UCI Sports a Big Loser in Budget Game : * A Once-Promising Collegiate Program Suddenly Is Left With Little to Cheer About

It's hard to imagine the sound of silence at UCI's scenic baseball field next year. It seems almost unbelievable that threatened men's track and cross-country programs will be reinstated only if $70,000 is raised by early next month.

When Tom Ford assumed the job of the university's athletic director a little over two years ago, the university was funding 17 intercollegiate sports, and none of the above seemed a distinct possibility. Now the number of university-funded athletic programs is down to 12, and before Ford's announced departure the other day, the baseball coach and athletic department chief fund-raiser had lost their jobs. The tennis coach left.

Ford, who had brought high hopes for the UCI athletic program when he moved over from the University of Houston, had hired new coaches for both the university's men's and women's basketball programs, while reducing a projected deficit. But his recent departure in frustration suggests one way the state budget crunch really has hit at field level on college campuses.

UCI, trying to build up sports, finds itself suddenly breaking them down. The campus athletic programs depended on marketing and fund raising, but both capabilities were lost. The strategies that might have helped make a brighter future in UCI sports could not be mobilized. UCI, a young campus on the takeoff point in athletics, was nipped in the bud. As one observer said, "We went from Division II to Division I (major college division) without ever upping the support." To lose an athletic director, a baseball team, and to have track and cross-country sports jeopardized, is a demoralizing sign of the times, too.

The UCI campus has taken other hits to date; some 30 administrators have been laid off as the university looks to save millions, for example. But the sudden decline of an athletic program that once held much promise is one very visible crack in a powerful state system of higher education.

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