By Richie Mulhall & Ian Klein
Former University of Akron baseball coach Rick Rembielak never thought it would happen. He never thought the university would cut the baseball program.
Rumors spread for the past two weeks that the program could be on the chopping block, something Rembielak didn’t think was possible, even amidst all the gossip.
One Monday morning in July when Rembielak returned to his office in Akron after a long recruiting trip, people were approaching him asking him what was going to happen to the baseball program. Taken aback by the line of questioning, Rembielak didn’t even know what they were talking about.
But the rumors were spreading, and they were spreading quickly, like wildfire.
“There were a bunch of rumors going around, so
I was ignoring it because I certainly didn’t think it was going to happen to baseball,” Rembielak said.
Faced with the pressure of a looming $60 million deficit, the University of Akron announced $40 million budget cuts to the 2015-2016 fiscal year budget as part of a larger, three-year plan initiated by new Akron President Scott Scarborough to address the school’s financial problems.
The University of Akron cut the baseball program to save $700,000 per year to help reduce debt, making Akron the only school in the Mid-American Conference without a baseball team.
The cut came as an unexpected shock to Rembielak and his staff and sent the team spiraling into a state of panic.
The dysfunction within Akron’s athletic department all started when former University of Akron athletic director Tom Wistrcill resigned from Akron at the end of June, and Nathan Mortimer, the vice president of Finance and Administration and CFO of Akron, took over as interim athletic director.
Cutting the baseball team
On Wednesday July 1, Mortimer held a department meeting in which he told Rembielak and other staff from the sports department how serious the financial crisis was in athletics. In that meeting, the possibility of potentially cutting or reducing sports was mentioned, but Rembielak said no specifics were discussed as to what sports were under the microscope.
“I think that was the first time anyone in the department had heard how bad or how serious the situation was,” Rembielak said.
With so many nasty rumors circulating that the baseball team might be one of the sports team cut this upcoming 2015-2016 school year, Rembielak finally called a meeting with Mortimer scheduled for Thursday, July 9 at 11 a.m.
Rembielak and the baseball team had a plan in place to fundraise to save the program and keep it afloat. When he met with Mortimer, he neither confirmed nor denied the rumor. He gave the team one week to raise $500,000. By lunchtime Thursday, Mortimer agreed to give the baseball team exactly one week to raise the necessary funds of $500,000, Rembielak said. And Rembielak said “fine.”
The following morning, Rembielak received an email at 8:30 a.m. that the baseball team was on the announcement that there were going to be reductions across campus, and that’s how he found out his team was no more.
Mortimer’s email indicated that he left a voicemail on Rembielak’s office phone at 8:30 a.m. that Friday morning. He said the university was going to make the announcement of the budget cuts across campus, and baseball was included in the list.
By 10 a.m. that same morning, in less than a 12-hour period, Rembielak said the team had already collected $300,000 of the $500,000 for which Mortimer was asking. But by that point, it didn’t matter
“We would have had $500,000 by lunchtime, and we never had a chance to end up turning it over,” Rembielak said.
Rembielak told Mortimer the baseball team wanted to be a part of the solution and didn’t want anything to get cut. He said the team would pay its way through the next year to see if it could do something better in the future to save the program.
“Why even bring that up if you know that that’s not even a possibility and let us go out and stick our necks out to people that our writing big checks,” Rembielak said. “It’s embarrassing. We stuck our necks out and the rug got pulled out from underneath us very quickly. That’s what was so very disappointing.”
Rembielak and Mortimer were on the phone together when they both received the press release of the university’s budget cuts, which included the baseball team. Mortimer told Rembielak had to go to read over the press release and that he would talk to him later, but Rembielak didn’t hear from Mortimer again until Monday evening, which was the extent of communication between Mortimer and him.
“That decision was probably made Thursday evening before everyone went home after work,” Rembielak said.
The official Akron baseball Twitter account tweeted out: “We would like to thank everyone who has ever supported Akron Baseball. Please keep our players and coaches in your thoughts.”
“We would like to thank everyone who has ever supported Akron Baseball. Please keep our players and coaches in your thoughts.”
“That was one of then toughest things I ever had to do,” Rembielak said. “I didn’t know what to say. I mean you talk about a shock and surprise. At least I had some sort of inclination it could happen.”
After Rembielak sent out the email, reply emails instantly blew up his computer with all kinds questions, including what students could do about their apartment leases they recently signed if they chose to leave to play baseball at another university.
The Kent Stater reached out to both Mortimer and new UA athletic director Larry Williams, but they were both unavailable for comment. Cathy Bongiovi, assistant athletics director for communications, declined to comment on the events of the summer, specifically the dissolution of the baseball team.
She called the elimination of the team “water under the bridge,” and stated that the athletic department had no further comment on that matter because the university was ready to move forward and move on from all the “bad PR” it spurred.
Tell that to Rembielak, a coaching staff that lost their jobs and the 30 players forced to find new places to play.
The university’s response? According to Rembielak, Akron said it would not compensate the baseball players for their apartment leases. It would only take care of those students on campus living in the dorms.
