GREENVILLE, N.C. (WTVD) -- East Carolina University announced Thursday that because of budget shortfalls related to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is eliminating four sports programs from the athletic department.
ECU will no longer field men's or women's swimming and diving or men's and women's tennis teams. The decision affects 68 student-athletes and nine coaches all told. The school will honor the scholarships of the athletes involved if they choose to stay in Greenville and stay on track to graduate in four years. Otherwise, the NCAA allows them the option to transfer and be immediately eligible at a new school.
"While these decisions have been horribly difficult for us, they are equally necessary" said interim Chancellor Ron Mitchelson at an afternoon press conference. "These student athletes did absolutely nothing wrong. In fact, we have great respect for them and we admire them."
The impact of the announcement lands in the lap of student athletes like Hunter Pigg. The Millbrook alum was celebrating a conference championship swim team at ECU just three months ago.
"That's the most shocking part because we did win the conference and it was an extremely close win. We weren't supposed to win that meet at all. Here we are, one month you have conference title and the next you're not even on a team."
Pigg got the bad news this morning first from his head coach Matthew Jabs.
"Jab said a few words to us about how much we meant to him. We all got some of our words out. That was pretty emotional say the least" said Pigg.
Athletic Director Jon Gilbert had to pause to check some emotion this afternoon as he described having to break the news to the coaches and athletes.
"This is one of the most agonizing decisions you can make as an athletics director," Gilbert said. "There is no right time or easy way to take these actions because you are affecting people. These decisions were made for the long-term sustainability of athletics at East Carolina University. The fallout from COVID-19 has affected every revenue stream for our department and we must take immediate action and implement cost-saving measures to address the mounting financial challenges."
The school is projecting a $10 million athletic deficit this year. It will make several other departmental cuts in addition to eliminating the four teams with a goal to save $4.9 million.
Mitchelson stated that the athletic budget was not sustainable pre-COVID-19. The deficit began to grow significantly with the pandemic where the impact was immediate and would affect future revenue and expenses.
"Ultimately, the reduction of sports aligns ECU with our American Athletic Conference peers and provides a roadmap to a more sustainable future for the University and athletics," Mitchelson said.
Right now the swim team is using gallows humor to cope. Pigg said the reality hadn't sunk in yet.
"Once it does that's gonna be tough," Pigg said. "I wouldn't say anger. I don't know who to be angry towards. Probably just more frustration with how maybe things could have been handled differently."
A large portion of the Pirate swim team was comprised of swimmers from outside the country, and that made Pigg's experience that much richer.
"Honestly that was the best, because of all the different cultures I got to experience. Probably some of them I won't ever see again," Pigg said.
Gilbert tried to be as empathetic as possible Thursday afternoon, but he said he knows that's simply not enough in the face of this disappointment.
"I understand the anger and disappointment that these student athletes and coaches are feeling," Gilbert said. "And to that I say, 'I'm sorry.'"
The swim team was supposed to have a ring ceremony to celebrate their conference championship. That was scuttled by the quarantine, but they're still hoping to do that sometime in the future. Now, it'll be for a real sense of closure.
Pigg said he's decided to stay at ECU rather than transfer elsewhere to swim. His girlfriend and his friends are all in Greenville, and he is halfway to his degree.
ECU Athletics now fields 16 teams, the minimum required to maintain Division 1 status.