On June 23, Southern Utah University discontinued its Men’s and Women’s Tennis programs and the ripples of that decision continue to flow across campus.
SUU Athletic Director Debbie Corum said the decision was, “really tough for me personally.” Many former players expressed disappointment when the discontinuation was announced, but Corum explained that the decision came down to the quality of life for SUU’s tennis student-athletes.
“We kept looking at this sport and we were like, ‘This is not really how we should be treating a Division-I program,’” Corum said. “We just didn’t think it was fair for our student-athletes to try to keep a program going like that when we didn’t really have the proper facilities for them.”
When COVID-19 shutdowns began to impact the nation’s economy, Corum and her staff analyzed how SUU athletics would be affected by budget reductions at the school. The pandemic forced them to reconsider how to operate the department in a way that would be sustainable over the long term.
Discontinuing the tennis team has been under consideration since Corum was hired as Senior Woman Administrator in 2016, she said. A Big Sky Conference rule stipulating that matches not be played under inclement weather put tennis in a precarious position.
For schools with warm climates or indoor facilities, the rule presents no issue. For SUU, cold starts to the spring and high winds meant the Men’s and Women’s Tennis teams could not host their opponents on campus. Instead players and coaches would travel to St. George, where the weather is more temperate, for matches and most practices.
That meant adding nearly two hours of travel each day to the already busy schedule of the student-athletes. Corum said the added travel made it very difficult to retain the teams’ best players.
While the teams were competitive in the Big Sky Conference, Corum grew disappointed holding exit interviews year after year with the team’s No. 1s and No. 2s, tennis’ verbiage for top players in the team, who were electing to transfer.
“The message was always the same [from players electing to transfer], ‘We love it here, we really like the coaching, but I’m spending so much time just getting to practice and I want to go to a school where I don’t have to do that,’” Corum said.
She worked with President Scott L. Wyatt throughout her tenure as athletic director to try and find a way to build an indoor facility on campus.
They looked into putting a wind-resistant bubble over the court, but could not find material that could withstand Cedar City’s strong winds. They considered buying and transporting a barn in Lehi to convert into a facility, but the idea never came to fruition.
When the pandemic hit and the funds the school would receive from the state were reduced, it became clear that building a new facility would not happen soon and it didn’t make sense financially to maintain the program in its current state.
“It wasn’t something that was impulsive,” Corum said. “We’ve looked at lots of different options, but we just kept running into roadblocks… We realized that we weren’t ever really going to be able to do for tennis what we needed to do for them.”
There was a four week period after the initial decision to discontinue during which the Big Sky and SUU coordinated the end of the tennis program.
President Wyatt reportedly told Mike Mucci, the former head coach of the women’s team, that $2 million needed to be raised to maintain the program for the next two years and more than $15 million would ultimately need to be raised to build an indoor facility.
“I think I was a little bit surprised because the word around the athletic department was that they were doing everything possible to not make cuts,” Mucci said. “There was a possibility that certain people were going to lose their jobs, but I wasn’t expecting it. It was pretty shocking at first, but it didn’t really set in until later.”
Mucci and the former coach of the men’s team, Raleigh Grossbaum, saw the grace period as a chance to save the team. They spent the next four weeks reaching out to the United States Tennis Association and other donors with connections to southern Utah to see if they could find a way to construct indoor courts.
“Even if they did [construct an indoor facility], I don’t think it would’ve changed anyone’s mind,” Mucci said. “They felt that even if we were to build a facility, there would be too many costs: electricity, staffing, building bathrooms — all these things that go into a facility. Even if we were to get $6 million to build an indoor facility, the upkeep over time would be too expensive.”
The players were halfway through the season before it was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Before the discontinuation was announced, seniors were already weighing whether they’d return for a second go at their final season. Rumors that the team would be cut surfaced and all of the players waited in limbo while Mucci and Grossbaum tried to raise funds.
That period in limbo was difficult for players deciding their next move, especially because many of the team’s players were from other countries.
“I was not really sure of what was going on,” former men’s player Conor Tordoff said. “I thought it was bad communication from the athletic department. We had a month of not knowing what was going on. Were we gonna stay? Should we look for other schools? We didn’t know because we thought it might not get cut.”
Eventually Tordoff and the rest of his team received a message from their coaches calling for an emergency Zoom meeting. They gathered and were told the news: SUU tennis was no more.
“It was disappointing,” Tordoff said. “Obviously with it happening at other schools, I wasn’t really that shocked. I was disappointed because I was getting excited about coming back and meeting the new guys, but I almost expected it to happen.”
Women’s player Daniela Cozzi expressed similar sentiment, saying, “At first I was pretty sad, especially after competing at SUU for three years, knowing that it was just going to end. At the same time I was expecting it.”
The players then had to decide what was next for them. SUU would honor their athletic scholarships if they chose to return, but there was no hope for tennis to return.
Tordoff decided not to run his senior back again and instead returned to his home country of England to begin his master’s degree. Most other players followed suit, either transferring to another Division-I school or returning home.
Six players remained at SUU, four women’s players and two men’s players. For international players, the tennis team acted as a support system to make friends and navigate campus life. Former players report spending most of their time together, even outside of competition.
Cozzi, who is studying biology and is from Argentina, said she remained on campus because it would have been difficult for her to transfer her credits elsewhere. Returning to campus without her full collection of teammates “felt sad.”
During her first three years at SUU, the women’s team had three different coaches. Cozzi felt disappointed because she thought the team was “going in the right direction” after finding stability under Mucci.
Tordoff also lamented what could have been for SUU tennis saying, “We had a really good culture being developed with [Grossbaum], and I think we were getting in some strong players. It might not have been in the next year, but within the next two or three years the team would have had a very good chance of pushing to win the [Big Sky Conference championship].”
Corum, who formerly operated the Southeastern Conference’s tennis championships, said the team’s progress in Big Sky play made the entire process more difficult, but that ultimately the travel, the expense of a new facility and the financial cuts that came with COVID-19 proved to be too much to manage.
Story by: Connor Sanders and Jake Williams
Photos courtesy of SUU Athletics Strategic Communication