The End of an Era
“We were blindsided” Chris Warren said. Cut. A varsity program with over 100 years of history, led by a coach adorned by the Delaware running community was gone, swept away in the middle of the winter. The men’s cross country team roster in 2009 featured 16 names, in 2010 featured 12 names, in 2011 was no more. Head Coach Jim Fischer of 30 years was handed down the decision in a terse 10-minute meeting with the athletic director the day prior. “They said, ‘we’re cutting your program and you’re retiring and we’re gonna announce it tomorrow.’ I didn’t have any inkling that this was taking place.” Fischer said. “No one asked if there were some alternatives.”
Michael O’Brian, a junior on the 2011 team, agrees. “We had all the stats backing us,” O’Brian, now an assistant coach at Delaware Technical Community College said. “We were the cheapest team to fund, had the highest GPA, one of the smallest rosters and most importantly we were in compliance with Title IX of which the athletic department cited to be one of the reasons for the cut.” In the 2009-2010 academic year, Delaware’s men’s cross country and outdoor track & field teams had a combined operating expense of $49,540 while the Football team spent $59,114 per football player with 100 players on the roster, according to an October 2016 report from The News Journal. “Our kids bought their own shoes,” Fischer said. Larry Pratt, Delaware’s throws coach of 49 years says that a lack of experience and understanding of the sport of running among athletic administrations is possible cause for the trend. “If you don’t have a win-loss record, then it’s not a sport, there’s a feeling it’s a club. A now it is a club,” Pratt said.
Varsity Boys in a Club World
As a freshman, Warren was a spot away from making the racing team at the team’s annual time trial. Warren, like the many droves of runners prescribed to Coach Fischer’s philosophy, still trained hard with the team for the next season. The team was thrust into unfamiliar territory, though the group decision was to search for ways to keep the team alive. Though many outside the University of Delaware funneled their outrage into public complaints, the now former varsity teammates worked to reorganize the team as a recognized NIRCA club team. Becoming a National Interscholastic Running Club Association team enabled the men’s team to inherit the remaining funds from the defunct varsity team, and enter into a new class of NIRCA organized meets.
Though many things stayed the same, altogether it felt like a bandage placed over a festering wound. Although Fischer still coached the team though workouts with the women’s team, everything felt a bit off. In a way, the NIRCA meets felt like a support group as a majority of the teams competing had also been cut in years past, and offered condolences off the track. At the NIRCA National Track & Field Championships later that spring the former varsity athletes fought their way to a third place overall finish. Although to them it felt like a disappointment, a pyrrhic victory away from the real NCAA Division 1 competition they were used to.
This feeling of lost competition soon became a self-fulfilling prophecy. As the feeling of purpose waned, so did participation in practice and the membership rolls. Despite a renaissance in Delaware Men’s High School DIAA Cross Country, Track & Field programs, most who continued running competitively opted to go out of state to programs where scholarships were still offered. In 2013 the track inside the fieldhouse was removed, the last regulation sized indoor track in the state. In its place, a plastic turf with 70 yards of football markings and a token two lane marked loop now stands.
A Phoenix Rises
Over the years, a new group of runner has emerged. This group does not neatly fall into one category, but rather is characterized by their differences. What unites them? The fact they came to run, but stayed for the friends and activities together. A solid core of dedicated distance runners remains, though now there is much more. A few years after the NIRCA men’s club team was established, some female distance runners decided they wanted to run too. A few year later, a group of sprinters was reorganized. When the women’s varsity coaching staff changed and stopped sharing workouts, team alumnus Chris Warren stepped in as coach. A few years later the team started its outreach effort with UDance, becoming the first club sports team to adopt a B+ hero.
Membership continues to increase, and every year the bus to nationals is a bit more packed. By the spring of 2017, there were more regulars at practice from the women’s distance squad then the men’s distance squad. The sprints & field squad has grown into a force in their own right, with a tight knit group and plans to compete throughout the fall & spring semesters. Things are looking up, and there is a promise of a long run to come.
With writing by Brandon Holveck and Christopher Kitson, 2017
More info on getting cut (Delaware Running – Six Years Later)
Interviews: Jim Fischer, Michael O’Brian, Larry Pratt, Chris Warren