasons as tuition continues to increase.
"Our buying power has gone down as far as our scholarships," Akers said. "As we compare ourselves with other schools that do have the full allotment of scholarships, I think we are being very competitive and doing a good job there. It would be nice to have that luxury of having some extra scholarships that we can get some of the bigger name athletes that we've been going after that we've been outbid on by other universities."
Striking that balance is what Michael faces. If programs are cut, the other programs could see more scholarships or better support as a whole. If programs aren't cut, every program keeps operating at the same level with the same tight budget.
That's the decision that Michael, Glassman and the EIU Board of Trustees has on its table currently.
"We would love to give all of our sports more, provide a bigger operating and recruiting budget," Michael said. "That's not where we are right now. I feel like they have the resources to be successful. I think all of those coaches would tell you we are not where we need to be. We have room to continue to improve and that's what we need to do. We need to continue to put them in position to have that success so we can win games."