The Niagara County Community College athletics program has come a long way in the last five years, though not as far as the college had hoped.
In October 2008, the NCCC board of trustees approved an ambitious athletics upgrade plan that was expected to take three years to implement.
The plan called for a complete rebranding of the college’s athletics, the addition of four new sports, creation of three full-time coaching positions, increased scholarship funding and facility upgrades.
The plan, a culmination of retired Athletic Director Lee Wallace’s 13 years on the job, was continued when Bob McKeown moved into the AD’s office midway through the second year.
But so far, only men’s and women’s lacrosse have been added to the list of sports the college offered five years ago, just one full-time head coaching position has been funded in the budget, and progress has stalled on outdoor field renovations.
The college is moving on.
McKeown is in the early stages of drafting a new strategic plan for the athletics department, one that he said will not likely include the addition of any new sports.
“In many ways, we have followed the plan to a T,” he said. “In other ways, we’ve had to make some changes because of budgetary reasons, structural reasons and coaching reasons.”
NCCC athletics certainly looks different from what it was five years ago.
Changing the college’s nickname from Trailblazers to Thunderwolves in 2010 and redesigning its logo separated NCCC from a brand diminished by years of losing.
“I think it has been a major part of our success,” McKeown said. “It has changed our image, and the students love wearing the logo, and the faculty loves wearing the logo.
“For all of the years I coached softball here with the old Trailblazers logo, it was very rare to see a T-shirt or anything around campus with that logo.”
The Thunderwolves have proved to be more competitive than the Trailblazers were in several sports.
In the past five seasons, the once-foundering baseball program has gone to three National Junior College Athletic Association Division III World Series, the women’s volleyball team has been to two national championship tournaments, and both the men’s and women’s basketball teams have increased their win totals significantly. The wrestling program has remained a regional power even after the retirement of Hall of Fame coach Eric Knuutila.
Combined with NCCC’s declining enrollment, the extra expenses that come with all of this winning have stifled the college’s ability to fund new sports, McKeown said.
“The plan is working in terms of being successful. Our rosters are full, recruitment has been better than before, and NCCC athletics is starting to be known on a national level,” McKeown said.
“But there’s an expense that comes with that. Our post-season budget has gone up and up and up.”
McKeown was able to save $50,000 in this year’s budget by eliminating the men’s and women’s bowling programs, which had been reinstated in 2011. NCCC won two national championships in the 1970s under coach Roy Sommer, and it is one of the few junior colleges with an on-campus bowling alley, but the Thunderwolves found competing in today’s climate to be too expensive.
“The original thought was our bowling team could practice here, but we have a six-lane, wooden bowling alley, and 99 percent of the tournaments are on synthetic lanes,” McKeown said.
“We had to have practice off campus, and the bowling alley is not big enough to hold a match. To play in the Tier 1 bowling competitions, you have to travel very far. Expenses kept going up, while the budget was going down.”
Similarly, plans to add men’s and women’s cross country, swimming and diving teams have been scrapped. “Adding more sports would stretch our budget to the limit,” McKeown said.
NCCC did finally hire its first full-time coach this past year, promoting baseball coach Matt Clingersmith and also giving him the title of recruiting coordinator for the athletics department.
The department has added a full-time events and scheduling coordinator and a full-time sports information director in recent years, and McKeown is the first athletic director to be a full-time employee.
Clingersmith had been receiving four-fifths pay and benefits for two years. Bill Beilein, who is men’s basketball coach, recreation coordinator and equipment manager, and Erin Stillman, softball coach and compliance officer, are currently four-fifths employees, and the rest of NCCC’s coaches work part time.
“Our four-fifths coaches are amazing at what they do, the time they put in and the success of their programs,” McKeown said. “Eventually, down the road, I think they should be full time because they can do that much more for us with a full-time buy-in.”
Clingersmith is the only current coach who was in the same position five years ago.
“The program as a whole has taken steps,” he said. “We are not where we need to be to compete with the powers, but we are getting closer.
“Five years ago, I was a part-time guy making $1,000 in the fall and $3,000 in the spring. The budget for paying coaches has gotten better. The recruiting budget has gotten better. We’re slowly eliminating part-time coaches and getting them on campus.”
Clingersmith added, “I thank Lee Wallace for starting that, and Bob McKeown for continuing it. We are trying to follow the plan as best as we can, but enrollment is down, and that hurts. I would say Bob’s done a tremendous job in a tight spot keeping this budget afloat.”