Towson University baseball coach Mike Gottlieb got the call March 8 at 9:07 a.m. — a time he has committed to memory.
We need you to meet with us at 9:45 a.m., athletic director Mike Waddell told him. Call your players and tell them to come, too, at 10.
It wasn't good news, Waddell said.
Disgusted, Gottlieb called no one. But soon team members, some in class and others still at home, saw messages flash on their cellphones from an unknown number. It said they'd be excused from class if they showed up soon for a meeting at the Johnny Unitas Stadium Field House on campus.
What happened next has resonated far beyond Towson's campus. With several university police officers nearby, President Maravene S. Loeschke announced that the baseball and men's soccer teams would be eliminated, igniting fierce criticism from prominent alumni who decried the move and what they call Loeschke's poor handling of it.
The teams' disbanding made national news and has blown up into the biggest challenge of Loeschke's 18-month tenure as Towson's leader. This week the controversy reached Annapolis, where Gov. Martin O'Malley and Comptroller Peter Franchot rebuked her decision and demanded that she appear before them in two weeks to explain her actions.
The sudden involvement of two of the state's top elected officials has renewed hope for some that Loeschke might yet change her mind. But in an interview Thursday, she said she has no plan to reinstate either team, a decision that has garnered some support on campus.
"I'm not happy about any of this; it's not something that anybody wants to have to do," said Loeschke, who said she based her decision on financial reality and the need to ensure gender parity. But, she added, "I'm very comfortable that the right decision was made and that it was made as humanely as it could have been."
Loeschke said her decision to have police officers on hand was routine for such announcements, which may spark an emotional response. "Given these times, it's the safest thing to do for everyone's protection," she said. "It didn't have to do with my fear of anyone attacking me."
The presence of multiple police officers was a particular source of irritation for Franchot, who said it sent an unfair message that the players were "thugs."
Loeschke's boss, University System of Maryland Chancellor William E. Kirwan, declined to comment on her handling of the announcement but said he supports her decision.
"It's a sad day whenever you eliminate a sports team," Kirwan said. But he said he believes that Loeschke and her advisers tried their best to save the teams: "I think they have come to the only conclusion they can reach and meet the federal and fiscal requirements they have."
Even after this cut, Kirwan noted, Towson will still have 19 intercollegiate athletic programs, tied with the University of Maryland, College Park and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County for most in the state.
Last Wednesday, O'Malley and Franchot — two members of the three-member state Board of Public Works — delayed a pre-construction contract the university needs to make sure a planned building at its new Harford County campus is finished on time. First, the two elected officials said, they want Loeschke to answer questions at the board's next meeting April 3.
Kirwan said Loeschke hopes to sit down with O'Malley and Franchot in the next week to discuss the issue, and he plans to attend the meeting.
Jim Salt, the university system's procurement director, said construction of the building began last month and remains on track to open in the fall of 2014. Sources in Annapolis say the contract is expected to be approved.
Kirwan said he doesn't see "any connection" between Loeschke's decision and an academic building that's "badly needed" in Harford County, adding that he hopes the contract is approved April 3.
Mike Gill, a Towson alumnus and former chairman of the university's Board of Visitors, called the Board of Public Works vote "really extraordinary" and said it "caught the local world by surprise."
"Every now and then, there is a headline that shows up in the afternoon that has you pause to read it again and make sure you read it correctly," he said.
Gill hopes that the mounting pressure will cause Loeschke to reinstate the teams. "I really believe in the next couple of weeks she'll take a deep breath, review everything and step forward to a press conference … and announce we're reversing course," he said.
"I'd like to hope that's exactly what will happen long before she gets in front of the governor."
Gill said he did not lobby either O'Malley or Franchot and was unaware of any attempts to do so: "This is one time I can say, without crossing my fingers behind my back, I'm not in the middle of it."
Franchot said after the meeting that he was "pretty disgusted" by accounts he read in The Baltimore Sun about the team cuts and said he hopes Loeschke reverses course "unless there's an awful good explanation."
O'Malley became aware of the situation from news accounts, though he said far less than Franchot at the board meeting. "The governor wants to hear from the president the reasoning behind the decision to cut programs rather than rely on news accounts," said his spokeswoman, Raquel Guillory.
Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, the third member of the Board of Public Works, voted against deferring the contract. She said she saw no reason to delay an important project that "had nothing to do with baseball or soccer being played at Towson. It was just a vehicle that was used to express displeasure with the president's decision" and notification process.
While students and coaches should be treated "decently and respectfully," she said, "I am always a little nervous about the politicians intervening in activities on campus."
The story has cast Towson, one of the largest public universities in Maryland with nearly 22,000 students, in an unflattering light, including coverage on the sports website Deadspin. And it has upset key members of an alumni network that includes more than 125,000 graduates.
