A Revolt in Williamsburg

By Dick Hall-Sizemore  (Class of 1970)

While some participants on this blog have been busy trying to foment an alumni revolt at the The University, there has been a real alumni revolt at The College. The alumni won.

On the surface, the turmoil was over sports. But, at its core, it was over what should be the values and priorities of the College of William and Mary.

The story started with the appointment of Samantha Huge as athletic director in the spring of 2018. That fall, the beloved football coach, Jimmye Laycock, announced his retirement. That could have been a coincidence, however, and not related to Huge. After all, Laycock had been the coach for 39 years.

In the spring of 2019, Huge fired Tony Shaver, the long-time (16 seasons) men’s basketball coach. Admittedly, Shaver’s career won/lost record was not sterling (226-268). But he was well-liked, his players graduated, and there had not been even the hint of a recruitment scandal. In recent years, his teams had been competitive and had gone to the final game in the conference tournament four times, more than any other school.

All these arguments in Shaver’s favor were offset by one factor, as far as Huge was concerned: W&M had never made it to the NCAA basketball tournament (March Madness). In her announcement, she made no bones about her motivation: “We have high expectations for our men’s basketball  program, including participating in the NCAA tournament, and we will not shy away from setting the bar high.”

After getting over the shock and anger, Shaver probably smiled all the way to the bank. He still had five years remaining on his contract when he was fired and, reportedly, got a $1.7 million payout. On the other hand, Huge and her new coach cannot use the pandemic as an excuse for the Tribe not going to March Madness in 2020. The team lost in the first round of the conference tournament before it was cancelled.

The next, and final, chapter in this story unfolded in early September when Huge announced W&M would eliminate seven varsity programs: men’s and women’s gymnastics, men’s and women’s swimming, men’s indoor and outdoor track and field, and women’s volleyball. The main reason given for the move was financial.  W&M supports 23 varsity athletic programs; more than almost any other school its size and more than many with larger student populations.

The move and its motivation was foreshadowed in a long-range plan released by Huge in late 2019. As reported by the Richmond-Dispatch, “The 24-page document notes the national trend of schools shedding sports and funneling subsequent savings to other teams and touts the importance of basketball, men’s and women’s, and football in elevating “the William & Mary brand” and fostering school spirit.  ‘Success in those three [programs] attracts fans, generates revenue for all sports, increases national recognition and expands the admissions pool,’ the plan says.” In summary, the other sports were being sacrificed in order to support football and basketball.

The outcry was immediate and loud. David Teel, sports columnist of the Times Dispatch, has documented the response of the alumni, especially the well-connected alumni of the targeted sports. Using publicly-available financial information, they have attacked the credibility of the information provided by the school. Especially galling was the discovery that the wording of Huge’s announcement and justifications closely tracked the wording and justifications issued earlier this year by Stanford University when it announced the elimination of some sports programs. (The Stanford AD is a mentor of Huge.)

Huge’s critics have framed their arguments as a fight for the soul of W&M. As a former track All-American and later assistant coach put it, “William & Mary being a liberal arts university is about a diversity of experience and now we’re kind of consolidating our athletic programs around fewer and fewer sports. It runs counter to what William & Mary is.” Another alumnus and parent of a current student predicted, “I think it’s going to degrade the college over time. This is an academic-first institution. Always has been, always will be, and that’s why you’re seeing this public outcry, because this perception that we’re selling out to just prop up revenue sports is going to come at the expense of academics eventually. And alumni won’t stand for it. Nor will faculty.”

To illustrate the importance of these “minor” sports to the athletic and academic atmosphere of the school, the Virginian Pilot reported, “The sports cut have won 22 Colonial Athletic Association team championships and produced 36 All-Americans, two national champions, an Olympian, three Rhodes Scholars and 29 Phi Beta Kappas. Athletes in those seven sports combined for a 3.35 grade-point average this past school year.”

Obviously, Huge did not act unilaterally. Certainly, she had cleared with the college’s president and, probably, the Board of Visitors. Both the president and the rector have issued public apologies to alumni and students for the way this situation has been handled. The rector said to his fellow Board of Visitors members, “As Board members, we each own what was a poor rollout of very difficult news”

On Tuesday, Katherine Rowe, president of the college, announced that Huge was gone. In her statement, Rowe said, “Now it is clear to me that a new approach is necessary.”