Athletics Scandal Revealed: A Light at the End of a Dark Tunnel for One UCI Swimmer

Sofia Panuelos / New University

Each weekday, Kevin Miller rises earlier than the Southern California sun, at 5:15 a.m. He throws on a tank top, spandex, warm pants and a sweatshirt and he’s on his way. The key fires up the ignition to his 2003 gold Toyota Highlander as he heads to various apartments and dorms that are on the way to “The Boathouse” on the water at Newport Back Bay.

Teammates on UC Irvine’s novice crew team pile into Miller’s car in anticipation for what they always do before morning classes. Once at “The Boathouse,” the devoted athletes load their boats in unison into the water. Their oars stroke through the sea with a precision comparable to a swimmer’s arms cutting through aqua-blue pool water.

“I appreciate the little things,” Miller said. “We get to watch the sun rise, ride past sea lions, experience a physical release and enjoy the camaraderie of teammates. No one half-asses workouts if we’re waking up at 5.”

Blessed with experiencing paradise, what’s there to complain about in Miller’s life? There’s quite a bit, actually.

For one, he has hair on his legs. That may seem like an eccentric issue, but for Miller it signifies the sour end to his competitive swim career. Many swimmers shave their legs to gain a competitive advantage, cutting down on their resistance in the water and shaving milliseconds off of their times. Miller has no reason to swipe a Gillette across his shins, because there’s no place at UCI for him to swim competitively.

He can’t go back and repair the big events which changed his life since arriving at UCI, but he can analyze the little gestures and courtesies that he didn’t receive when UCI athletics decided to discontinue the men’s and women’s swimming and diving, crew and sailing programs.

“It was July 29, 2009,” Miller said. “You don’t forget a day like that.”

Just weeks prior to the infamous date, Miller and several incoming freshman attended orientation, signed up for classes and made new friends.

On July 29, 2009, Athletic Director Mike Izzi regretfully sent out an e-mail informing the coaches of the disbanding of the aforementioned sports. Faced with a budget crisis, athletics was expected to cut $1 million of its budget.

Athletics and each department around campus were forced to make sacrifices in 2009 as the markets plummeted. Miller’s sport, men’s swimming, was one of those sacrifices.

Swimming and diving, sailing and crew did not attract thousands of fans. They could not compare their attendance to the basketball team’s recent 4,070 spectators at Homecoming, but they had a tradition.

UCI swim had been around for 45 years. It produced the 2005 women’s Big West champions and 2007 men’s Big West champions.  The teams were coached by a former Anteater, Brian Pajer, the Big West Athlete of the Year in 1987 and 1990. Pajer still holds the Big West record in both breaststroke events.

“The hardest thing is how late the cut was made,” Pajer said. “I had to make 40 really tough calls [to the athletes].”

Izzi right or is he wrong?

Pajer explains that the team was expected to raise 2.2 million dollars in a matter of months in order for athletics to commit to them for the next decade. If they wanted to save their season, they had to act fast. Heartbroken, yet still driven, the athletes and a number of alumni sprung into action. Forming the Anteater Swimming and Diving Foundation, they raised awareness, selling apparel, encouraging donations and spreading the word of their dire circumstances.

“We wanted one season to compete and to have enough time to raise the money,” Pajer said.

The organization raised approximately $17,000 in their efforts to save the team. With an expectation to fulfill a daunting 2.2 million-dollar hole, wealthy donors were hesitant to commit to a deficit that was perceivably insurmountable.

With an annual budget nearing $300,000 for the men’s and women’s swim teams, the foundation worked to cut their 2009 budget considerably in a proposal to save the team. Each team in the Big West agreed to travel to UCI, allowing the school to save money on travel expenses. According to Miller, Nike offered to donate all of the team’s equipment. Pajer, as the head coach, offered to forego his entire salary.

“We were able to reduce the budget to about $40,000, not including scholarships,” Pajer said. “We met with the administration and weren’t able to convince them.”

In 2000, UCI passed the athletics referendum. Students voted to pay $33 per quarter to go toward Anteater sports. Approximately 22,000 students currently attend, paying approximately $100 a year for athletics. The school features 18 intercollegiate sports, but used to have 23 before the cuts in July 2009.

Questions arise: Why couldn’t Izzi allocate the roughly $100,000 per sport annual revenue collected from student fees to give the swim team one final year? Is more funding going toward other sports instead of being allocated evenly among all programs, which was the original intention? The players were still under scholarship and the coaches were paid until October.

Why couldn’t they commit to just $23,000 and save the swim team for one final season?

