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

Brian Merlos
Brian Merlos
Brian Merlos

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.

According to the committee’s plan for organization, procedures and criteria, student-athlete welfare involves providing opportunities for personal development and maturation regardless of race, religious, ethnic or gender background.

The quality of competition clause surrounds the viability of the sport within the Big Ten or an equivalent athletic conference. There must be a league with championships for the proposed varsity team to join.

In terms of viability of a new sport, the committee focuses on the participation in the sport on the high school, regional, conference and national levels. The status of the club team and the sport as an emerging NCAA activity are also taken into consideration.

Last, and most important, are the financial considerations. The costs of coaches, trainers, facilities, support services, equipment, recruiting and travel are all factors the committee must be able to address.

“I would love to have more varsity sports,” Martin said. “It’s not a matter of wanting to have new teams or not. It’s a matter of if you can afford them or not.”

Michigan Men’s Soccer Coach Steve Burns knows too much about the hoops a club team must jump through to become a varsity member of the Athletic Department. As a student, Burns played for the club soccer team from 1984-1988 and returned as a coach in 1992.

As coach, he proposed soccer to be elevated to varsity status several times. And each time his request was rejected, there were three prevailing reasons given – finances, facilities and gender equity.

To overcome these hurdles, Burns, with the help of some ambitious graduate students, created a 36-page proposal, which attempted to alleviate any concerns the Board on Intercollegiate Athletics had.

But Burns did not emphasize factors like money and facilities because there was no chance soccer could be a revenue-producing sport once it reached varsity status. Instead, the report zeroed in on the explosion in interest in soccer within the state.

“Real strong players continued to leave our state and go to Duke, Virginia, Stanford, Indiana, and we tried to push that issue of at a state school shouldn’t we do a better job of representing, within our own athletic department, what’s really happening out there in the trenches,” Burns said.

Having worked in the development office of the athletic department before he became coach of the lacrosse team, Paul understands the obstacles his team must overcome. And in regards to student-welfare, quality of competition and viability, he has all the answers.

Paul is quick to point out that lacrosse has been the fastest growing sport both nationally and regionally for the past 10 years. He thinks the sport is in the process of ridding itself of the elitist, private school distinction it had in the past, as public middle school and high school programs become more prevalent.

And in today’s world of college sports, where low graduation rates have become a topic of much discussion, both men’s and women’s lacrosse are tops in graduation rates among NCAA sports.

If lacrosse were to become a varsity sport at Michigan in the future, Paul thinks it would likely join the Great West Lacrosse League, where Ohio State and Notre Dame have Division-I squads.

None of it matters, though, without the necessary money. Paul claims it would take between $20-30 million to fully endow the men’s lacrosse team as a varsity sport. If the Athletic Department isn’t willing to put up that money, it’s up to the team’s supporters to fundraise.

But Paul knows he won’t be able to collect that kind of cash.

“We’re not going to come up with 30 million dollars and just pay for the team,” Paul said. “No team here has anywhere close to that. But before we put a formal proposal together, we will have more on the table than most, if not all, the varsity teams have now in endowment money.”

The endowment money is one hill to climb, but it’s the mountains of hidden costs that trouble Martin. The addition of men’s lacrosse, without the subsequent inclusion of an equivalent women’s sport, would cause the Athletic Department to no longer be Title IX compliant. The Athletic Department must consider the financial ramifications of supporting two new teams.

“Gender equity, a lot of people use gender equity as a scapegoat, and they shouldn’t because it really isn’t,” Burns said. “It all really boils down to finances. Can you afford, in your philosophy as an athletic department and your programming of which sports you have, to add more sports?”

One of the guiding principles for Martin is his belief that all varsity programs that the department supports have the maximum amount of resources the NCAA allows. He wants to give all teams the greatest possibility of success in their respective sport.

That means giving coaches free reign concerning recruiting outside the state of Michigan. The difference between an out-of-state and in-state scholarship is nearly $20,000, according to Martin.

“At other schools they tier sports,” Martin said. “They’ll take football, basketball and an equal amount of women’s sports and say, ‘Here’s an unlimited budget for recruiting. The rest of you, here’s your dollar amount and that may buy you four in-state scholarships or two out-of-state.’ We don’t do that.”

Not that he hasn’t considered it.

“We could, if we were going to add sports, perhaps say, ‘OK, in order to add these new sports, we’re going to cut back on the scholarships, and abandon our long standing policy of telling the coaches to recruit the best student-athletes,’ ” he said. “Well, we’re not going to do that. We treat all coaches the same – all programs the same. We want recruits who come here to know their coach can go out and recruit the best student-athlete in the country.”

But even the way the system is set up now, the expense of recruiting presents another significant obstacle for the lacrosse team’s effort. While the sport is growing at an exponential rate in the state of Michigan, many of the top lacrosse recruits reside on the East Coast. According to Inside Lacrosse magazine’s ratings of the top incoming freshmen in Division-I lacrosse, just one of the top 100 came from the state of Michigan.

Even at the club varsity level, the University must rely on out-of-state players to remain successful.

In whatever capacity, Paul is here to stay. He’s been coaching at the University for 11 years, but only recently began accepting a salary to do so. His life is dedicated to his players – and his mission of one day coaching a Division-I lacrosse program in Ann Arbor.

The Athletic Department knows it – which is one of the keys to Paul’s propelling lacrosse into varsity status.

“There has to be a certain resiliency; there has to be someone there as a constant force,” Burns said. “And in lacrosse’s case, that’s John Paul.”

Paul understands the focus of the Athletic Department is on facilities right now, and for his part, he agrees that many of the venues on campus are long outdated. He’s realistic that lacrosse becoming a varsity sport is not going to happen overnight. Ideally, he’d like it to happen in the next four years.

Paul is still waiting to raise more money to help ease the Athletic Department’s financial burden, although he says there are already several high-ranking, wealthy CEO-types ready to support a Michigan varsity lacrosse program.

There are procedures in place to deal with a sport becoming varsity, and until Paul and Michigan lacrosse supporters submit something concrete, the responsibility lies outside the realm of the Athletic Department

“The way the sport continues to grow, and all of the selling points that we have for it, it’s going to happen,” Paul said. “So rather than reacting when it does happen, let’s do a little planning now. Then let us take care of making this a logical add for them. They don’t have to figure that out. Let us figure it out and then sell them on it.”

A lot has happened to Michigan lacrosse since Paul and his teammates lugged a barrel of beer onto the field. Clearly, though, there’s still work to be done.

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