The University of Akron Athletics Department is planning its trajectory into the future.
After seeking input from two forums — one for faculty, staff and students and the other for the general public — the department has part of what might be a broader blueprint for how to expand the Zips’ reach in Summit County and beyond. It’s part of the school’s Vision 2020 plan, which sets college goals for UA to reach by that year.
The forums produced a laundry list of ways to improve the UA sports experience.
“What I got is that people have a great passion for Zips athletics and they have great passion for the university. We’re doing good and we need to do better. We need to be great,” Director of Athletics Tom Wistrcill said after meeting with a group of fans before the start of the annual spring game. “They see this as an opportunity here to build on this great stadium, build this great football program and use athletics as this kind of shining star in Northeast Ohio.”
Those same people also recognize the challenges involved after delving into data UA received from a survey conducted in March, identifying several factors that need attention for UA athletic programs to reach their goals.
They range from the obvious to the surprising.
Football and basketball are listed as “threats” in one category of the survey.
Football is not a surprise. Three consecutive 1-11 seasons will dampen enthusiasm. With the facilities, including InfoCision Stadium, and a quality coach in Terry Bowden, it seems likely that the program will eventually turn around.
But for basketball to be on that list is puzzling until learning antiquated Rhodes Arena is a main drag on the program. Wistrcill knows the problems with the arena and he knows what he has in coach Keith Dambrot, who is on the verge of turning UA into another Butler or Virginia Commonwealth. He’s confident something can be done — be it renovation, a new arena on campus or an arena in downtown Akron.
But as the Athletics Department begins the process of planning its future, student engagement remains a problem. Even with the modern dorms on East Exchange Street giving UA the feel of a more traditional college campus, changing the label of “commuter” school isn’t easy.
“What you have is people who didn’t live on campus. Most of them didn’t hang out on campus 24 hours per day. We continue to create those long relationships,” Wistrcill said. “Now our students are spending more and more time on campus than they were 20 years ago. I think that’s part of what we have to build — their deeper connection to the university.”
No matter the plans, they come during a time of economic issues. The school faces a projected budget gap of $26.7 million, and no department will escape cuts. The Athletic Department will lose approximately 6 percent of the $19 million it receives from the university, according to Wistrcill.
“It’s an issue for all of us. We’re a strong university. We just have to make some decisions and keep building,” he said.
George M. Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.