As soccer fans across the country were hearing about the news that the University of Cincinnati was cutting their men’s soccer program last week, two local alums were also hearing the news for the first time.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said Springfield, Pa. (Delaware County) native Peter Jannelli, who heard the news on a group text with some former teammates. “It was a complete surprise. I would never think that Cincinnati’s men’s soccer program would ever get cut just because, you know, Cincy is a big sports school and a lot of kids come there to watch sports, whether it’s football, basketball, baseball, soccer or whatever it is.”
The axe came down on the program founded in 1973 in the form of a letter from Athletic Director John Cunningham, who alluded to the current coronavirus crisis in stating that the immediate decision to cut the program came after a review of the long-term finances for athletics at the public research university.
“This difficult decision involved a tremendous amount of thought regarding the young men who chose UC to pursue their degrees and their dreams of playing NCAA Division I soccer,” Cunningham wrote.
A former Lower Merion SC midfielder who also spent time with West Chester United and the Ocean City Nor’easters, Jannelli last played for the Bearcats in 2013. He returned to Philadelphia after graduating to pursue his MBA and still works and lives in the area.
“There won’t be a men’s soccer team in that locker room, going through preseason and playing at Gettler Stadium assuming there is a season and there won’t be anybody to track,” Jannelli said. “I’ve been back to campus over the years with some buddies and you always track the team but now there won’t be anything. It’s gone.”
Another local alum, Mount Laurel, N.J. native Ben Keane, played with Jannelli for a couple seasons but was still on campus a couple years later to witness the phenomenon of FC Cincinnati selling out games at Nippert Stadium on campus and moving from USL to an MLS expansion team last season.
“The crazy thing is our soccer field at Cincinnati is maybe five feet from where FCC plays in our football stadium,” Keane said. “How quickly soccer grew was crazy. That’s why our thought process is how can you end our program when the city of Cincinnati just fell in love with soccer over the last few years?”
Jannelli and Keane both said they understand that there aren’t any easy answers to the financial situation the athletic department was in and acknowledged that the uncertainty facing their alma mater is likely to mean similar cuts of athletic programs at other colleges. But that hasn’t made processing the news any easier.
The process was sudden from their vantage point without any opportunity for alumni to weigh in or rally to try to save the program before the definitive announcement came like has happened in previous D1 cuts at schools like Towson, Richmond and New Mexico.
“Now, if we have kids, or we tell our friends like this is what we we did or our history, they could just say back to us well you don’t have a program any more,” Keane said. “This might sound like an exaggeration but it’s like our college soccer careers were taken from us.”
Head coach Hylton Dayes retired last month after 19 seasons at the helm and a coaching search was underway. The cut was the second to a Division 1 men’s soccer program since the end of the fall regular season. Valparaiso announced in November that the men’s soccer program would not be returning.
Cincinnati played in the Athletic American Conference with Temple. With UConn leaving the conference, the Owls now have just five conference rivals for the fall season. Though Cincinnati is the first high profile program to announce cuts, the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic is likely to impact programs across the NCAA.
“If you’re losing money everywhere on campus and can’t make up the difference in enrollment numbers and retention — if you can’t do it because of the changing state of our lives right now — there’s not a lot of promise in there for athletics,” Drexel sports management professor Karen Weaver, former athletic director at Penn State Abington, told the Inquirer in a recent article on the impact of the coronavirus on college sports.