College of Santa Fe backhanded its tennis program. Now supporters are swinging back.
There's always next year.
Those four words have been salving the wounds of disappointed players, coaches and Chicago Cubs fans since the Greeks were running around in their skivvies at Olympia. And that upbeat axiom was foremost on the minds of the College of Santa Fe men's tennis team when they woke up on May 19 at the Riverview Plaza Hotel in Mobile, Ala.
The team had been knocked out in the quarterfinals of the 2006 NAIA Tennis Championships two days before. But their future looked as bright as the sun rising over Mobile Bay outside their hotel windows. Five of the six players on the Spin-as the team is called-were coming back next season after the team had made its third straight trip to Nationals in three years.
If ever there were a perfect place for a team to start moving forward with renewed resolve, it was the Riverview. The hotel had recovered in grand style after swimming in
the waters of Katrina a scant nine months before. But, unbeknownst to the team, a different kind of storm was brewing 1,300 miles away on the CSF campus.
And then it hit.
CSF head coach Eduardo
Provencio was preparing to take his team to the Mobile Tennis Center to watch the national championship match between Azusa Pacific University and Auburn University-Montgomery when a single sheet of correspondence arrived at the hotel from his employer.
There would be no next year.
Provencio had been sent a press release announcing that CSF President Dr. Mark Lombardi had decided to disband the highly successful tennis team after only three years.
"That was the official notice," Provencio says. "Dr. Lombardi never spoke to me about it or e-mailed me about it…they basically just forwarded me the press release."
Since the announcement, Lombardi-in his first full year at the helm of CSF-has vigorously defended the decision, asserting that the school's lone athletic program was a regrettable victim of shifting priorities.
Nonetheless, lingering questions about the
team's demise have created a substantial uproar within the tennis community. Provencio and his players are scrambling to find answers (and new schools) while prominent CSF supporters question whether Lombardi's decision
circumvented legal, if not ethical, requirements tied to more than $6 million in private contributions to the tennis program.
The controversy has extended well beyond Santa Fe, catching the attention of national organizations like the Intercollegiate Tennis Association and the United States Tennis Association. Jon Vegosen, chairman of the USTA Collegiate Committee, is one of several high-level tennis figures who has written letters imploring Lombardi to reconsider his decision.
"I think it was foolish or at least highly inadvisable to do what Lombardi did," Vegosen says. "A varsity tennis team can be a real part of the glue in the fabric of a campus and I've seen
many other colleges live to regret their decisions to drop their athletic programs."
But the Spin wasn't just any athletic program. In its scant three years of existence, the team quickly became a national powerhouse and earned numerous team accolades, including a
national runner-up finish in 2005, while capturing four national championships in doubles and singles play.
"I don't think there's another program in the history of college tennis that has been as successful in its first three years in terms of wins and losses," says former CSF coach Jeff Beaman.
In the end, that success wasn't enough to spare the team from the guillotine. CSF cited financial
drain as one of the reasons for disbanding the team, but both the team and the Shellaberger Tennis Center it called home were funded in large part through endowments and donations given by two of the most prestigious tennis families in New Mexico and, indeed, the country.
About five years ago, the estate of the tennis facility's namesake-Rosemarie Shellaberger-gave CSF an endowment (which Lombardi says was in the neighborhood of $6 to $7 million) to
promote tennis both at CSF and in the Santa Fe community. The bulk of the money was spent to build the tennis center, but it also provided funds for the team.
Concerns remain over how the college intends to spend the roughly $1.2 million still left in the endowment.
There is also wide speculation that the legal terms of the endowment may have been violated when the team was dismissed. Lombardi is one of a select few who has actually seen the legal documents-which are not public record-and has thus far declined to disclose their contents.
In addition, the Gladys Heldman family
donated $500,000 in 2003 to build an outdoor tennis stadium at the STC. Family members have suggested they were misled to believe the donation would
help provide a first-rate facility for men's and women's tennis teams.
While the controversy persists and supporters of the tennis program explore possible paths of recourse, it's Provencio and his players who have been left to pick up the pieces of shattered promise.
"This has been really tough to swallow," Provencio says. "These kids were model students working above and beyond to represent this institution and then, in their mind, they had the rug pulled out from under them."
Anibal Aranda had a softer landing than most.
