No Joy in Berkeley

The day the axe fell at Cal Athletics.
By Pat Joseph

The news was delivered at a press conference in September. Reading from a statement, Chancellor Birgeneau announced that at the end of this academic year men’s and women’s gymnastics, women’s lacrosse, and men’s baseball would no longer represent the University in intercollegiate competition. Additionally, men’s rubgy, historically Cal’s most dominant program, would be re-designated a “varsity-club” sport. While the rugby squad would continue to vie for the national championship—a title it has claimed 25 times since 1980—it would no longer be part of the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics.

The decision was the culmination of a long review process initiated after Cal Athletics finished the fiscal year $13.7 million in the red—a glaring shortfall in good years and an untenable one in a time of fee hikes, furloughs, and hiring freezes. According to the chancellor, the cuts would save the University $4 million.

Rugby coach Jack Clark stood at the back of the room during the conference flanked by assistant coach Tom Billups and one of his players. All three wore expressions of grim consternation, like men who weren’t sure whether they’d come to a funeral or a hanging. When it was over, the reporters and news cameras turned their attention to Clark, who read from a statement of his own. While he wasn’t prepared to comment at length, he began, “What I can say for now is this: The current and historic values of Cal Rugby as a high-performance sport are superior to those of [Cal] Intercollegiate Athletics as a whole. Moreover, I can promise that this same Cal Rugby culture will not be victim to administrative structure.”

One of those listening carefully to Clark was the documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, an impish figure in headphones who dangled a boom mic over the scrum of reporters that had formed around the coach. In his long career, Wiseman has trained his lens on public institutions ranging from hospitals for the criminally insane to the Idaho State Legislature. Now his subject is the University of California, Berkeley, and though the octogenarian director had recently told a reporter that it was too early to “even guess what the themes of the film” would be, it seems obvious how the narrative is likely to unfold: that of a great university in serious decline.

For now, at least, Intercollegiate Athletics at Cal is holding its own. For five years straight, the department has finished in the Top 10 in the Directors’ Cup, an annual ranking of the country’s best athletic programs. And even after the cuts take effect, Berkeley will field teams in 24 sports, more teams than all but eight public universities across the country. In the Pac-10, only Stanford has more with 35.

Of course, none of that makes it easier for the 13 coaches and 163 student-athletes directly affected by the cuts, nor does it lessen the blow to tradition at Cal, which has fielded a baseball team since 1892.

Outside the press conference that afternoon, echoing across campus from Evans Diamond came the faint ringing of aluminum. The boys were at batting practice. Normally a cheerful sound, evocative of peanuts and Cracker Jack—the national pastime!—it suddenly seemed baleful and ominous, like the tolling of a bell. Listen for it in Wiseman’s film.

Interviews with the Coaches

California magazine caught up with the head coaches of all of the affected teams in October, not long after the cuts were announced. Below are links to the transcripts of those interviews.

Jack Clark, Head Coach, Men’s Rugby

Cari DuBois, Head Coach, Women’s Gymnastics

David Esquer, Head Coach, Men’s Baseball

Tim McNeil, Head Coach, Men’s Gymnastics

Theresa Sherry, Head Coach, Women’s Lacrosse

From the Winter 2010 Inside Out issue of California.
Filed under: Cal Culture
Image source: Tobin Spirer
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