One year after the University of Oregon’s establishment, in 1877, the first Oregon baseball game was played; 26 years ago was the last. The last, that is, until Athletic Director Pat Kilkenny announced last Friday that the sport would return to the University’s intercollegiate athletic department in time for the 2008-09 season.
Kilkenny and Reneé Baumgartner, as part of Friday’s press conference, also announced that wrestling would be dropped as a varsity sport after the 2007-08 season and that a new women’s sport, competitive cheerleading, would be added at the same time as baseball.
“This is a time of mixed emotions for both myself and the University of Oregon,” Kilkenny said in an athletic department press release. “I am obviously excited to return a piece of the proud tradition of intercollegiate athletics back to the University, as well as provide more opportunities for women in a sport that has demonstrated remarkable growth.”
“At the same time, it is unfortunate we are unable to be all things to all people.”
Kilkenny said at the press conference that much of his decision was made with an eye toward the future. “It became very, very clear that we needed to make some changes,” Kilkenny said of the athletic department’s roster of sports. However, that did not make the decision an easy one; “These are life-changing events. This is something you lose sleep over,” Kilkenny said.
“Obviously we’re very disappointed,” wrestling head coach Chuck Kearney said in a prepared statement. “We have the 2007-08 season to compete and with the Pac-10 Conference Championships here (March 2-3, 2008), we’re hoping our student athletes will be able to focus on competing at the maximum of their abilities and taking the next step after that.”
The athletic department will honor the contracts of the wrestling coaching staff, including head coach Chuck Kearney, and the scholarships of the student athletes expected to compete next year. Athletes with remaining eligibility will be allowed after next season to transfer to another school (the NCAA does not require a year between competing at Division-I schools for wrestling as it does for basketball, football and other programs) or retain their financial aid at the University throughout the duration of their eligibility.
Before a baseball team can take the field, though, it needs a coach and a place to play. Though the athletic department has “had a lot of interest in baseball coaches coming to us in the last week or two” Kilkenny said, they have not made a decision or decided on a time frame for an announcement. On Friday Kilkenny was optimistic that Oregon’s new program could attract a top-tier coach; “We will almost get the pick of the best of breed,” he said.
When asked about the location where the new baseball team will play, Kilkenny and Baumgartner would not offer a definite answer Friday, and would not offer a time-frame for a decision. Kilkenny said the baseball study group headed by Baumgartner found “five or six” possible locations for a baseball stadium, and estimated the cost of building a new stadium to be between $5 million and $10 million.
While the home of the Eugene Emeralds, Civic Stadium, is an option in the short term, “That’s not a strategic solution without some investment,” Kilkenny said. When asked about locations close to campus, Kilkenny said he believed they could find an option suitable for students. “I think it’s always a preference if we could make it accessible to students,” Kilkenny said. “A lot of what this is about isn’t just the experience to the student athletes but also the student body.”
Friday’s other addition, that of a women’s competitive cheerleading team in 2008-09, was met with some surprise; rumors before Friday held that women’s crew, swim or water polo would be the sport added along with baseball. Competitive cheerleading is also not sanctioned by the NCAA as a varsity sport, and instead rests under the National Cheerleading Association.
Nevertheless, Baumgartner is excited at the opportunity that being on the cutting edge of a sport could offer the University.
“We looked at a variety of emerging sports and NCAA sports and it came down to that competitive cheer was a sport that was growing very fast,” Baumgartner said Friday. “And as we looked at facilities, and locker rooms, and a competitive schedule, it just came to the point that we’re going to be different, going to be innovative, and going to lead the way. I feel that within 10 years the NCAA will certify (competitive cheer) as a varsity sport and we’ll be on the front end, leading the charge with Maryland.”
Baumgartner also referenced other Bowl Championship Series schools – including LSU, Louisville, Alabama and Oklahoma – the athletic department feels they are close to in size who also offer competitive cheerleading. The team will have locker rooms and staff in the Casanova Center, and practice at the Moshofsky Center, where they will hopefully host a competition, starting in 2009.
The addition of women’s cheerleading also helps Oregon in regards to Title IX compliance. Baumgartner said that Oregon is “closing the gap” in scholarship proportionality, and the addition strengthens the “history of expansion” that helps schools behind on proportionality. “We go by history of expansion, and we’ve added a program between eight and nine years,” Baumgartner said. “We have some time but we will always be committed at looking at opportunities.”
The day still belonged to the supporters of baseball in the state and at the University. Kilkenny shared their excitement; “I think we have a dream with baseball and hopefully it’s a dream we can realize.”