Stayin’ Alive: 1971 – 1987

The period from 1971 to 1987 was full of struggle for the track and field program at Baker University. A dip in participation doomed the track and field program, going from twenty-five athletes in 1971 to a mere thirteen in 1972. Accompanied with these decreasing numbers was a new coach in 1974, Charles Mansfield. A year later, following the 1975 season, the program reached rock bottom and was disband. Baker University President Jerald Walker chose to disband track and field to provide the funding and resources to jumpstart women’s programs and comply with Title IX legislation. With the demise of the track and field program the Baker University Relay Carnival was abandoned as well.

wmndiscusThe news upset many that were close to the track and field program and Baker University athletics. Palmer Mai states that he “was very disappointed. It seemed like they were trying to be overly political and correct about it, Title IX.”  Baker University Volleyball and Women’s Tennis coach at the time, Eugenia Askew, recalls that she was mad when it happened as well. Askew an early leader in women’s sports at Baker University explains that Title IX was about “equal opportunity and equal participation. Title IX does not say you have to get rid of men’s sports; you just have to provide equal women’s.”

The dissolution of the Baker University Track and Field program was not unique for this era. John Thelin of the Journal of Higher Education explains that “the situation between 1972 and 1979, then, was characterized in large part by the lack of enforcement for or concern about Title IX.” Using Title IX as rational for program cuts was however, an uncommon practice. A more reasonable explanation for the termination of the Baker University Track and Field program is budgetary problems. Thelin explains that “nonrevenue  men’s sports were already subject to departmental budget cuts long before women’s programs were incorporated into the new, merged intercollegiate athletic department structure. By 1980 numerous [NCAA] Division I universities had dropped established varsity sports— a full year before the NCAA added women’s sports to its jurisdiction.” While Baker University is not an NCAA school, the same pressures were experienced at all levels of collegiate athletics. This is evidenced by the distinction Baker University made between “major” and “minor” sports. Thelin refers to this practice as “tiering” and reports that it was common among many major NCAA Division I schools as well.

The decision to cut track and field was not made quickly or easily. The Baker University Board of Trustees formed an Athletics Committee comprised of students, faculty, alumni, consultants and trustees members to investigate how to best comply with the need for women’s sports. When Baker University President Jerald Walker officially announced the disbandment of the university’s intercollegiate track and field program, he, at the same time, announced the addition of an inter-collegiate Women’s Basketball team on December 8, 1975. Despite pointing out that “track at Baker has a proud history,” Walker pointed to low student participation and lack of student interest as rationale for its dissolution. While women’s basketball was added at contemporary schools such as Ottawa University at the same time, track and field was not eliminated there. In reality the decision was based on the university’s funding abilities, forcing them to chose between women’s basketball and track and field. However, it’s puzzling that the trend of women’s sports grew with softball being introduced in 1977, yet still no track and field.

1979 Reinstatement Announcement

1979 Reinstatement Announcement

After much alumni pressure, the announcement that intercollegiate track and field would be reintroduced at Baker University came in January of 1979. The Baker University Board of Trustees approved the reinstatement on the track and field program and the additions of a women’s program for the 1980 season largely due to a generous $12,000 donation that promised to fund the beginning costs. Yet the men’s program started in 1979 because “the response has been so great we were pushed to begin this spring,” according to athletic Director James Irick.  For the 1979 season Larry Smith an alumnus of the university and a member of the 1974 and 1975 track teams served as temporary coach. In the end it becomes clear that it was money and equal opportunity, both, that caused the Baker University Track and Field program to be cut.

Athletic Director James Irick described the new program as “completely financed by outside sources” in a sort of “pay-as-you-go plan.” The Wildcat Booster Club with assistance of benefactor Warren Metzger made the reintroduction possible, raising all the funds necessary to get the program off the ground. Because of his generosity, the reworked track and upgraded facilities, which were still cinder at this time, were named in honor of Metzger .

Although the rebirth of the program was a tremendous accomplishment, there was little else to celebrate during the 1980s, as coaching turnover hampered the growth of the restarted program. The Baker University Track and Field program had a different coach in 1979, 1980, 1981, and 1982. As we will see in the next period, however, the tides began to turn with the hiring of Dennis Weber, a graduate assistant at Emporia State and former high school coach, as head coach in 1988.