They’re not going away any time soon

Rumours of Waterloo football’s death are greatly exaggerated.

University of Waterloo Athletics has denied a report published Sept. 24 by — a blog dedicated to the sport in Canada — that Athletics had informed players during a meeting that the UW football program was unlikely to exist past the end of the season. The report said little more than that three sources confirmed that there was a “strong possibility” that the football program could be cancelled after the 2014 season. Hours later, UW director of media relations Nick Manning posted the following statement from new athletics director Roly Webster.

“The University of Waterloo has no plans to cut its football program. We have affirmed our commitment to the program to our student-athletes and athletics staff. We keep all of our student recreational and athletics services under constant review to ensure that they remain sustainable and contribute to a vibrant student experience. We are taking steps in all varsity athletics to increase efforts in the areas of athlete recruitment, coaching support, partnerships and fundraising.

“Students at Waterloo are among the world’s brightest and most motivated. Our varsity student-athletes deserve to have a rewarding experience, and we are committed to adopting strategies necessary to constructing successful programs for them. We are grateful for the continued support of the committed student-athletes, coaches, parents and alumni.”

Webster, speaking with the <em>Waterloo Region Record</em>, reiterated the essentials of his statement, but added that, &ldquo;If we can&rsquo;t justify our investment, I&rsquo;d say (folding the team) is absolutely a consideration. I&rsquo;d be lying if I said it&rsquo;s not.&rdquo; That statement, and the initial report, both drove speculation that while the program may not be axed imminently, its days may be numbered.

Webster later clarified his remarks to <em>Imprint</em>, stating,&nbsp; &ldquo;My point is that we always need to be accountable to the investment we are making, to our students, and our student-athlete experience. We also need to create a culture that constantly reviews all programs and services in Athletics and Recreation to make sure they continue to contribute to a vibrant student experience.&rdquo;

Warrior football head coach Marshall Bingeman blasted the report&rsquo;s writers.

&ldquo;I was as shocked by that as anybody else was,&rdquo; Bingeman said. &ldquo;I was in the room when the athletic director was talking to the team. I saw no way that that could be misconstrued. It was a total erroneous report, and after all, you know what they say: &lsquo;It&rsquo;s on the Internet it must be true.&rsquo;

&ldquo;In fact, at one point during the conversation with the guys one of our players put his hand up and goes &lsquo;So you&rsquo;re telling me that there will be football at Waterloo next year?&rsquo; [The response was ]&lsquo;There will absolutely be football here at Waterloo next year.&rsquo; Nobody foresees any circumstances where there won&rsquo;t be football at Waterloo for long after I&rsquo;m gone.&rdquo;

Reactions to the report online were diverse, with some current and former students welcoming the news and arguing that the program&rsquo;s budget could be better spent elsewhere, while others worried of broken commitments to student-athletes and an abandonment of athletics altogether. Tellingly, many commenters on the University of Waterloo expressed ambivalence, reflecting campus concerns over school spirit.

The reports have resonated because of the team&rsquo;s strained budget, concerns about UW&rsquo;s school spirit, and the team&rsquo;s on-field performance. The Warriors football program has struggled mightily in recent years, sitting at or near the bottom of OUA standings since it was suspended for the 2010 season in the wake of a steroid scandal. Even in the years leading up to the suspension, the team didn&rsquo;t perform well, failing to reach the playoffs every year since 2002.

The team&rsquo;s heyday in the late &lsquo;90s led to Yates Cup victories in 1997 and 1999 as OUA champions, but never delivered a trip to the national championship Vanier Cup. UW is one of a handful of teams to have never played for the trophy and is the longest tenured team to have never contested it.

This year, narratives of the Warriors&rsquo; woes have abounded in the media. The team is on a nine-game losing streak dating back to last season and have been outscored 273&ndash;21 in 2014. They claimed the dubious honour of losing to the Carleton Ravens &mdash; that team&rsquo;s first victory since being restarted last season &mdash; in their only moderately close game this season. The Warriors have not been good, and they have not been good for a long time.

Adding to the frustrations are organizational matters: the team has had four head coaches in three seasons, and the status of current interim head coach Marshall Bingeman was dependent on the hiring of an athletics director, a position that was vacant for over a year.

&ldquo;We need to give Roly some time, he&rsquo;s just on the job. He&rsquo;s getting a hand on it, he&rsquo;s getting the lay of the land,&rdquo; Bingeman said, cautioning patience with the administration&rsquo;s progress. &ldquo;He&rsquo;s doing a heck of a job right now. And he just needs to be given that time right now to create his vision. I think it&rsquo;s going to be great, I have great confidence in Roly.&rdquo;

According to Mike Karagias, a scout for the Warriors and member of the team finance committee, the main culprit in Waterloo&rsquo;s struggles is money. Karagias told the<em> Record</em> that the Warriors are underfunded by administration, saying that &ldquo;we do need [a bigger budget] to get where we need to be.&rdquo;

In a league where some teams have budgets north of $1 million, the Warriors work with about $400,000 a year. Competitive football programs are spending on average between $500,000 and $700,000 a year.

&ldquo;I think we&rsquo;re in a situation where the budget we get from the university is the budget we get from the university. Everyone on this campus is tight ... everybody is being asked to do more with less,&rdquo; Bingeman said. &ldquo;So as much as I wish that I could wave a magic wand and there&rsquo;s a hundred thousand dollars extra next year, it&rsquo;s not gonna happen. That&rsquo;s reality, we understand that &hellip; We have to expect that it&rsquo;s probably going to come from [fundraising].&rdquo;

Most of the teams in the OUA do receive more from their administrations than the Warriors, but the lion&rsquo;s share of all football budgets come from fundraising. Much of the Warrior program is funded by alumni and community members.

&ldquo;We need to concentrate on finding new ways to develop resources for us to be successful, and quite frankly, it&rsquo;s probably a quarter of a million dollars more than what we have right now to get there. A big part of it is scholarships,&rdquo; Bingeman said.

Coach Bingeman explained to <em>Imprint</em> the unique problem facing the Warriors&rsquo; recruiting efforts: &ldquo;It&rsquo;s more expensive to [recruit players] at Waterloo, cause we don&rsquo;t apologize for our entrance average &hellip; Every elite athlete that you want to get has to be over 80 per cent, and everybody is going to offer them money.&rdquo;

Waterloo has a small endowment overall relative to other universities, and the Warriors football budget &mdash; which goes primarily to scholarships &mdash; reflects that. Other universities with lower entrance averages or larger endowments are able to poach the recruits that UW covets by offering more scholarship money for lower averages.

At a meeting during homecoming Sept. 27, the finance committee and the athletics department discussed the financial future of the program and fundraising methods. The finance committee is rebuilding its fundraising structure and hopes to improve their methods to sustain and improve Warrior football. Karagias told the<em> Record</em>, &ldquo;Are we there yet? No. But I feel a lot better about the program today than I did a year ago.&rdquo;