That's because the former Spin standout graduated in May with a degree in International Business. The soft-spoken native of Paraguay transferred to CSF in early 2003 after spending his freshman year at St. Thomas University in Miami, Fla. with the promise of becoming a star in the burgeoning CSF program. He was initially skeptical that a small college in a small town could fulfill that promise but, like many others, quickly became a convert.
"The tennis was the only thing I liked at first," Aranda says. "I wanted to be in a city with a lot of people
and things to do, but coming here turned out to be really good for my tennis. There's not much to do here, so the focus was all about tennis and studying."
After his three years at CSF-the longest tenure of any player or coach in the short-lived program-Aranda recently was named the 2006 International Tennis Association's National Senior Player of the Year. Now, nearly two months since the Spin spun out, he is the only member of the team that remains in Santa Fe.
"I think this team was great since the beginning," Aranda says. "We had great coaches, great players and we were always in the top five in the nation. But it wasn't just good for the team, it was good for the college and the city too."
In the team's first year, it had an individual national championship in doubles. Two more doubles championships and a singles title followed soon after. The team was consistently ranked in the upper echelon of NAIA tennis since its inception and finished No. 1 in the final
polls last year before eventually finishing as NAIA national runner-up.
And then the bottom fell out in Mobile.
"Until then, I didn't even know that this team was something that could go away," Aranda says.
Aranda wasn't alone. The collective assumption was that the Shellaberger endowment made the team impervious to budgetary bureaucracy.
It was, after all, the endowment that helped kick-start the program by hiring internationally renowned tennis coach Doug MacCurdy to help build the program. It's also what helped convince Provencio to become Beaman's assistant-and eventually head coach-after MacCurdy left following the team's first season. Provencio says he left his Division I head coaching job at the University of Texas-Pan Am to be an assistant at CSF because of the illusionary prospect of job stability.
"It was pitched to me that this program was taken care of through the endowment, there was a beautiful
facility and the team was really the jewel of what NAIA tennis can be," Provencio says. "I basically took their word and, in retrospect, a little more sniffing around might have been prudent of me."
Provencio had every reason to be confidant about the program's future. MacCurdy's name recognition and influence initially allowed the team to recruit high-level players from across the globe, a practice continued successfully by Beaman and Provencio. In fact, the team was exclusively comprised of foreign-born players, many of whom gave up a chance to play at bigger schools in favor of CSF.
Beaman is now an assistant coach at Texas Christian University and, during his overseas recruiting trips for TCU, says he has witnessed first-hand the indelible mark the Spin made on the tennis world during its brief existence.
"I'll be recruiting kids in places like Serbia and Ukraine and almost all of them know about the College of Santa Fe tennis program," Beaman says. "How many other small schools are known around the world for something?"
The team's success had begun to draw bigger crowds (by collegiate tennis standards), fundraising efforts
had improved and more students were flocking to a tennis class originally established by Beaman to connect the team to the rest of the student body. Yet, even as the team's success grew, problems began to emerge.
Provencio knew something was amiss as far back as January. The team had planned on carrying seven players but, when one player pulled out at the last minute, the administration told Provencio not to bother looking for a replacement.
"When they said that it started to get the wheels turning a little bit," Provencio says. "We weren't sure what was going to happen. We thought maybe there was going to be a
budget cut. This was obviously the most severe of the possibilities."
Provencio resigned effective June 30 and now plans to attend law school. In the meantime, he's struggling to help his five displaced underclassman cope with the team's demise and find new homes.
"Just kidding around with the team, I equated it with finding out that your girlfriend is cheating on you,"
Provencio says. "You go out and put your heart and soul into something
like this and this is what happens."
But the experience hasn't been enough to prevent Aranda from deciding to stick around for another year at CSF to pursue his MBA. One of the reasons for staying, he says, is because of the positive atmosphere that still endures within the Shellaberger Tennis Center community even after the Spin's abrupt end.
"When I started college here I didn't know if I was going to stay," Aranda says. "One of the reasons I decided to stay and what has kept me here was the…How do you say?… good energy that [Rosemarie Shellaberger] transmitted to all the people that work at the tennis center."
It was a combination of staggering goodwill and deep pockets
that built the Rosemarie Shellaberger Tennis Center into one of the finest tennis facilities in the country.
"There are maybe 10 facilities in the entire country that are better than what the College of Santa Fe has," Beaman says.