As for scholarships, the university would honor player scholarships, but a lot of players chose to leave Akron anyway because they wanted to play baseball somewhere else, even if it meant forfeiting scholarship money and paying two different apartment leases.
“They got no reimbursement, and those were guys that had scholarship money, that have an apartment lease of $7,000-$7,500, that transferred out for no scholarship money or nowhere near what they got [at Akron] and have to pay for two places to live,” Rembielak said. “I guess in the university’s mind, it’s the family’s choice to leave and leave without scholarship money and an apartment lease.”
Rembielak said during the week the baseball team was disbanded, he calculated the amount of scholarship money the university was distributed to the players. At the time, the team was allocating $293,000 in scholarship money. He said he also figured that the families still had to pay – either directly to Akron or indirectly to the community – $836,000.
“The argument that they were saving $700,000 by cutting a program, in essence, was not true,” Rembielak said.
Underlying reasons for cutbacks
One of Rembielak’s theories is that the university wanted the land where the baseball field is for a new construction project.
“They didn’t put any money into the facility for over the last decade,” Rembielak said. “There were plans in my mind to use that area.”
According to The Devil Strip, after meeting this week with university officials about reinstating the team, baseball alum Tom Farmer said, “Mortimer confirmed to us that the land usage was part of the reason for elimination of the baseball team. Along with several other reasons.”
Less than a month after the announcement of budget, Scarborough and the university unveiled plans to build a new grand entrance where the baseball field now idly sits. The plan, along with a number of other capital projects (projects derived from state funding), would be just part of more than $11.2 million worth of campus improvements that the school has been deliberating since early May.
The most expensive subset of the project, estimated to cost $3 million, would involve relocating the campus track to the intersection of Exchange and Spicer streets. The move, together with the “elimination” of the baseball field, would be implemented to create a new “grand entrance” off Exchange Street.
Recent artist renderings released to outlets such as the Beacon Journal and The Devil Strip show the track and baseball field being replaced with green space and one or two football fields. In the plans, there was also mention of a new video board, estimated at $200,000, being installed on Buchtel Hall.
Although the project had yet to be approved by the Board of Trustees, conceptual drawings of the plans were released.
The university released documents and emails, which indicated Scarborough’s preliminary plans to eliminate the baseball field and move the track to make way for a “grand entrance.” In addition, Scarborough recently held an open forum at Quaker Square to request state funding for these projects, and the one plan that wasn’t mentioned was this apparently “scrapped” grand entrance project.
The emails, dating back to as early as May, explain that the baseball field would have to be “eliminated” and the track would have to be moved to accommodate the entrance. Another email dated June 18 cites moving the baseball facility to Canal Park as an option.
According to the article published in August by The Devil Strip, Scarborough and the university looked at alternatives to completely cutting the baseball team, such as working out a deal with the Rubber Ducks.
Scarborough said he tried to move the baseball team to Canal Park, but the RubberDucks said they couldn’t help him. He didn’t offer an explanation as to how a potential partnership with Akron’s Double-A affiliated team would help save money to fix the university’s “financial challenge,” but regardless of the two sides’ talks, the collaborative plans fell through.
Other proposed university improvements that would further cost the university even more dollars include planting pear trees, demolishing buildings, putting lighting on buildings, improving roads, making renovations to the James A. Rhodes basketball arena and adding banners and arches around campus – costly ventures that contradict the university’s summer budget cuts.
John Zipp, the president of the Akron chapter of the American Association of University Professors, questioned Scarborough’s spending habits in an article by Ohio.com.
“We keep hearing there’s a serious budget problem and then we are spending money on other areas,” he said. “Why are we thinking about a grand entrance and a $200,000 screen? What problem is it solving?”
The documents indicate that the school would pay for these projects with state money, operating funds or donations. The school also declined comment on the potential timing for the projects.
Rembielak’s second theory for cutting the program was that the president, with all his issues with the Akron faculty, wanted to save face with the faculty because the athletic department is taking a big hit from the faculty union.
At the time the faculty union felt the university wasn’t doing a good enough job to hire full-time professors, and the biggest argument by the American Association of University Professionals (Akron-AAUP) was that too much money was being invested in the athletic department because of InfoCision Stadium and the football program.
“I felt that the president thought he was going to smooth that over with them by indicating he was going to cut $700,000 out of the athletic department budget and eliminate a program because he was eliminating over 200 other people across campus,” Rembielak said.
“The bottom line was taking care of the faculty, and that’s not being done yet.”
Problem with cutting
Rembielak’s biggest gripe about cutting the program was the timing more so than the simple fact of cutting the program.
“If you’re going to make this decision [to cut the baseball program], make it then because that affords everyone the possibility to go out and transfer if they want to transfer,” Rembielak said.
On July 10, six weeks before school, the university upended the baseball program, which sent the Akron coaching staff scrambling to find new homes for its players to which to transfer.
“There are 30-plus guys on campus that are here because of baseball because they want to play,” Rembielak said. “There’s no way they’re going to do this. They can’t do this now, that’s just not fair to the kids and families.”
Rembielak and his coaching staff had all the kids committed, registered and everything was locked in, including class, registration, apartment leases and dorm room contracts.
