The selection of former Panthers women’s basketball coach Dave (Hermie) MacNeill to examine the UPEI athletic department may already be too late. There is no question that Mr. MacNeill has superb qualifications to conduct such a review. But as the old saying goes, the horse has left the barn and it does little good to determine that someone left the front door open.
The women’s basketball squad has lost one of the most popular and dedicated head coaches in team history. Assistant coaches have also resigned. Based on comments in this newspaper and a flood of outrage on social media, the impact on players, recruits and the program has been devastating.
It required the resignation of Greg Gould to finally drive home the message that something is seriously wrong inside the program and the athletic department. The symptoms of decay can no longer be ignored. Supporters of the basketball program said despite appeals and warnings made to senior university officials for several months, nothing was done. Things must be desperate indeed when the ever-diplomatic Lyall Huggan stepped down in April as head of the basketball teams’ booster club. He delivered a scathing public rebuke last week and demanded an independent review. Program supporter Darren Peters said officials in top positions with the university were made aware of the situation, including the president and chair of board of governors “on numerous occasions pleading for action, pleading for an investigation.”
The university says the review was already planned before the series of stunning resignations and an administrator hadn’t heard about any complaints or previous calls for an inquiry. Something obviously doesn’t add up. Mr. Huggan said issues include a lack of communication, accounting transparency, adequate practice schedules and morale in the department.
Some problems are self-evident. Whoever heard of varsity teams being charged a rental fee to practise at home? If a program receives, for example, $80,000 from the university to operate for the season, and $20,000 is deducted at source for use of the gymnasium, that’s called a rental fee. At UPEI, an athlete’s ability to make a team is determined by both athletic ability and skill at fundraising. Coaches are also expected to fundraise to help pay for their own salaries. Where do athletic fees go that are paid by every student each year?
It is equally obvious the athletic department is operating under extreme budget constraints. Yet, efforts by booster clubs to help out with fundraising have been compromised because volunteers are made to feel unwelcome or seen as a threat to authority. Reports abound of booster members deciding to watch basketball elsewhere next season, such as the exciting Island Storm. Similar reports say longtime hockey booster members are abandoning that team in favour of the dynamic, young Charlottetown Islanders. The flight to the Eastlink Centre accelerated after a substantial increase in the cost of a season pass last season followed by bizarre ticketing decisions for the playoffs. UPEI soccer teams have long complained about getting little funding or support from the department.
The board of governors seems unwilling or unable to take any action. Serious harm has been done wth the loss of coaches. What can Mr. MacNeill do or recommend in his review that will undo the damage and halt this downward spiral? Mr. MacNeill must reach out to the Island and the university communities for input. Public meetings are essential.
Let’s hope his recommendations will be made public and get the urgent attention that is so desperately needed to restore the No. 1 priority in play here — the best interests of the student-athlete.