Temple baseball coach Ryan Wheeler knows he is facing an uphill battle to save his program from the chopping block next summer. It’s a fight he never expected he would have to undertake, right up until Dec. 6, the day his school’s administration blind-sided him with its announcement that it would cut baseball and six other sports.
That news came almost exactly a month after the school announced its baseball team would play 2014 conference games at beautiful Campbell’s Field in nearby Camden. In a release, the agreement with the independent Camden Riversharks was billed as a harbinger of “a new era for Temple University Baseball.” So even when Wheeler got an e-mail on Dec. 5 informing him of mandatory meetings for all Temple head coaches the next day, he was not concerned about the future of his program.
“The word went out that this might be about cutting sports,” Wheeler said late last week. “I said, ‘I don’t know.’ But even if it is, all the stuff we’ve been doing, we wouldn’t be one of the sports on the block.
“The amount of change going around here at Temple in such a positive way led me to believe that things were headed in a positive direction. I’ve been singing the praises of Temple and everything that’s been going on here. To then have this decision come down on Friday, I look back and feel like I was lied to and misled. And therefore I feel like I have lied to and misled hundreds of people out there—recruits, alumni, people in the baseball community, everyone I’d come in contact with, I’d sung the praises of the future of our program. Then to find out we’ll no longer be in existence, it was devastating. A real shock.”
The Owls had also been working to improve their on-campus facilities. Wheeler said the shell of a quality on-campus ballpark was in place, but it still needed improvement to be up to the standards of other teams in the American Athletic Conference, which Temple joined this year.
“When it came down to it, our facility had to be one of the bigger issues, because we were off campus,” Wheeler said. “I thought being in Camden would help our cause, but being off campus factored into student-athlete welfare.”
Wheeler acknowledged that cutting baseball also provided some Title IX relief, because baseball is one of the larger male sports after football (which is in a different stratosphere, of course).
Wheeler said he has already spoken with California coach David Esquer and Towson coach Mike Gottlieb, who have been in Wheeler’s position in recent years. Those two programs were eventually spared, providing Wheeler with a something of a road map.
“For Cal and Towson, it started with the grass-roots effort,” Wheeler said. “We’ve had a tremendous groundswell of support from so many people, alumni and the baseball community. Hopefully that pressure can increase, and we can continue to reach out to people. Strength in numbers is what we’re hoping for—by creating that pressure, both publicly and maybe politically, maybe we can get this thing reversed. But I don’t have a clear understanding yet of what it’s going to take to get this thing reinstated.
“To be honest, when I was in front of the athletic director, the first and most obvious question was, ‘What do I need to do to save this?’ The response was, ‘You’re not going to be able to save it.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s a discussion for us to have another time.’
“We’re not sure that we can save Temple baseball. But I feel like we need to take on the fight for college baseball and college athletics. We may not win our battle, but if we bring awareness to the situation, maybe it will stop another university from cutting sports.”
In the meantime, Wheeler has had his hands full making sure his players and their families understand their situation, and helping them secure their futures. As final exams wrapped up last week, Wheeler said he thought most of his players were committed to returning for 2014, though they are allowed to transfer freely to other schools during the semester break in light of Temple’s announcement. Wheeler expressed frustration with the way many coaches from other programs have begun trying to recruit his players without going through the proper channels.
“I applaud the coaches out there that have followed the rules and done things above-board, either by waiting until players have gotten a release from the university or by contacting myself or our staff,” Wheeler said. “On the flip side, there are a large number of guys that haven’t done it the right way, and have continued to pull and tug at our players.
“They’ve shown interest in our players, and I’ll be happy to talk with them because if we can’t save this, then I need to find a home for my players. But I’ve been disappointed with some of my colleagues who just want to gain something personally to help their programs win a few more games. It’s a real shame.”
Wheeler knows there is a chance that a couple of his players could transfer out this winter, but he hopes most of them will return for the spring.
“I told them, ‘This is critical. This is now taking on a life bigger than Temple baseball,’ ” Wheeler said. “Their future’s just changed here with the stroke of a pencil that’s put a line through their sport and said, you’re no longer going to exist. But we’re still solid in trying to keep the group together. It’s not what I thought I’d be doing this time of year. But we’ve got to deal with it.”