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Making Varsity

Daily Sports Writer
Published November 14, 2007

In its infancy, Michigan club lacrosse was just that - a club.

Brian Merlos
Brian Merlos
Brian Merlos

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John Paul played for the team in the late '80s and early '90s and remembers the social aspect of the game. Who won or lost was irrelevant. More than likely, the big winner was the guy who could hold his booze the best.

"We used to hop out of the van, carry a keg out of the back and just play," Paul said.

Times have changed in the past 15 years, though. Paul traded in his tap for a clipboard, becoming coach of the Michigan Club Varsity Lacrosse team, and in the process, developed some lofty ambitions - actual varsity status.

His team now acts as a virtual varsity squad, practicing year round with a professional coaching staff and providing services that range from academic support to yoga and detailed speed training.

In early October, the men's lacrosse team hosted defending Division-I National Champion Johns Hopkins in a scrimmage. Their coach, Dave Pietramala, cited the Wolverines as one of the nation's top club teams.

The Johns Hopkins varsity team, with some of the best scholarship lacrosse players in the country, was pitted against a team whose players had to pay $3,500 dollars a year just to participate. To the surprise of some, the Wolverines mostly held their own, losing 9-1, with the Johns Hopkins Blue Jays playing their starters for most of the game.

But for Paul, the final score was meaningless. It was the scores of media covering the event that were important. It was the 2,100 who packed Elbel Field who mattered. It was the exposure of Michigan club varsity lacrosse as something more than a club.

"Whether it's three years from now or 15 years from now, division one lacrosse at Michigan is inevitable," Paul said. "The way the sport continues to grow, and all of the selling points that we have for it, it's going to happen."

But the path to becoming a varsity team is more complicated than it might seem. For it to happen, Paul will have to ceaselessly lobby the University and undergo a long and complex formal review process no team has even attempted - though more than one has the talent to be a varsity sport - since 2000.

The University has 25 varsity teams now, what will it take for it to get to 26?

As he walks down State Street to his office at Weidenbach Hall, the last thing on the mind of Michigan Athletic Director Bill Martin is the addition of a new varsity sport.

He's got enough on his plate with the construction of luxury boxes at Michigan Stadium about to begin, groundbreaking for a new soccer complex on the horizon and the looming questions surrounding Crisler Arena renovations.

But when Martin became athletic director in 2000, updating facilities was low on his list of concerns. The department was in debt, and then-President Lee Bollinger had given Martin the responsibility of getting athletics back in the black. Even so, before Martin was hired, Bollinger and the regents had signed off on a plan to add two new varsity sports, men's soccer and women's water polo.

"I looked at the budget, which was about 5 million dollars in the red, and said, 'The first thing I would do is I wouldn't add these teams,' " Martin said.

Martin's fiscal responsibility made him the logical choice for Bollinger back in 2000, but the same trait would make it harder for other aspiring club teams.

Michigan's lineup of 25 men's and women's varsity teams doesn't seem like a lot compared to the 37 teams currently at Ohio State University or the 30 sports supported by Stanford University's athletic department.

But don't think Martin hasn't heard all that before. His concerns lie in the here and now, he said, not in what other schools are doing.

"What concerns me is, in order of priority: how our student athletes do in the classroom, how they do in the community - are they good representatives of our institution and don't embarrass us with their behavior? - do we win and do we pay our bills?" he said. "I want us to be the best academically, ethically, athletically and financially."

To become a varsity team, clubs start by making a formal request with the a planning committee of the University's Advisory Board on Intercollegiate Athletics, which reviews formal requests by club sports in their pursuit of varsity status.

The committee consists of two faculty members, one alum, one student and the athletic director or someone he or she designates. All members are chosen on a case-by-case basis upon the filing of a proposal. The findings of the committee are then reported back to the advisory board.

The committee focuses mostly on four categories when making its decision: student-athlete welfare, quality of competition at the conference and national level, viability of a new sport and financial considerations.