The House that Rosemarie built includes six indoor courts, six outdoor courts, a stellar outdoor stadium,
locker rooms, offices, a television lounge and a pro shop. There is also a trophy case that sits to the side of the expansive lobby filled to capacity with hardware
commemorating three phenomenal years of CSF tennis.
Aside from building the STC, Rosemarie Shellaberger's tennis philanthropy ranged from organizing charity tournaments to funding youth tennis programs through the non-profit Shellaberger Junior Tennis organization she created to promote tennis in and around Santa Fe. But the eccentric, introverted Shellaberger didn't play much tennis herself and her tennis contributions were done in large part to honor her father Walter Shellaberger, an avid tennis supporter.
"She was just the sweetest, most gentle lady," says Bob Raedisch, a former board member of
Shellaberger's non-profit. "But she was very low-key, even reclusive."
While she left a considerable legacy after her November 1999 death, Shellaberger left no familial heirs. (Pat Baca, a representative of the Shellaberger estate, did not respond to requests to comment for this story.) As a result, there is widespread confusion and speculation over the exact legal wording of the endowment Shellaberger left to CSF.
"I don't think anyone outside the senior administration has actually seen the terms of the endowment," Provencio says. "To be honest, they may be the only ones that are privy to it."
It's a common refrain. Nobody that
SFR spoke with for this story-save Lombardi-had actually seen the private legal documents pertaining to the endowment. Lombardi says that a thorough review of the documents concluded that CSF was within its legal rights to shutter the tennis program.
"We consulted with our attorneys and they informed us very clearly that there was nothing in the endowment that requires us to have a men's or women's tennis team," Lombardi says. "The money that Rosemarie provided was to promote tennis both on campus and in the Santa Fe community."
Vegosen is among those who have tried to obtain copies of the legal documents to no avail. If the endowment clearly does not require the presence of a collegiate team, Vegosen says
Lombardi should have no problem disclosing the information.
"He's playing hide-the-ball," Vegosen says. "If he has nothing to hide, why doesn't he show us? But I do think whether or not it's in the documents, it's my understanding from the Heldman family that it certainly was one of the intentions."
Gladys Heldman had maintained a friendship with Rosemarie Shellaberger for much of the last two decades.
Both were graduates of Stanford University and both shared a love for tennis.
After construction began on the new Rosemarie Shellaberger Tennis Center in late 2002, the Heldmans followed suit with a $500,000 donation to CSF to build an outdoor stadium.
The stadium eventually became a memorial to Gladys Heldman after she passed away in June 2003. After the Spin was disbanded, Gladys Heldman's eldest daughter Trixie (who declined to comment for this story) wrote a critical letter to Lombardi. An excerpt from the letter, provided to SFR from the USTA's Vegosen, reads as follows:
We were led to believe that the gift would help supply the bricks and mortar…while the college would take on the task of bringing life to the facility by filling it with events, programs, community outreach and, yes, high-level men's and women's tennis teams…
While some wonder if the spirit of the Heldman's donation was disregarded, it's the letter of Shellaberger's endowment that has raised the biggest questions. Lombardi insists that the decision to end the tennis program was reached only after months of
and consultation with board members-although he acknowledges that it was ultimately an executive decision.
Lombardi replaced Linda Hanson-a vocal supporter of the tennis program-as president last July and immediately began scrutinizing what the strategic priorities of his administration would be. The decision regarding the tennis team, he says, was rooted in dollar signs.
Lombardi says, contrary to the general assumption, the Shellaberger endowment contributed less than 15 percent of the tennis team's annual budget and that the tennis team cost the school between $200,000 and $225,000 a year to maintain, not including the Shellaberger money (roughly $29,000 a year) and the team's own fundraising efforts. He nevertheless asserts that the estimated $1.2 million remaining in the endowment wouldn't be enough to sustain the program.
"It wasn't a question of not liking tennis, it was more that we had other areas that we felt were a better
use of those funds," Lombardi says.
Soon after announcing the team's suspension on May 19, Lombardi suggested that the $1.2 million might be rolled over into the college's academic programs. He has since backpedaled on that stance, reportedly under pressure from the tennis community and Pat Baca of the Shellaberger estate.
Lombardi also was forced to explain himself to paying customers of the Shellaberger Tennis Center after the membership ranks began expressing their misgivings over how the remaining funds would be allocated. During a mid-June meeting with STC members,
Lombardi pledged upwards of $300,000 to build six new outdoor courts at the center.
