It didn’t start with the pandemic, these tectonic plates shifting underneath so many colleges, locally and around the nation. Mergers, outright closings, sports dropped. COVID-19 may have speeded up the necessity for some of it but the conditions already were in place.
It wasn’t a complete surprise therefore, Wednesday’s news that St. Joseph’s University and the University of the Sciences are considering a merger.
Let’s face it, you don’t announce this possibility if you’re not planning for it to happen. While a short window apparently remains for either side to reconsider, no reason to expect that.
So what does it mean for athletics? Let’s assume that for St. Joe’s, it won’t mean too much, except maybe some spiffy facilities to use in West Philadelphia, if you don’t mind the 15- or 20-minute shuttle ride.
When it comes to sports, this merger’s impact is more about Sciences, an NCAA Division II program that seems to be about to disappear.
“They’re asking us not to speculate, but athletics is done,’' one Sciences coach said Friday, fairly certain of that prediction.
The word filtering out on Friday is that there will be one more season at Sciences, 2021-22, COVID permitting.
“We’re still working through the weeds,’' said another Sciences coach.
Friday, the University of Sciences forwarded a note sent to its student-athletes Thursday from athletic director Marc Caserio. Included in it was the following, “As of now, nothing will change as a result of this announcement. The University continues to evaluate the possibilities and assess Saint Joseph’s as a potential partner. This includes athletics.
“While much is unknown about what a potential combination would look like, we have ensured that all financial aid awards, including athletic scholarships, will be honored in the event that our two institutions move forward in this partnership and would work out the details thoughtfully, mutually, and respectfully with the NCAA to determine the next steps.”
The school on Woodland Avenue has often punched above its weight class, producing its share of good basketball teams, for instance. Great ones lately in women’s hoops, even reaching the top 10 nationally for a spell a couple of seasons back. Jackie Hartzell produced Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference championship teams in 2017 and ’18 and won the CACC South five of the last six years.
The men’s team has a new coach in Mike Connors, still new today in a sense, since Connors never got to coach a game this current season because of COVID. No rivalry game with Herb Magee at Jefferson or big ones with Holy Family or Wilmington.
“I’ve been through a lot, had good times in basketball,’' said Connors, on Bruiser Flint’s staff at Drexel and before that at Massachusetts with Flint and John Calipari before him. “I want the kids to be settled. Mike Connors is going to be OK. This is one of those life on life’s terms events.”
One of the school’s coaches, blindsided by the news Wednesday, didn’t like to hear an administrator above athletics telling coaches to recruit as normal.
“We are honoring their scholarships,’' the coach said of players there. “But they want to play. Some might have to stay and not play.”
Overall, this merger has logic, since some of the programs offered by the University of the Sciences are naturally coveted by a school such as St. Joseph’s. Similarly, when Philadelphia University merged with Jefferson, that made sense since Jefferson didn’t previously have an undergraduate component. That time, however, no sports program went away.
As schools in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference look at mergers, the talk is that each campus will keep its sports teams. But this merged outfit here is to be called St. Joseph’s. Everyone will be Hawks.
Meanwhile, coaches all over the region tend to speculate privately about what might be the next shoe to drop, since few schools are immune to current financial pressures.
“It’s not a matter of if but when the next shoe drops, “one local coach said of the landscape, and the fight for survival. “I hope it isn’t us. So many schools are throwing Hail Marys.”
This coach said an athletic director texted him after this SJU-Sciences news and said, “We’ve been watching the ball on the hill for a decade, well it’s finally starting to roll down the hill.”
Whatever the trickle-down impact, there are only so many seats at each table. If Sciences gets out of the college sports business, simple math says fewer athletes will be playing college sports. Locally, one less table will exist.
Having to talk to recruits, giving them as much information as possible, plus working through the ramifications for current players, that’s the task at hand right now at Sciences, complicated by the fact some athletes sign up for postgraduate programs that keep them there longer, so transferring out just to play somewhere isn’t the only factor.
“It’s really sad for our side,’' a Sciences coach said. “I’m not sugarcoating this to anyone. I feel so bad for our kids.”
There’s an awareness that in this pandemic time, transferring isn’t so simple, since athletes at other schools aren’t losing this year of eligibility, putting roster spots and scholarship dollars at a premium.
It’s not exactly like the last year has been bringing much good news to offset this. Karma has pretty much had a year off. One Sciences coach thought losing a season to season to COVID was “the worst thing in the world,’'
This coach added, “Little did I know.”