With its major revenue sports mired in a historic slump, Boston College blunted criticism of its beleaguered football and basketball programs in February by announcing a $200 million construction plan to support the school’s athletic and recreation programs.
The football team will be the prime beneficiary of a new indoor training facility. New fields will be built for the baseball and softball teams. And the largest project, a new recreation complex expected to cost more than $100 million, was billed as a boon “for all BC students, faculty, and staff.’’
But supporters of six intercollegiate teams that train and compete in the current recreation complex — men’s and women’s swimming and diving, men’s and women’s tennis, and men’s and women’s fencing — say design plans for the new building will competitively harm their programs, if not ruin them.
The plans call for BC’s swimming and diving programs to become the only members of the Atlantic Coast Conference and the only major college teams in the Boston area without a 3-meter-high diving board. Diving events factor in the scoring of swimming meets.
“It would be like a football team competing without a field goal kicker,’’ said Erica Feinberg, BC’s diving coach.
The number of courts for BC’s tennis teams will drop from 10 (four indoor and six outdoor) to three, all indoor, far fewer than any other ACC school and too few for an intercollegiate tournament. Space for the 30-member fencing team also is expected to shrink.
Plans for the new complex have raised questions about the school’s commitment to some of its non-revenue sports and to a BC motto, “Ever to Excel.’’
An online petition protesting plans for the complex has been signed by more than 1,200 individuals, including students, alumni, college coaches, youth coaches who develop intercollegiate swimmers and divers, and an officer of USA Diving, the governing body for the nation’s Olympic team.
The petition describes the new center as an “under-performing facility that will not meet the needs of intercollegiate athletics, will not appeal to prospective students or recruits, and will actually reduce the options for students to stay active on our health- and fitness-minded campus.’’
BC athletic director Brad Bates declined an interview request, and the university issued a statement through the athletics department.
“In planning for a new recreation center to serve Boston College students, student-athletes, faculty and staff, university administrators formulated a plan that best meets the needs of the entire Boston College community, including its intercollegiate, club, intramural and recreational sports,’’ the statement said.
“As with all facilities, there are site constraints and budget limitations that had to be considered, but this new recreation center will be a wonderful addition that will help Boston College preserve its 31 varsity sports, compete in the ACC, and meet its obligations to the wider BC community.’’
BC prides itself on fielding 31 varsity teams, the most in the ACC. The school has funded the programs in part by tapping into more than $140 million it has reaped from the ACC since joining the league in 2005.
But critics say the new facility will shortchange the six varsity teams that train and compete there.
“Do we want to be world-class and compete at the highest levels or not?’’ Dr. William Vranos, a BC alumnus whose daughter, Marina, is the school’s diving captain, wrote last month to BC’s president, the Rev. William P. Leahy, and the chairman of the board of trustees, John F. Fish.
The school expects to break ground on the project this summer, with the new center scheduled to open in 2018.
“Why build a facility that is substandard before a shovel even hits the dirt?’’ Vranos wrote. “If swimming and diving and other non-revenue sports are not part of the athletic department’s mission, I would object but understand. Making failure inevitable by not providing adequate resources so they can recruit and compete is cynical and wrong.’’
Vranos, an orthopedic surgeon and BC donor whose wife, Kathy, also graduated from the school, said he has not heard back from Leahy or Fish and has stopped donating to BC athletics in protest.
Supporters of the six teams at risk said the coaches were not adequately consulted about the design plans and were advised by school officials to refrain from publicly discussing their concerns.
BC declined the Globe’s requests to interview women’s tennis coach Nigel Bentley, who has coached at the school for 21 years, and men’s coach Scott Wilkins, who has been there 16 years. Nor would the school make available Syd Fadner, who has coached the men’s and women’s fencing teams for more than 20 years.
Supporters close to Tom Groden, who has served as head coach of the men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams since BC launched the programs 44 years ago, said he was reprimanded by school officials for voicing his concerns about the design plans last month to the student newspaper, The Heights.
Groden, 67, is the winningest swimming and diving coach in NCAA history, with more than 700 victories. He told The Heights that elements of plans for the new complex are “devastating’’ for BC’s swimming and diving program and could signal its demise.
“I have been told swimming is going to be cut by people who think they know what they’re talking about,” Groden told The Heights.
The new facility will replace the 44-year-old Flynn Recreation Complex, known as The Plex. Like the new fieldhouse and baseball and softball fields, it will be funded by private donations through an ongoing capital campaign.
“Simply, the new Plex is not on par with peer national universities,’’ the petition states.
Feinberg, who has coached BC’s diving teams part time for eight years, praised the athletic, academic, and community service achievements of the school’s divers. She said most of them would not have attended BC had the school not provided adequate diving facilities, such as a 3-meter board and a diving well, which have existed in the current Plex since it opened in 1972.
“My hope is that BC builds a facility that attracts recruits, makes alumni proud, and contains the necessary equipment for training,’’ she wrote to the school’s “diving family’’ of students, parents, and alumni.
“With the current plans, none of those things will happen,’’ Feinberg wrote.
An alumni effort to improve the plans has been spearheaded by Mark McCullagh, who with his wife, Mary, was a varsity swimmer at BC in the 1980s. Mary McCullagh was a four-time All-American and is a member of the BC Varsity Club’s Hall of Fame.
“It is very premature,’’ Mark McCullagh said of his discussions with BC officials. “We are hoping we can make the key adjustments needed.’’
BC’s combined swimming and diving team, with nearly 90 members, is one of the school’s largest. Because BC is the only school in the ACC that does not offer athletic scholarships to swimmers and divers, the teams generally struggle against conference opponents, many stocked with scholarship athletes, some of Olympic caliber.
In a proud moment for the BC team Saturday, however, Joe Maloy, a four-year varsity swimmer who served as a captain in 2008, was named to the US Olympic triathlon team that will compete in the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.
BC’s tennis teams also are typically overmatched against elite ACC competition. And their supporters say the challenge of recruiting and training top players will become even more daunting if BC provides only three courts for more than 20 members of its men’s and women’s teams. Collegiate tennis authorities say no ACC team competes with fewer than six courts, and the vast majority have at least 12.
Some BC tennis supporters said their best hope of preserving the program may be the university acting on an idea, floated nearly 10 years ago by former athletic director Gene DeFilippo, to build an indoor tennis complex that would serve not only the varsity teams but other students, staff, and community residents.
The BC athletic department, asked about the possibility, issued a statement: “An indoor tennis facility is not in Boston College’s long-range financial plan. However, if tennis supporters commit to raising the money for construction and endowment to cover operating costs, the university would be willing to engage in discussions about possible sites and permit requirements.’’
As for fencing, BC is one of four ACC schools to field men’s and women’s teams. The program’s supporters said BC’s teams can ill afford to lose more training space. They already lag behind rival Notre Dame, a better-financed ACC fencing power that since 2012 has benefited from a campus center custom-built for the team.
Bob Hohler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.