Some saw it as the embattled president's way of pacifying the clamoring masses. Brad Trost, who took over as the permanent STC director about seven months ago, saw it as a mere affirmation of the college's continued commitment to the tennis community.
"I think people were concerned that the college wasn't going to support tennis and specifically the tennis center," Trost says. "But I don't see that, I see that the college is very supportive
of keeping this place as a tennis center and fulfilling the members' needs. I'm excited for the future of this place."
The future, according to Trost, includes continuing the center's clinics and camps, adding the new outdoor courts, increasing the center's membership well beyond its current 300 or so members and potentially hosting exhibition matches and even professional tournaments. But critics of the decision to disband the Spin say that the move has disenchanted the very people who helped build the center in the first place and could have negative impacts in the future.
"I think it just shows an unbelievable lack of common sense," Vegosen says. "Lombardi is alienating the college's
support base with his decision and I could certainly see how other people might have second thoughts about contributing to any causes at the college if this is how well-respected and well-intentioned donors get treated."
Julius Heldman is one of those donors.
The powerful young athlete who earned five individual US tennis championships has since aged into a wiry 87-year-old. He eases his way slowly down a pair of steps leading to an enormous faux-dobe building that sits in the back of the spacious Heldman family compound off of Old Pecos Trail.
Heldman pokes the ground with a thin black cane as he gingerly approaches the building's entrance. He pulls open the door and steps into a dark, cavernous room. He flicks a bank of light switches by the entryway and the thunk-thunk-thunk of powerful lights buzzing to life fills the room.
"We have sort of a rouge's gallery here," Heldman says, motioning to dozens of black-and-white photographs lining
the wall. "You might have heard of some of them."
Jimmy Connors. Martina Navratilova. Arthur Ashe. Billie Jean King.
"Gladys and I played with everyone on these walls practically," Heldman says proudly. "There must be at least 30 Wimbledon champions up there."
The Heldmans are legendary in the tennis world. Julius was a five-time national champion. Gladys has been inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame and is credited with helping create the women's professional tour. The Heldmans' two daughters, Julie and Trixie, were also accomplished tennis players with Julie achieving top five world rankings twice during their playing career.
"You see Arthur as a kid?" Heldman asks pointing to a photo of a young Ashe signing autographs.
Heldman knew Arthur Ashe?
"Oh, sure," Heldman says, matter-of-factly. "He had a key to our apartment in New York."
Heldman refers to these past glories as the "wonder days." His eyes are distant. His smile nostalgic. And then, as quickly as it appears, his smile is gone.
After the STC was built, the Heldman family decided they wanted to do their part in honor of Gladys, who passed away. The family gave the College of Santa Fe $500,000 to build the Gladys Heldman Championship Stadium Court, a professional-level, 1,000-seat outdoor tennis stadium.
The family's donation was predicated in part on the understanding that the college intended to complement the men's tennis team with a women's side. It's become painfully clear that won't be happening anytime soon.
"The one thing that I'm most unhappy with is that Gladys and my daughters have been extremely important advocates for the advancement of women's tennis," Heldman says. "For the college to not even have a thought of a women's tennis team nor any desire to go forward with it is, I think, a slap in the face, not only to us, but to a lot of other people as well."
The first Heldman heard of the decision to drop the tennis program came when he read an article in the Santa Fe New Mexican. Shortly afterward, he arranged a meeting with Lombardi.
"It was not cordial, it was not uncordial," Heldman says of the meeting. "We basically have a disagreement. He has his stance and he knows how I feel about it."
Heldman acknowledges that while the presence of collegiate tennis teams at CSF-particularly a women's squad-was expected when the family made its $500,000 donation, it was not a
legally binding agreement.
"That was Gladys' dream, although we never made it a formal part of anything," Heldman says. "But it was such an obvious thing to develop a small college team."
Vegosen says the USTA and ITF would be willing to provide the Heldmans or the Shellaberger estate logistical support if either party wants to launch a lawsuit against CSF. But it's an option Julius Heldman says he isn't likely to entertain.
"Basically I have no desire to enter into it any further," Heldman says. "I have other things to occupy my time, but if the entire community tennis program looks like it's going to go down the drain then I may get involved."
But even if the decision is reversed or the program is eventually resurrected, Provencio says that the death knell may have already rung for tennis at CSF.
"The reality of bringing the program back right now is pretty low," Provencio says. "The damage has been done."