Op-Ed: OU Coach Mark Williams on the Future of NCAA

As Men’s NCAA programs across the country face uncertainty and the gymnastics community rallies to support them, Inside Gymnastics has asked members of the community to share thoughts on what can be done to bolster a bright future. 

We recognize that there are a variety of potential solutions and a one-size fits all approach likely doesn’t work and individual solutions will vary program by program based on individual scenarios. There are, however, best practices we can apply through shared experiences and unique perspectives that may also ultimately serve the common good.

Here, Oklahoma’s Mark Williams, coach of one of the most high-profile programs in the nation, shares his thoughts…

Editorial Note: Headers added by Inside Gymnastics

Coaches, athletes and fans have collectively worried for years about the future of men’s NCAA gymnastics, but right now is the most uncertain time in my 46 years of participating in, or coaching at, the collegiate level. Twelve months ago, few could have predicted the far-reaching consequences an ongoing, global pandemic would have on collegiate sports in general, and men’s gymnastics in particular….I don’t have the answers about what will save our sport. I wish I did, because I think men’s gymnastics at the collegiate level is very much worth saving.

My Personal Experience

Not only did being a college gymnast radically shift the trajectory of my own life, but I’ve seen it do the same for hundreds of athletes in my time in the sport. And, I’m not just talking about success in competition, though I’ve been blessed to witness that as well, training legendary Sooners like: Guard Young, Daniel Furney, Jonathan Horton, Taqiy Abdullah-Simmons, Chris Brooks, Steven Legendre, Jake Dalton, Colin Van Wicklen, Allan Bower and Yul Moldauer. But, perhaps even more importantly, I’ve seen young men who might not otherwise have pursued a degree, come to school solely to be a part of our gymnastics program, and end up finding their passion outside the gym. Men who take what they learn from being Sooner athletes and go into their community and change lives as doctors, lawyers, nurses, soldiers, teachers, small business owners and more. They go on to give back to the university and represent it with pride throughout their lives. The list of names that sentiment embodies is a lot longer than any checklist of champions.

Ways You Can Help:

Spirit of Giving These are difficult times for everyone, and it feels terrible to try and fund raise when so many are struggling with real issues that go well beyond sports, but if you can give, now is most certainly the time. Sometimes the total number of donors to a booster club or school’s general fund with men’s gymnastics highlighted as the sport you want to support, matters as much as the amount given.

Make Your Voice Heard It’s also true that, while money talks, so does engagement. Let administrators know why men’s gymnastics is important, and how much it means to you. Not just for the schools already working to save their programs—though, yes, please do that—but for all of the programs you love. Don’t wait to be the backlash; Speak up for what you care about before a potentially irreversible decision is made.

Join In The Action – Buy season tickets for your favorite team, or preorder 2021 NCAA seats as soon as they become available, even if you’re skeptical the season will occur. Go to your school’s official online store and buy gymnastics-specific gear. 

Engagement & Social Media Matters – Talk about men’s gymnastics on social media. Politely ask local reporters why they don’t cover gymnastics more often. Share clips of your favorite athletes, follow and engage with social media posts made by the institutions that do still sponsor men’s gymnastics. Not only is it the best way to keep up with our sport, but all these things help show administrators how much the community would miss these programs, were they to go away. There is strength in numbers. Let them know fans of our sport exist; that you’re out there!

Budget Considerations

There has been a lot of talk about cost reduction in order to save our sport and, while that is an absolutely vital step to preservation, some of the suggestions I’ve seen ignore basic realities of college sport, particularly within the Power 5 Conferences, where most of the remaining men’s gymnastics programs reside. There is a standard for athletics in those departments, and meeting those are as much a requirement for our survival, as cost cutting.

For instance, apparel isn’t really a luxury to be eliminated, but instead something mandated by an exclusive sponsorship deal with the institution. [Editorial Note: Sponsorship programs can vary greatly by institution with structures of sponsorship programs having a wide variety of parameters from college to college.] Athletes competing for a university have to do so wearing current gear; it’s part of the contract, and a requirement for anyone who officially represents that school. At Oklahoma, the discretionary competitive clothing we purchase annually—home and away kit for incoming freshmen—is in the low four figures. Sometimes less. 

