Athletic programs at public colleges feel California's budget ax

The telephone rang early that morning while Chris Rosales was in the shower, so the news reached him by way of an urgent message.

When the UC Irvine swimmer listened to his answering machine, he heard his coach asking him to call back as soon as possible.

"That didn't sound good," Rosales said. "I knew something was up."

The California budget crisis has put state colleges and universities under tremendous pressure to cut spending. Schools have eliminated classes, raised fees and asked faculty to take unpaid furlough days.

Now intercollegiate athletics are feeling the bite.

At Irvine, officials abruptly dropped five sports -- including men's and women's swimming -- just before the new school year.

"The best word I can think of is shocked," Rosales said. "We didn't see this coming."

A comparable scenario is playing out at Los Angeles City College, with every sport except women's volleyball suspended until next summer. Not all schools are taking such drastic measures, but athletic departments across the state are scrambling to become, as one official said, leaner and meaner.

"No one is arguing that athletics are more important than academics," said Carlyle Carter, president of the California Community College Athletic Assn. "We know that extracurriculars are the first to feel that pinch."

The overall scope of the cutbacks is hard to predict. Schools within the state's three-tier system have the autonomy to deal with budget matters in different ways, and athletic spending ranges from several hundred thousand dollars at junior colleges to $65 million at UCLA.

Also, larger schools might be able to boost revenue through football and basketball.

Regardless, the tough economy could affect more than 10,000 student-athletes in the University of California and California State University systems, and about 25,000 more at community colleges.

So far, some changes have been minor. The University of California saved $140,000 by putting its media guides exclusively online; Chico State won't be handing out team schedules on refrigerator magnets.

Several conferences have canceled their annual meetings in favor of teleconferences.

"Every little thing you can do, it adds up," said Mitch Cox, a Chico State assistant athletic director.

Bigger changes will come later, affecting how and where games are played.

San Jose State announced it is backing out of a scheduled football game at rival Stanford in 2010, opting to travel to Alabama instead.

The Spartans risk a big loss on the field, playing a traditional powerhouse on the road, because Southeastern Conference schools are known to pay visiting teams in the neighborhood of $1 million. Stanford wasn't going to pay nearly that much.

Spartans Coach Dick Tomey, who declined to be interviewed, said through a spokesman that the switch offers a "significant benefit" and "will help put the football program in a better financial position."

At UCLA, Athletic Director Dan Guerrero has shaved $1.5 million from his budget and is rethinking the schedules for many of his teams.

Although football and basketball will not be affected, other squads might stick closer to home. The Bruins' baseball team, for example, traveled to East Carolina, Houston and Oklahoma last season.

"We don't need to do that for our strength of schedule," Guerrero said. "With the quality of competition that exists in Southern California, the ability to play a three-game series against a Fullerton, a Long Beach, is almost as important as flying halfway across the country."

Bruins baseball Coach John Savage expects his players will understand: "From their families and all that's going on, they're very conscious of the economic times."

Community colleges are considering proposals to dismantle existing conferences and regroup schools by geography, ensuring the shortest possible distance between campuses, Carter said.

Regular seasons could be abridged and, in some cases, organized into tournament settings involving several teams.

"With some sports, like softball, you could play multiple games at a single site in a single day," Carter said. "You could play more than one opponent."

The experience might not be as enjoyable, he said, but "our athletic directors are under the gun right now."

Budget concerns have prompted other travel changes. San Diego State teams will bus rather than fly to conference games against Nevada Las Vegas. The Cal football team will do likewise for an October game at UCLA, saving $135,000.

"By the time you get to the airport and do the check-in and all that, it's maybe one hour more" to take the bus, Coach Jeff Tedford said. "I think it'll be fine."

While athletic directors and conference officials search for additional ways to save, they also wrestle with the issue of furlough days.

On Monday, for instance, no one answered the telephones at Fresno State. A recording informed callers that university employees had been kept home.

Many big-time coaches with their carefully negotiated contracts are not subject to such measures, but their assistants might be, which raises a question: Will they be forced to miss a game?

"It has been discussed in terms of our coaches, assistant coaches and staff," said Steve Weakland, a Fresno State spokesman. "We're kind of in a wait-and-see mode."

At least two million-dollar coaches are trying to help.

At UCLA, football's Rick Neuheisel and basketball's Ben Howland have volunteered to take pay cuts. The details are still being negotiated, said Guerrero, who is also taking a cut, but the coaches are expected to forgo as much as 10% of their salaries.

"I want the entire athletic department and the university community to know that I'm a team player," Neuheisel said. "I understand that the university as a whole is in troubled times."

Other coaches around the state are expected to make similar gestures.

Even as athletic departments scurry to reduce spending, officials warn of more cuts down the road. As Carter said: "This isn't going to be just next year, it's going to be the year after and probably the year after that."

UCLA and Cal see a ray of hope with the Pacific 10 Conference negotiating a new television contract in 2012 that could boost current revenue.

No such windfalls are expected at L.A. City College, where administrators warned of drastic reductions last spring.

Only the women's volleyball squad was guaranteed survival, giving coaches and players on the other six teams a chance to switch schools over the summer.

"In the grand scheme of athletics, we're not like USC," President Jamillah Moore said. "But this was not something we took lightly."

At Irvine, where athletics are more visible, various teams had scholarships reduced in spring and figured they had weathered the storm. Then came the bad news for swimming, diving, rowing and sailing -- programs that have produced more than a dozen Olympians.

The university will honor all athletic scholarships for the coming school year and help students who wish to transfer. Coaches have 60 days before their contracts are terminated.

"I've been watching the whole budget crisis and I knew it wasn't going to be a good year," swim Coach Brian Pajer said.

His team invited friends and alumni to a fundraising meeting last week. The swimmers have been told that to save their sport, they must raise enough to ensure several seasons -- about $2.2 million.

With preseason training set to begin in late September, Rosales sees only a slim hope of returning to the pool to defend his Big West Conference championship in the 100-meter breaststroke.

"This happened so late and they waited so long to let us know," he said. "They left us to fend for ourselves."

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david.wharton@latimes.com

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