As the shock bit into her, Temple's women's rowing coach didn't remember saying much of anything.

"I couldn't even think of a question," Rebecca Smith Grzybowski said. "I was completely blindsided."

Seven Temple sports had just been cut, she was told by athletic director Kevin G. Clark, including her sport.

By the time of that conversation, midday on Dec. 6, Temple's board of trustees had already voted unanimously to cut baseball, softball, men's gymnastics, men's indoor track and spring track and field, and men's and women's rowing, effective at the end of the spring season.

Even as warning signs had gone up about possible cuts, the messages Grzybowski picked up were all systems go. A new four for her team had been purchased over the summer for $22,000, she said, and another boat, an eight, was even more expensive - $35,000.

"All told, $60,000 was invested in a program that they cut four months later," Grzybowski said, noting that a full-time assistant also had been added for the first time. Brian DeDominici moved down from Boston after quitting his job as a high school rowing coach. He started Oct. 1.

In addition to the new boats, Grzybowski said, the overall experience for her team members was being upgraded. The year before, she said, the school had provided $150 per team member, basically covering racing uniforms. Anything else was on them.

"This year, [Temple paid for] everything - sweats, T-shirts, two pair of shorts," the coach said.

The rowing headquarters still was going to be a tent by the Schuylkill - that's been its home since the nearby East Park Canoe House was condemned in 2008. Grzybowski liked to tell her rowers that they can't take a boathouse to the starting line, that they had what they needed to compete.

The boat purchases had, in fact, been a big deal. Sitting in the tents, Temple's boats aged faster than the competition's boats racked in boathouses, safe from the elements. Temple's boats lost their rigidity quicker, slowing them in the water.

"Two of the boats we have are 15 years old," said Grzybowski, a former national-team rower - after walking on at Holy Cross - who met her husband when both were rowing after college out of Boathouse Row.

Temple's women's rowing team is a large one - its 60 members putting it behind only the surviving football and women's track team and the also-cut men's track team when it came to roster size at the school.

"We had 10 full scholarships," Grzybowski said. "They were talking about adding more."

All the positive signs, it turned out, weren't as important as some events earlier this year, culminating at a meeting of the Philadelphia Commission on Parks and Recreation, when opposition to building a 23,000-square-foot Temple boathouse near the Strawberry Mansion Bridge proved to be fervent.

Preservationists saw Temple's boathouse proposal - the architectural renderings already complete - as the first test of the city's new Open Lands Protection Ordinance, which called for no new private building on Fairmount Park land without a donation of park land.

Temple decided it was not practical to donate land, and instead offered $1.5 million to the city for repairs to the Canoe Club. That didn't turn the tide.

Grzybowski said she had thought, based on word from Temple administrators, that City Hall was on board with the proposal and everything was a go.

"We didn't see [the opposition] coming," the coach said.

Condemned

The lack of a boathouse should be looked at as one of the linchpins to the recent sports cuts at Temple. Administrators announced that $3 million in savings would be redirected to surviving sports. Left unsaid was that a major Temple initiative, building the new boathouse for somewhere in the range of $5 million to $8 million (much of it to be paid by rowing alumni), was officially dead.

Last summer, Temple president Neil Theobald sat in his office just off Broad Street, talking about sports at the school. That day, Theobald made it clear that cutting teams was on the table.

Asked about rumors that Temple may not continue to field 24 teams, Theobald said: "We have to figure that out. . . . We support 565 student-athletes - I think that's right. We need to provide academic support to them. We have a lot of services we are providing, so that's another thing that's clearly going to have to be looked at."

Those quotes were published Aug. 25, and several other warning flares were sent up. The Temple News, the student newspaper, had covered the question of sports feasibility extensively as the Owls transitioned to the new American Athletic Conference, cobbled together from the remnants of the old Big East.

Making women's rowing part of those cuts had further ramifications. Since the team has 60 team members, there would be immediate Title IX issues, and the strong possibility of lawsuits, if Temple didn't improve its ratio of female-to-male athletes. The school listed Title IX as a "key factor to be considered" when it made the cuts, acknowledging the issue was looked at closely as it cut five men's sports and two women's sports. Temple's female-male ratio on its teams will be closer to the general student body ratio.

If a new boathouse on the Schuylkill had been approved and ground already broken, how would all this have played out?

Ed Holland, a former Temple rower and leader of the drive for a new boathouse, believes a change in presidents at Temple was a factor. Theobald took over last January from Ann Weaver Hart, who had left the previous year to become president of the University of Arizona.

"When Dr. Hart left, we lost a lot of our support within the university," said Holland, a former executive director of Boston's Head of the Charles regatta.

However, since the boathouse opposition from the community mounted after the administration changed over, there's no telling what the previous regime would have done if faced with the same obstacles.

Conversely, if the boathouse proposal had gone through, it seemed as if Temple's new administrators were on board with the program. Buying new boats suggests as much.

