After speculation about the future of athletics at the University of Texas-Brownsville, a press release from the UT system Wednesday made the decision official.
The UTB athletics program, a Red River Athletic Conference competitor in the NAIA, will discontinue at the end of the 2014-2015 academic year as the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley establishes a NCAA Division I-AAA athletics program to begin competing in the fall of 2015.
“We expected it, so we saw it coming,” UTB athletic director and volleyball coach Todd Lowery said. “We knew that the new university wanted to stay at a Division I level. Early on, the writing was on the wall what was going to happen, and this made it official.”
The UTPA athletics program will be rolled into the program at UTRGV “because of UTPA’s existing participation in NCAA Division I athletics,” according to the release.
UTPA, a member of the Western Athletic Conference, has 14 athletic teams, is adding women’s soccer in the 2014-2015 academic year and will begin play in men’s soccer the following year.
UTPA athletic director Chris King, who was at the Broncs’ baseball game Wednesday night, offered no additional comment on the news of the athletic programs, instead referring all questions to UT system officials.
UTB will continue to honor the scholarships of its 79 student-athletes whether they continue to play sports or not, according to the release. According to the NCAA rule, if a university athletic program is discontinued, student-athletes have the opportunity to transfer if they chose without penalty to compete right away at another institution.
According to the release, six full-time positions and seven part-time administrative positions will be eliminated in the move, and the staff members will be provided support services.
“We have to do the best we can to take care of business here next year and provide an environment for our athletes to succeed and help them with what’s best for them,” Lowery said. “We’re moving forward to put the best season together that we’ve ever had.”
Whether similar opportunities for current student-athletes at UTB are available at UTRGV hasn’t been determined. It will depend on the number of scholarships available and through other options such as tryouts.
UTB had strived to become a Division II campus and the hope was to become a Division I campus in the future.
In January, Lowery decided to stay with the university as athletic director and volleyball coach.
“It’s a difficult situation for me personally,” he said. “I’ve invested myself fully into the volleyball program and the athletics department, but so have our coaches. It’s a little disappointing, but we have a very professional staff and we understand in college athletics things change day to day.”
Lowery has not been presented with an opportunity from UTRGV, but he hopes to remain in the Rio Grande Valley, where he has made his home for the past five years.
“An opportunity at the new university for myself would be wonderful. Whether that comes up, we’ll have to wait and see,” he said. “I love the Valley. I’ve built something here, and my hope was to stay here in the Valley long term.”
Lowery has built the volleyball program into a national contender, leading UTB to national championships in two of the past three seasons. Lowery, who holds a 382-31 career record, has two titles in six years of coaching at National American University, which ended its volleyball prgram in 2007.
He was thankful for the opportunity as athletic director but relishes the chance to get back to coaching full-time and hopefully make the transition to Division I coaching.
“Right now, my love is still in the gym with the volleyball program,” he said. “Maybe the writing was on the wall to push me out the door to the next level.
“We’re excited for the future, but right now we’re focused on trying to win another national title in the fall.”
According to the press release, the UT system has formed a committee that will develop a plan to combine the programs and ensure the welfare of the student-athletes is not compromised. The group is tasked with making recommendations to the system regarding items such as the location of the programs, facilities and budget.
“This is the beginning of a new era which will provide student-athletes with NCAA Division I sports programs that will build the fan base and garner support from across the Rio Grande Valley,” said Pedro Reyes, executive vice chancellor for academic affairs for the UT System in the release.
Josh Bowe of The Monitor contributed to this report.
Andrew Crum covers sports for The Brownsville Herald. You can reach him at (956) 982-6629 or via email at email@example.com. On Twitter, he’s @andrewmcrum.