The University of Akron clumped the baseball program dissolution with all the other budget cuts on campus, an act to which Rembielak said the university gave little thought.
Rembielak, 55, recently completed his fourth and final season at Akon. He built up and turned around the Zips’ program. In his short tenure, his team finished 88-134, and in his last two years, the Zips posted regular season records of 28-29 and 28-30, respectively.
Unfortunately, Rembielak couldn’t continue to see his team thrive, forced to seek a new job after UA eliminated it baseball program.
Rembielak’s Akron contract, which was a 12-month, $72,100 deal, was officially terminated at the October 14 University of Akron Board of Trustees meeting. The board book listed the termination as a “resignation,” though, effective August 31, 2015
“The timing of this, for athletics, has windows,” Rembielak said. “All of the colleges for the most part are finished with their recruiting for the upcoming year. Six weeks before school starts, maybe you’d have a spot open or so, but if it’s scholarships, you’re probably done.”
Mortimer told Rembielak the student-athletes could choose to stay at Akron if they wanted, but Rembielak indicated the reason these students came to Akron was to play baseball.
“They’re all ready, they got their Akron gear packed and ready to go, and six weeks before, they’ve got to find a new place to play,” Rembielak said.
Only three out of the 33 players on the roster at the time were unable to transfer to another school after the baseball program fell through. The three players were seniors.
“They were surprised that they left Akron even with scholarship money on the table,” Rembielak said. “They did not understand that the guys were there mainly to play a sport.”
As Akron’s administrators scratched their heads in dismay at the thought of their student-athletes jumping ship to play baseball, former Akron baseball player Mason Mamarella found a new place to play right down the road.
A new home
Mamarella was in California playing summer baseball when he heard the horrible news.
He got a message from Rembielak that the baseball team was no more and that he and his teammates would have to find somewhere else to play.
“It was heartbreaking,” Mamarella said. “The hardest part was being able to look all the other guys in the eyes and say we don’t get to play together anymore.”
Mamarella said he and his family didn’t panic when the announcement was made and tried to find a new place to play as fast as possible.
“Obviously we were all angry,” Mamarella said. “It seems like it was unfair, but in the end I just tried to not even think about that and not complain about it because what happened, happened. I had to move on. I had to try to throw my anger aside and focus on my future.”
Mamarella’s future called him the very next day. Kent State head coach Jeff Duncan called Mamarella and told him he wanted to help some of the Akron baseball players find a new home.
After Mamarella spent some time with Duncan during the next week, it was a no-brainer decision for him to join the Kent State squad. Rembielak even put in a good word for Mamarella to Duncan.
The Dover native called his transition from Akron to Kent State, just a 15-minutes drive away via I-76, “fantastic.”
Mamarella said baseball at Akron always took a backseat to other sports like football and the team didn’t have the nicest facilities and uniforms. Mamarella was convinced the team had a low budget even before the termination.
“I think our budget was about $500,000,” Mamarella said. “I think the administration at Akron thought, ‘We’re going to have to put a lot of money into this program to keep it going,’ and they figured they can’t afford to spend all that money on us to build us up more, and so I think they thought it was a really easy decision to just cut baseball and limit those future expenses.”
The baseball facility, needed substantial and costly renovations, expenditures the university did not wish to finance. Standing in the towering shadow of the impressive InfoCision Stadium, Lee R. Jackson Baseball Field, an abandoned eyesore in the middle of campus, rots while Akron continues to pour millions of dollars into InfoCision.
In fact, according to an article by Ohio.com, the basic component of the $60 million debt is the result of “neglected repairs, unsustainable administrative expenses, the need to invest strategically and annual debt payments of $38.6 million, including $4.3 million to finance the nation’s lowest attended football stadium.”
A stadium-sized financial burden
The addition of a brand new football stadium, although alluring, has only made matters worse for Akron.
InfoCision Stadium was built back in 2008 and opened in 2009 to replace the old Summa Field, but the steep venture cost the university approximately $61.6 million. Every year the university chips away at the football team’s deficit caused by the stadium, as the university spends $8 million each year subsidizing the football program. The worst part, though, is that the university sees very little turnover from its investments.
In essence, Akron constructed and opened an expensive stadium it cannot fill.
More than half of the $8 million football deficit is used to pay down the debt on the 30,000-seat stadium that has only raked in $925,000 for the 2015-2016 fiscal year.
Why? Well for one, no one shows up to the games. In the NCAA’s 2014 National College Football Attendance numbers released earlier this year, Akron only averaged 9,170 home-game attendees, the lowest attendance numbers in all of the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Football is, by no stretch of the imagination, a big-draw moneymaker for any MAC program, but football still proves to be the powerhouse sport at any Division I school when it comes to raking in revenue.
There’s no doubt it’s expensive enough to stay in the MAC, but the exorbitant operating expenditures of InfoCision Stadium don’t do much in the way of reducing the athletic department’s financial crunch
As for the stadium, the university will probably spend the next 23 years paying it off. According to Pluto, those payments may fluctuate, but “this is an expensive proposition for a long time.”