Posted by: gdevi | March 15, 2017

LHU Athletics

Read Matt Girton’s letter to the editor here. Thanks, Matt, for standing up for our coach colleagues, students and alumni. Excellent letter!

Seeking a better way forward at LHU

MAR 15, 2017


Since I moved to Lock Haven in 2001, there were many times I felt compelled to write a letter to this newspaper expressing either my approval or displeasure regarding a decision or event.

However, it was not until the recent, unjust firing of Lock Haven University swim coach Joel Blesh, the pending and unwise termination of the men’s indoor/outdoor/cross-country teams, and the alienation of our two university foundation campaign co-chairs (and countless donors) that I have broken my 16-year silence.

I cannot remain mute while an institution that means so much to me and this town is heading down a path that, unless it reverses course, will place its future in jeopardy.

I, like so many Lock Haven residents, first encountered Joel Blesh as my son’s swim coach at the YMCA. I was immediately impressed with the interest he took in the success of my (and every other) child in the pool. Joel did not define success solely by splits and finishes, but also by engendering a love for a lifelong pastime. He is one of the main reasons that a small child who would not leave my side in the water has grown into a teenager that, while not swimming competitively, has found joy there. Joel carried his enthusiasm for the sport and his athletes to the next level when he was hired as the coach at LHU. Again, his concern for the swimmers went beyond the pool. In my classroom, I could always count on those students to be attentive and well-prepared. The unpardonable way Joel was fired has already been documented. That LHU has thrown away such a remarkable asset is inexplicable.

For decades, LHU’s men’s track and cross-country teams have been some of the most successful at the school. Like Joel, Coach Aaron Russell looked after his athletes outside of competitions and practice. The success they experienced on the track or course (with multiple conference championships and national qualifiers) extended into the classroom where, once again, I witnessed conscientious students with a drive to excel academically. More than crafting a conference juggernaut though, he has built a family. Countless times I have seen posts to social media lauding the experience that Aaron provided and the bonds they created with the campus and each other. Again, I am at a loss as to why this school would toss such a valuable group of students and alumni aside.

Finally, I am stunned by the reaction against the two co-chairs of the university’s current capital campaign. I have met Jim Whaley and Ron Bowes, and both are spirited alumni and longtime supporters of this school. Their letter to The Express was a distress call. Instead of our administration reaching out to mend fences, these gentlemen were subjected to a diatribe where they were accused of creating “false information, perversion of facts, and intentionally malevolent claims.” To use these words in private against two leading and concerned benefactors would be inexcusable.

To do so publicly is unfathomable.

Our administration has responded to my incredulity at these actions with the fact that LHU has experienced a decline in enrollment and state funding. According to their reasoning, this necessitates the elimination of the above coach and programs. However, during a time of reduced enrollment, we have fired a man and terminated programs responsible for recruiting some of our very best and brightest students who graduate at a substantially higher rate than students in the general population. Administration has made the argument that, through roster management and shifted funding, other sports will recruit more students; therefore, enrollment will not be affected. We need look no further than another State System school to see the flaw in that argument. Millersville University announced in 2012 that it would cut its men’s cross-country and outdoor track teams. According to the Department of Education’s Equity in Athletics report, in 2012, Millersville had 226 male athletes. In 2015, (the latest report I could find and three years after cutting track and cross-country), that number dropped to 205.

This example supports the adage that you cannot keep cutting your way to growth.

In spite of what has been written about those speaking against administrative decisions, I am still one of the most ardent supporters of this wonderful institution.

Because of our coaches, faculty, and staff, a student can still get a solid education and invaluable life experiences at Lock Haven University.

However, we are at a tipping point.

I appeal to our administration to drop its defensive tone and engage in a dialogue where stakeholders’ suggestions are welcomed, as opposed to quickly dismissed.

Unless we walk back from these misguided actions, the line from our alma mater heralding “time for sports and songs and laughter” will ring hollow.


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