Athletics provided the discontinued athletes their usual perks for one year following July 29, 2009. They offered to help athletes transfer, paid for tutoring and scholarship-athletes received their scholarships for one year before being cut off completely.

But when it came to listening to the players’ proposals to swim for one last season under a miniscule budget, “[Izzi] never gave us the time of day,” Miller said.

An Olympian weighs in

Mike O’Brien was an unpaid assistant coach at UCI in the early 1990s. He coached Pajer alongside former head coach and current aquatics director Charlie Schober after attending USC in the 1980s and winning an Olympic gold medal in 1984 in the 1,500-meter freestyle swim.

“It’s outrageous and shameful that the university would pick on a small sport,” O’Brien said. “It tells me that there is a hidden agenda and a bias.”

In the early 1990s, an NCAA Title IX law forced athletic directors across the country to either add more women’s teams or cut men’s teams in order to give equal gender representation. Although it was important to bring gender equality, it often lead to men’s teams being cut instead of women’s teams being produced.

O’Brien’s college rival, UCLA, was forced to discontinue their swimming and diving program in 1994 after winning the National Championship in 1982 due to Title IX. The Bruins still have yet to put the program back together, nearly two decades later.

Athlete reflections

After 15 years of preparation and a commitment to walk on and swim for free as an Anteater, Miller’s swim career was ended. He understands the business side of cutting the program: Athletics had to diminish their budget and someone had to take a hit. But he and many of his teammates are still searching for respect from UCI athletics.

“The biggest thing I’d like is for athletics to talk to us,” Miller said. “Tell us why they kept us so far away. We’ve had to get over this alone. I still have so much resentment towards them.”

Izzi never addressed the athletes in a public forum and wouldn’t agree to sit down with Miller or many of his teammates. In Miller’s opinion, Izzi never showed sincerity, despite the athletic director stating to the athletes in his e-mail notice to the teams that their “efforts at UCI have not gone unnoticed or unappreciated.”

When asked to comment on the allegations, Izzi declined.

“It was a difficult time for everyone involved,” his representative said, “but we have since moved forward with our athletic program as is.”

Miller’s bitterness remains.

“You don’t break up with a girl through a text message,” Miller said metaphorically, referring to the e-mail that informed athletes that they were no longer welcome to compete for UCI. “Charlie [Schober] once told me that there’s no good way to cut a team … there may not be a good way, but there’s a better way.”

UC Davis cut their swim program in April 2010; it’s a sign of the times. In August 2010, Cal State Fullerton announced that they were discontinuing their wrestling program.

The OC Register quoted Titans Athletic Director Brian Quinn saying, “Wrestling has seen dramatic reductions in its numbers across the country … We kept trying to find ways to continue the sport, even after numerous recommendations that we needed to stop funding the program.”

It was the type of effort that Miller expected from the Anteaters, to put up a fight. Instead he remains disappointed, as do several other athletes.

“As an athlete, when you start something you want to finish it,” former women’s swimmer Brianna Wing said.
Stephanie Gabert was a three-time Division II CIF champion swimmer at Corona Del Mar High School and an Olympic trials qualifier in 2004 in the breaststroke. She spent her freshman season swimming at annual national contender, University of Arizona. After a shoulder injury and surgery impeded her progress, Gabert spent one season at UCI. According to Pajer, she was piecing her career back together. The budget cuts stunted her growth as a swimmer.

“That was a big hit,” Pajer said. “She was on her way back.”

Chris Rosales was expecting to enter the 2009 season as a senior in hopes of breaking Coach Pajer’s school record in the 100-meter breaststroke. He was the defending Big West Champion.

“[Rosales] was the one I hated this happening to the most,” Miller, a former Junior National level swimmer said. “We had every stroke and distance covered with a great recruiting class coming in. We had legitimate NCAA championship contenders.”

Moving forward

To occupy his mind and keep in shape, Miller now rows on the crew club team. He was recruited, ironically enough, by a player who was affected by athletics’ 2009 decision, former Anteater crew standout Brandon Cooper.

Jumping from one discontinued sport to another, Miller now sits on top of the water in the stroke seat of a boat, rather than in the water as a swimmer.

UCI doesn’t currently have a swim team in any incarnation. When Miller attempted to bring a club team to the school, his efforts were denied, because not enough colleges have club teams in the Orange County area.

I begrudgingly quit swimming,” Miller said. “Eventually the swim team will come back to UCI. I don’t know about anytime soon, but eventually it’ll happen.”