University of Hartford athletes, coaches, alumni voice shock, sadness over move to Division III

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University of Hartford athletes, coaches, alumni and donors voiced shock, anger and sadness Friday after the school’s Board of Regents voted Thursday night to transition its athletic department from Division I to Division III.

The move — intended to reduce aid to athletes, coaches’ salaries and operating expenses — has drawn passionate opposition since a report commissioned by the university first became public last month. On Friday, that opposition crested, as softball players put black tape over the school name on their uniforms during a game, alumni questioned university leadership and donors threatened to withhold future support.

“I think all of us are kind of reeling right now,” volleyball coach Vinh Nguyen said Friday. “Meeting with our teams, talking to our alumni, our incoming recruits, parents — it’s been a lot. Right now, we’re all just trying to do damage control, trying to keep the team calm. They have a million questions, the parents are calling us, they have a million questions.”

In an op-ed published by The Courant, UHart president Gregory Woodward and Board of Regents chair David Gordon defended the decision by arguing that Division III would allow the school to place a greater focus on academics.

“The board’s challenge has been to balance the many positive attributes and experiences of intercollegiate athletics with its fiduciary responsibility to deliver an outstanding academic and university experience that directly benefits all students,” they wrote.

Woodward, through a spokesperson, declined an interview request Friday.

UHart, like many small private colleges, has seen declining enrollment in recent years and suffered financially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Though the school has downplayed the financial motives behind its choice to shift to Division III, the decision has widely been seen as a cost-saving measure.

Critics of UHart’s move to Division III say it would not save the school substantial amounts of money and that it would diminish the school’s publicity, alumni engagement and fundraising.

Susan Reich, who along with her husband Tom has been one of the UHart athletic department’s largest donors, said Friday she was “absolutely sick” about the decision to move to Division III.

“My husband has been very ill for months, and he said ‘I hope I don’t live to see Hartford go to Division III,” Reich said. “And when I had to tell him last night he was heartbroken.”

Reich said she would “never set foot on that campus again” and that she and her husband would no longer donate to the school.

“Not a dime,” she said.

Joe Coughlin, a UHart alum, donor and former Board of Regents member, said moving from Division I to Division III would make the school less attractive to prospective students.

“What is going to attract a student to come to your school?” Coughlin said. “If there’s not a theater program, if there’s not an arts program, if there’s not an athletics program, then what’s the point? It’s supposed to be the whole experience.”

Walter Harrison, UHart’s president from 1998 to 2017 and a vocal booster of college athletics, said he was “deeply disappointed” by the decision to shift to Division III and didn’t understand how or why it was made.

“I wish this process had been more transparent, and I wish there had been more receptivity to hearing opposing viewpoints,” Harrison said. “I feel especially sympathetic to the student-athletes, the coaches and the coaching staff who have, in an unfortunately abrupt manner, had their dreams and hopes dashed.”

Men’s basketball coach John Gallagher said in a text that he was “extremely disappointed in the Board of Regents’ vote yesterday.”

“We met as a team today and we made a united decision that we are staying together to play next season,” he said. “We will fight hard to repeat our success and continue to elevate this program to new heights. I care deeply about my tremendous student-athletes, my coaching staff, the entire university, and the greater Hartford community.”

Erik Ostberg, who played baseball for Hartford between 2015-2017 before being picked by the Tampa Bay Rays in the 13th round of the MLB draft, plays for the Bowling Green Hot Rods, the organization’s high single-A affiliate. Thursday night, he had hit two home runs, including a game-winning grand slam, then came back into the locker room to find his phone blown up with texts about the move to Division III.

“This is what happens when you have smug academic elites who don’t understand the value of Division I sports,” Ostberg said. “The school’s going to be out of business in 10 years and frankly, I’m embarrassed to be associated with it and I’m embarrassed for [baseball] Coach [Justin] Blood. He’s one of the best coaches in the country. He’s recruited dozens of major leaguers. Hartford is a top five place in New England to have an opportunity to play pro sports, at least in baseball, to be drafted in baseball.”

Megan Anderson, a senior volleyball player, said her teammates were stunned when they received the email from the university Thursday night.

“Everyone was in shock, not only by the timing of it, considering finals week is next week, and it was sent so late at night but also because of all the support the community has shown us recently in regards in wanting to keep us Division I and support the athletes and the coaches,” said Anderson, who is the co-president of the university’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. “I think it was very disrespectful the way they went about it.”

Anderson said many athletes have discussed the possibility of transferring.

“There’s a lot of chatter around that, who’s going to transfer, who’s going to stay,” she said. “There’s a lot of confusion going around, a lot of frustration, a lot of uncertainty about the future.”

Alex Putterman can be reached at aputterman@courant.com. Lori Riley can be reached at lriley@courant.com.

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