Was there donated money waiting to be used on the boathouse? Gryzbowski said there wasn't yet, because the rowing groups had been asked not to seek that money from alumni until the boathouse proposal had fully passed.

"A Catch-22," she called that issue.

This had been a long process. At one point, the city had wanted Temple to build a boathouse on the opposite bank of the river, but that raised myriad issues, starting with the cost of running water and sewer lines into the building, and ending with the fact Martin Luther King Jr. Drive is usually closed on weekends for recreational activity. How was anyone supposed to get there?

Other sites farther up the river, and farther away from Temple's campus, also had been explored.

The forces that are putting Temple's rowing teams out of the athletic department go back to a dilapidated boathouse on the banks of the Schuylkill, used by Temple for years for $1 a year in rent, shared with three high schools. The city and Temple argued during that time over who was responsible for major repairs to the East Park Canoe House before it was condemned in 2008.

"They did not do anything to the structure of the building," Holland said of Temple's role in the upkeep of the building. "They were told the city was going to take care of it. They never did."

"We would actually do a lot of repairs, and it was very frustrating because you would plaster one part and move over and do something else, and this would start to drip again," men's coach Gavin White told 6ABC when the building was condemned.

Others looked at Temple's sweetheart deal and believed the university should have done more to keep the building usable.

"Imagine if the building had been properly maintained over all of those years," said a former top official of the Schuylkill Navy who asked to remain anonymous. (The Schuylkill Navy oversees rowing on the river.) "Would we be discussing the loss of crew at Temple today?"

In one sense, Temple may have been a victim of its own success. The university has never been flush with cash, and White's varsity eight had won the Dad Vail Regatta 20 times before the Canoe House was condemned.

Why should the school have worried about fixing up a boathouse it was not responsible for when Gavin's boys kept winning the big race?

A rowing city

The Dad Vail is the top local rowing race, with huge crowds watching from the banks of the Schuylkill.

Those crowds are probably the largest in the country for any collegiate spring rowing event, but the Dad Vail is not at the top of the competitive heap nationally.

On the men's side, there is no NCAA championship, so a national champion is crowned at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association championships, which gets nowhere near the crowds as the Dad Vail. (Penn is often the only local qualifier for the IRAs, although Drexel, which has emphasized the sport recently and won the Dad Vail team title this year, has squeezed in the last couple of seasons.)

On the women's side, there are NCAA championships, but nobody locally has qualified in recent years. (Women's rowing was elevated to an NCAA sport to help schools meet Title IX requirements.) The Dad Vail was founded in 1934 as a big race for emerging programs. In recent years, it has been the top destination for programs, men and women, varsity and club, that don't compete for the national title.

Temple's women have been on the upswing lately. In Grzybowski's first season as head coach, the Owls qualified their varsity eight, second eight, and novice eight for the 2012 Dad Vail finals. The varsity eight made it that far for the first time since 2004.

Despite not being a top-20 power nationally, Temple's men's team has been a feeder for national teams. The last two times the U.S. men's eight won an Olympic medal, bronze in 2008 and gold in 2004, a Temple graduate was in the boat. That 2004 gold in Athens may have been the greatest American men's rowing moment in the last half-century. Temple graduate Jason Read rowed in the bow seat that day.

Temple graduate Marcus McElhenney summed up his training this way before he coxed the men's eight to bronze in Beijing: "For some reason, the culture - this competitive, in-your-face culture of Philadelphia - breeds decent coxswains."

Temple's own boathouse pitch to the city began by saying the university has "played a key role in Philadelphia's legendary rowing tradition for decades, contributing to the growth in popularity of the sport and to the recognition it has brought to the City of Philadelphia."

'No dignity at all'

The introduction to Temple's pitch finished with what now reads like a more ominous statement: "For the Temple rowing organization, there are no alternatives to the development of a new structure along the Schuylkill given the existing culture and tradition in the City."

When the boathouse proposal failed, Grzybowski said: "It was explained to us that we're not giving up, we're just pumping the brakes." Nobody seemed to view refurbishing the Canoe House as a great option.

"Basically, Temple decided that putting $15 million into a barn that's falling down . . . wouldn't work," Holland said.

Everyone involved seemed to agree the tents weren't a permanent solution either. White said he retched a couple of times walking into the portable toilet last season.

"There was no dignity at all," the men's coach said. "They just weren't treating our kids with dignity."

"Every time I go there and see those tents, I just drop my head," said Clark, the athletic director.

In October, Grzybowski said she was asked to take photos of the tent area. It was her understanding that she should portray it to look as run-down as possible. Not a hard task.

She saw this request as a positive development: "Something was going to get done."

Less than two months later, four of the coach's photos were shown to the media as part of the evidence why the sports were being cut.

mjensen@phillynews.com

@jensenoffcampus