Loeschke has alienated some of Towson's most prominent and active alumni. That group is led by Mike Gill's brother Gary — president and CEO of the commercial real estate firm MacKenzie Ventures Inc. — and has included Atlanta Braves president John Schuerholz, who played baseball and soccer at Towson.
The dispute has dimmed the glow of excitement that greeted Loeschke's hiring in September 2011, when university leaders hailed her as the ideal person to keep the university on an upward path despite the need to scratch for limited state funds.
She was a familiar presence on campus, having spent more than three decades as a student, drama professor and administrator at Towson. She later served five years as president of Pennsylvania's Mansfield University, where she added programs in the face of budget cuts.
"The biggest challenge will be getting the resources we need to maintain and build excellence," she said after taking over at Towson.
She has vocal supporters at Towson. Among her fans is Manny Welsh, a student representative on the University Senate, who publicly endorsed her decision to eliminate the teams, as did the president of the school's Student Government Association. Welsh said students are split but he thinks the criticism from the governor and comptroller is off base.
"She adores students," he said of Loeschke. "We've never had a president who was so active and so visible in the campus community. This entire situation is an example of how a controversial decision with poor communication turns into an absolute mess."
Even before Loeschke decided to cut the teams — soccer immediately, baseball right after the spring season — members of her administration were at odds with those advocating to keep the teams.
Prominent alumni, parents, team members and coaches all say they were shut out of the decision-making process and kept in the dark. "Everything I got was rumor," Gottlieb said this week. "To say there was transparency is an insult to my intelligence."
Loeschke's decision upheld a recommendation put forth last fall by Waddell, the athletic director. She agreed with him that cutting the sports would be the best way to stabilize athletic department finances and comply with Title IX, the federal law mandating equal opportunities for women on campus.
The move will eventually save the department about $900,000 a year.
Cutting athletic teams to save money is not unprecedented at the state's universities. University of Maryland, College Park President Wallace D. Loh eliminated seven athletic teams last summer because of severe, long-standing budget issues. The university is now examining whether any of those teams can be reinstated when the university moves to the Big Ten conference.
The Gill brothers and others argue that Towson has used inaccurate figures to support a fundamentally flawed plan that's aimed at diverting money to the marquee sports of football and men's basketball. Mike Gill said he helped devise a proposal in early February "that so perfectly addressed Title IX and the financial stability" and could have saved the teams.
Ever since the March 8 announcement, there have competing narratives of what happened that day.
Athletes said they gathered in a conference room, and Loeschke stood on a small stage with a plainclothes police officer beside her to make her announcement, which lasted a few minutes. In the room were several more officers, with more outside the room and the building — in all, about 10 to 12, players said.
About 15 members of the baseball team attended, as did seven or eight from the soccer team. Because of the short notice, some students couldn't get there in time.
When she finished, Loeschke told the students "Godspeed," and walked out of the room, escorted by officers. Waddell remained behind to answer questions from students, but they left in anger. The university also brought along counselors to help students deal with their emotions.
"Like we would want to talk to a counselor about that," catcher Zach Fisher said this week.
University officials deny that as many police officers were present as the players claim. Loeschke said she had one officer with her on stage and one in the hallway. She said there may have been more officers outside, though she did not see any.
Charles Herring, the university's deputy chief of police, said he assigned five officers, plus the police chief, to be on hand for the president's announcement.
The reason players and coaches were given little notice, Loeschke says, is that administrators believed the news was about to leak, and she wanted players to hear it from her first.
Now many players are looking to continue their education and collegiate career elsewhere. According to school officials, the university will honor the players' scholarships for four years if they remain at Towson. NCAA rules allow student athletes who transfer because their athletics program has been eliminated to play immediately. Some of the players said they've heard from recruiters at other schools, and only a handful are likely to remain at Towson.
Though some players hope the decision will be reversed, given the involvement of O'Malley and Franchot, they don't expect anything to undo an experience that has left them feeling bitter.
"I thought it was very unprofessional," said Hunter Bennett, a shortstop. "We were all very surprised, and that's the way it's been the whole time — you never know what to think."
Fisher, the catcher, said: "It was just embarrassing how it was handled. I couldn't really think of a worse way to do it."
Fisher was particularly unhappy that the team heard the news only hours before its first game of the season. "Who does that?" he asked. "Obviously there's no good time to do it, but that was just ridiculous."
Team members wore black tape over the word Towson on their jerseys when they played Delaware.
After Loeschke delivered the news that morning, Gottlieb met with human resources and went looking for his student players. But they'd left, so he began calling them to head to the locker room.
"I tried to make it easier," he said of his efforts to console them. "I don't know if I succeeded. I'm not sure anyone could have succeeded."
Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.
Due to incomplete information provided to The Baltimore Sun, an article in Sunday's editions about Towson University omitted information about sports teams. The University of Maryland, Baltimore County has 19 intercollegiate teams, like Towson and the University of Maryland, College Park.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times