Facing cuts, Glenbrook North graduate Ryan Purdy's time with Iowa swimming may be over
Ryan Purdy, Glenbrook North graduate and a sophomore swimmer at the University of Iowa, did not envision his school year starting like this.
On Aug. 21, three days before classes began in Iowa City on Aug. 24, Iowa athletics director Gary Barta told members of the men's and women's swim and dive teams, the men's gymnastics team and the men's tennis team that in order to save money lost due to COVID-19 those programs would be cut at the conclusion of the 2020-21 school year.
It was a brief meeting with immediate fallout.
"Our initial reaction was sadness. It was heartbreaking," said Purdy, a two-time state champion at Glenbrook North who swam the fourth-fastest 200 individual medley in Hawkeyes history as a freshman, seventh all-time in the 200 backstroke.
"You looked around the room and everybody was crying, balling their eyes out," he said.
The university was facing an overall deficit of $75 million to $100 million and a shortfall of $60 million to $75 million this fiscal year. It stemmed from no NCAA basketball tournament, the lack of spring sports and the real killer, the Big Ten's Aug. 11 announcement that it would postpone all fall sports, primarily football.
Cutting the four sports would save the university $5 million, though general operating expenses pertaining to swimming are between $225,000-$250,000 not counting scholarships and salaries, according to Matt Purdy, Ryan's father and a former Hawkeyes football offensive lineman. Matt Purdy also is Glenbrook North's head football coach.
Iowa is honoring all athletic scholarships and coaching stipends through athletes' graduations or coaching contracts, Matt Purdy said. There are 9.9 scholarships distributed between all of the members of the men's team, he said, 14 scholarships for women. If a swimmer gets a 30% scholarship, which Ryan Purdy has, that's pretty good.
"I came to Iowa to live my dream of trying to win a Big Ten championship, and win it with my whole team," Ryan Purdy said.
He said "a good amount" of Hawkeyes swimmers, including himself, have now entered the transfer portal. The men's program also lists freshman Daniel Young of Maine South.
"It's so much more than a team at Iowa," Ryan Purdy continued. "I came here for the team atmosphere, and it grew to be so much more than that. It grew to be my family. I'm so grateful to call everyone on my team my best friend. And that's what hurt the most, is that might not be the case anymore."
When Ryan called home with the news of the cuts, Matt and Kelly Purdy were concerned with his mental state.
"Everything was ripped out from under him," Matt Purdy said.
The Purdys immediately wanted to high-tail it to Iowa City to console their son but Ryan, a Hawkeyes sophomore captain, wanted to commiserate with his team.
So Matt Purdy got busy.
He had hoped that were the university to make cuts, it might speak with all involved prior to the final decision to discuss options such as possible cost-cutting measures.
That opportunity gone as of Aug. 21, Matt Purdy started hitting the social networks to help assemble a group of interested parties including alumni, school donors, former Iowa coaches and parents. On the last weekend of August that group met in Iowa City. About 35 people were present with about 75 more meeting on Zoom.
He said the hope is to pause the process of eliminating the four programs and allow the university to build a new funding model. He noted other college swim programs are entirely funded by alumni, and one group started a GoFundMe page when the school announced it was cutting swimming.
"What we really want to do is to get the university to realize they really made a mistake here, they really lost their focus on what's best for the kids and the educational environment," Matt Purdy said.
He's since spoken with economists and lawyers, and has done multiple radio interviews on the matter.
Purdy said a parent had threatened to file a class-action suit.
"We don't want to go there," Purdy said.
"Our primary objective is to engage in a conversation and come up with a mutual solution to save these four sports, and at the same time develop a program that will benefit all nonrevenue, Olympic sports throughout the entire country," he said.
Vickie Nauman, a swimmer at the "birthplace of the butterfly stroke" from 1982-86, wrote a detailed letter to the State of Iowa Board of Regents that included more than 260 alumni dating to the 1950s who were in support of meeting with the board to discuss alternatives to cutting the programs.
In response, in a letter on Sept. 8 Board of Regents Executive Director Mark Braun noted the commitment of the board and University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld to the university and its students, but noted: "While the decision to eliminate these programs was very difficult, the Board supports President Harreld's exercise of his judgment."
Regardless, Ryan Purdy is proud of his father's work as a newly crowned, self-described "activist."
"He's done so much more than I could ever ask for with this thing," Ryan said.
He's not quite sure what's up with this season, which is slated to end with Iowa hosting the 2021 NCAA Men's Championships next spring. Practices have been suspended until Sept. 13 due to COVID-19 cases on campus, he said. His last activity was an Aug. 31 lifting session.
Although he's Iowa's leading 100 backstroke swimmer and No. 2 in the 200 back stroke, Purdy plans to probably declare this a redshirt year, transfer to one of the many schools currently pursuing him, and use his remaining three years of eligibility.
At this point, he said, the greatest challenge is to continue training.
"It doesn't matter if you're transferring at the end of the semester, it doesn't matter if you're transferring next year, it doesn't matter if you're done swimming after this year. We can all use this as an opportunity to get better," he said.