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Behind West Chester breakaway, a bid for more resources

The coaches at West Chester University are not looking to upgrade to Division I or to leave the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference.

West Chester head coach Billy Zwaan. (Charles Fox/Staff Photographer)
West Chester head coach Billy Zwaan. (Charles Fox/Staff Photographer)Read more(Charles Fox/Staff Photographer)

The coaches at West Chester University are not looking to upgrade to Division I or to leave the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference.

What they are doing as a group is supporting legislation that would take West Chester out of the state's higher education system.

The real hope for the coaches is that West Chester gains autonomy in making decisions regarding athletics, and maybe that could result in more resources.

Almost every Division II college, and the vast majority of those in Division I, could use more athletic revenues. But West Chester's coaches will tell you that they're often fighting above their weight class, winning games against schools that can offer more scholarships and better facilities. They also know the uneven Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference has colleges in much more dire straits.

"West Chester is not able to say we should allocate a little more money, make it a little better experience," said Golden Rams football coach Bill Zwaan.

Zwaan's team reached the D-II national semifinals last season, not bad for a program that splits up 11 scholarships, far below the D-II ceiling of 36.

"That puts me at about the middle of the conference," Zwaan said. "All of it is fund-raised; some comes through running camps."

Last month, state Sens. Andrew Dinniman (D., Chester) and Robert Tomlinson (R., Bucks) proposed legislation that would allow healthy universities with more than 7,000 students to exit the state system. The schools also would have to buy their way out of the system over a period of years by acquiring assets under the state's domain. Tomlinson is on West Chester's board of trustees.

And last week, Frank T. Brogan, the new chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, promised more autonomy at colleges within the system. It's possible that compromises will be reached that keep West Chester from wanting to break away. Such a move could negate the need for the proposed bill, Tomlinson told The Inquirer.

Financing athletic programs is not a new issue at West Chester or across Division II. The coaches are just hoping the legislation may provide an opportunity for improvement.

"We don't take our recruits to our locker room," said women's basketball coach Deidre Kane, who parcels out the equivalent of 31/2 scholarships. "We don't take our recruits to the weight room. Yet, we get them."

Kane is not ripping her bosses at West Chester. She said athletic director Ed Matejkovic is "a magician with what he's done."

She also stresses: "I love West Chester University and have not applied for another job since I arrived in 1987. Making it easier for my colleagues - all of us - is what my agenda is."

In some ways, Division II is in the tightest financial spot in all of college sports. Athletic scholarships are offered, but very little revenue comes in. It's fund-raise or perish. The standings often reflect that equation.

"The disparity within our own conference is kind of ridiculous," said Zwaan, who coached Division III Widener before coming to West Chester in 2003.

Conference rival Cheyney, for instance, would surely sign on for West Chester's scholarship numbers in a heartbeat, but that university would not be looking to leave the state system and the funding that comes with it.

You sometimes hear the argument that the PSAC could be two leagues, given the wide disparities. And West Chester would be with the haves, not the have-nots. It just wouldn't be at the top.

Many PSAC colleges have lost coaches who tired of the fund-raising grind. When tuition goes up, they have to do more fund-raising to keep the same number of scholarships.

West Chester can't use tuition or student fees for athletics, only donations. You can make the argument that it should be that way - that the average student doesn't want to pay for sports. But West Chester's coaches want the school to decide for itself.

Matejkovic isn't promising any grand changes, whatever the outcome.

"I said to the coaches, 'If you support this, that doesn't mean we're going to give you new money,' " Matejkovic said. "I'm saying, it opens a new door that I can go bang on."

And if Zwaan's football team can get to the national semis with 11 scholarships, "give him 22, see what he does," the athletic director said. "The people he played against [in the national tournament] have 36."

Matejkovic calls it a catch-22. Why give the football team 22 scholarships when it is winning plenty of games with half of that?

"It's kind of like, why put something on sale if you can't keep it on your shelves?" Matejkovic said.

One thing West Chester's athletic director promises: The Rams aren't trying to head for the big time.

"If we just took football, we would need $50 million to upgrade to Division I, in just one sport," Matejkovic said.