PROVO -- Two of the BYU athletic department's most successful programs -- at least from a competition standpoint -- will cease to exist after the 1999-2000 season.
The school announced Thursday it is dropping men's gymnastics and wrestling, causing a trail of heart-rending emotions in their wake."This has been as tough as any decision I've had to be involved with since I've been here," said BYU men's athletic director Rondo Fehlberg, who was a three-time WAC champion wrestler and NCAA All-America at BYU. "Especially since we worked so hard to avoid this type of situation. It's something I never wanted to happen."
Fehlberg and advancement vice president K. Fred Skousen broke the somber news to both teams individually Thursday. "They were stunned and disappointed," Fehlberg said.
"It was the most depressing sight you've ever seen in your life," said wrestling coach Mark Schultz, whose team finished in the top 25 this season and boasts a bevy of talented, promising ath- letes. "They have sacrificed so much for the school, and they like being here. We have strong bonds. Now those bonds will be broken."
"It's a big blow," said men's gymnastics coach Mako Sakamoto, whose squad is ranked in the top 10 and is hosting the NCAA regionals next weekend for the first time ever. "I knew gymnastics was in trouble for a lot of years. We were fortunate to hang in there this long."
Fehlberg and those involved with both programs have scrapped and fought to keep the sports alive, battling against the national trend toward downsizing. Men's gymnastics and wrestling have become endangered species around the country.
On Wednesday, fellow future Mountain West Conference member New Mexico announced it was eliminating men's gymnastics, men's swimming and wrestling. BYU has been the only in-state school to field a wrestling team, even though the sport is wildly popular in Utah high school circles. Meanwhile, BYU is one of 26 men's gymnastics teams that competed on the NCAA level this year, down from 41 in 1992-93.
Factors that led to the decision were many, Fehlberg said, including the formation of the MWC, which opens its inaugural season in 1999. There are not enough teams in the new conference that participate in the two sports to hold an NCAA-qualifying conference championships, Fehlberg said. Air Force and Wyoming are the only MWC schools that have a wrestling program and the Air Force is the lone school with a men's gymnastics program.
Financial considerations also had a hand in the sports' demise at BYU. Fehlberg said the 16-team WAC drained the school of resources for the past few years. "We're trying to make ends meet," he said. The elimination of the two sports will save the school about $450,000.
BYU recently gave thumbs up to establishing a women's softball team beginning this fall. That addition and the two subtractions will leave the Cougars with 10 women's teams (basketball, cross country, golf, gymnastics, soccer, softball, swimming and diving, tennis, track and field and volleyball) and nine men's teams (baseball, basketball, cross country, football, golf, swimming and diving, tennis, track and field and volleyball) for the 2000-2001 campaign.
Federal laws require universities to maintain gender equity, providing equal opportunities for both men and women, in their athletic departments, but Fehlberg said Title IX did not directly impact the decision to erase men's gymnastics and wrestling because the school came into compliance when it added women's soccer in 1995.
At the same time, he said, so many other athletic programs have had to phase out those same two men's sports, scheduling has become increasingly difficult.
All those factors were explained to the coaches and athletes involved, but they didn't allay the disillusionment, hurt and confusion.
"There aren't words to describe how I feel," said Scott Coleman, a freshman wrestler from Manhattan, Kan. "I'm really disappointed. Everyone was pretty upset and devastated. It's like the carpet was yanked out from under us and we don't know where to go."
Coleman, who is planning to depart for an LDS mission this spring says his future is now in doubt. "It would be hard to give up wrestling, and it would be hard to leave BYU," he said.
Sakamoto reported many of his athletes were angry when they learned what was going to happen to their sport. "Some guys cried," he said. "There was just a general feeling of disbelief."
Sakamoto has invested 12 years at BYU and led the Cougars to top-six NCAA finishes in 1992 and 1998. He's not concerned right now about what this means to his coaching career. "I'm all right," said Sakamoto, who called his incoming recruits Thursday to tell them of the latest developments. "We have five kids coming off missions that have nothing to come back to. I feel for them."
Schultz, an Olympic gold medal winner in 1984 and three-time NCAA champion at Oklahoma, was handed the reins of the BYU wrestling program just after the school opted not to ax it in 1994. Since that time, Schultz has consistently attracted top 10 recruiting classes and molded the Cougars into one of the country's top programs. This season, which concluded recently, saw BYU freshman Aaron Holker named to the All-America team.
But now, Schultz feels his efforts have gone for naught. "We're disappointed, obviously," he said. "I don't understand why they're dropping it. It's a complex issue. We've tripled our attendance in the last few years. It wasn't good enough, I guess. The thing I feel bad for is the kids. They're quality guys. I'd rather coach these guys than the national championship team."
Schultz says he wants to stay at BYU in some capacity. "I'm a good carpenter," he said. "Maybe they could use me in the wood shop."
For underclassmen, BYU will either facilitate transfers to other universities or continue its financial assistance to those who remain at the school. Those who transfer will become immediately eligible to compete at another university.