Eliminating staff isn’t impossible, but also isn’t a cure all. Not only are the salaries saved relatively minor in the grand scheme, it can also become a safety and liability issue for a university if there isn’t an ample ratio of coaches and trainers to athletes in the facility. Increased liability is something every university works extremely hard to avoid, perhaps even more so than increased costs.

Reducing available scholarships definitely saves money, but if the drastic cuts I’ve seen some suggest—a two-three scholarship maximum per team, for instance—were put into place sport-wide, we’d have less than 20 men’s gymnastics scholarships available in the entire country—no more than five per year, nationwide. Not only does that exacerbate the trickle down diminishment of men’s gymnastics in this country—why put your son in a sport with no future?— but it might make it awfully easy for the NCAA to decide that supporting men’s gymnastics isn’t all that important. There’s a point at which we become too small to sustain; Where our footprint is so tiny, it’s decided we will not be missed if we disappear. Roster management is something many schools already mandate for their programs. We’ve had a limited roster size here at Oklahoma for my entire tenure as head coach. (The number varies slightly, but our roster has never been larger than 18.) We’ve worked within those confines, I’d say, very successfully, even when competing against schools with unlimited, or at least far larger, rosters. 

Money isn’t the only factor in these decisions. William & Mary’s program was almost entirely endowed, costing their institution not only as close to zero as possible, but actually resulting in positive cash flow, if you take into account gymnasts who were paying full tuition to be a part of the program. While endowments and fundraising remain absolutely essential to protect the sport, William & Mary—which, like Minnesota and Iowa, we hope can still be saved—serves as a stark reminder that not even reducing costs to nothing is a surefire solution.

Necessary Sacrifices While Maintaining Quality

All of these money-saving measures are decisions that can already be made at the individual institutional level, and have been, successfully, at various programs across the country. I don’t know a single coach, myself included, who wouldn’t make whatever sacrifice it took (salary, scholarships, staff) to save their program. Cost-cutting in these unprecedented times is a necessity, but it’s important to understand this is absolutely not a case of rampant waste, or kids today having it too easy compared to “back in my day.” As coaches, we only have discretionary control of a very small portion of our budgets (~30% of total), and I don’t know any of my peers who are reckless in their spending. We’ve all been well aware, for a lot longer than the last few months, how precarious our status is.

Among college sports, men’s gymnastics is already one of the most budget conscious, limiting regular season travel and other “extras,” that are the norm for most NCAA programs. On average, Division 1 men’s gymnastics costs about half as much for a school to sponsor as women’s gymnastics, in part due to men’s 6.3 scholarship maximum (equivalency) versus the women’s maximum of 12 (head count). 

It’s also important to keep in mind that, as an NCAA sport, which men’s gymnastics very much wants to remain, any change to mandated limits—roster size, scholarships, paid staff—must be approved by the NCAA oversight committee, which strives to treat all sports the same. Coaches can, and do, recommend changes, but if other sports aren’t undertaking similar measures, it’s unlikely the NCAA would approve radical changes for men’s gymnastics. 

Adaptability

In an effort to adapt to COVID-19 restrictions, our coaches’ organization is attempting to get approval, in some form, for virtual meets in the 2021 season. Our goal is to allow teams to train and compete, safely, in their own facilities, with the bonus of also offering schools significant savings on travel costs. As coaches, we’ve all agreed this would be a viable, temporary solution in this time of crisis, yet it’s far from a given our proposal will be agreed to by the NCAA. 

Let’s All Join Together

There is no quick and easy solution to a complex problem that has been building for decades, now at a crisis point in the midst of a larger, worldwide calamity. But I’m not going to stop fighting to preserve the sport at this level, because I know it’s worth saving. I can only hope everyone who feels the same will join me and do all you’re able to support men’s NCAA gymnastics.

Speak Out – Make Your Voice Heard Through These Links and Share With Friends

William & Mary: https://linktr.ee/savewmgym

Minnesota Board of Regents: https://regents.umn.edu/regents (click on each for contact info)

Iowa Board of Regents: https://www.iowaregents.edu/contact-us

College Gymnastics Association: https://collegegym.org/news/strongertogether

University of Oklahoma Booster Club: https://bit.ly/2ZKtiIB

University of Oklahoma’s Social Media:

Twitter, https://twitter.com/OU_MGymnastics

Instagram, https://www.instagram.com/ou_mgymnastics/

Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/SoonerGymnasts

Photos provided by the University of Oklahoma

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