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This piece was written by Jake Grant, a History and Non-Revenue Sports Editor for SB Nation’s Georgia Tech team site, From the Rumble Seat. He hails from River Forest, Illinois, outside of Chicago, and is a 2020 graduate of Georgia Tech in mechanical engineering currently pursuing an MS ME back on the Flats. Feel free to follow @jakegrant98 on Twitter.
The headline “Georgia Tech cuts Swimming, Golf, Lacrosse, and Tennis” might not be all that out of place in our current circumstances. Schools, even Power Five (P5) schools, are dropping sports programs almost every month. And yet, even in these times, if another P5 school with a long history in high-level college athletics were to trim half of its teams in a single cut, it would certainly be national news.
That headline was real — the budget constraints of the Great Depression forced Tech to shutter each one of those programs. However, thanks to an interesting collaboration, the hard work and investment of the Tech student body, administration, and alumni, all of those programs recovered, and (in all but one case) returned to full competition by the end of the decade.
In a time when people are looking left and right both inside college athletics for some direction, Tech’s Depression-era recovery seems like a good example of how to navigate these waters while minimizing athlete harm. Maybe we can use some of the lessons from Georgia Tech’s past to help us think about what may come next.
First, we need to understand the context around Georgia Tech’s athletic department during the 1930s.
The Georgia Tech of the pre-Depression era was not the Georgia Tech you see today.
Before professional sports came to Atlanta, college sports were the top game in town. Georgia Tech was the first southern school to rise to football prominence in the 1910s, under the direction of the legendary John Heisman, and their position as a gridiron great playing in the heart of the South’s leading city lent them colossal prestige.
This success was not limited to the football field, as records show Tech teams were successful across the board, with baseball, swimming, rifle, tennis, lacrosse, basketball, golf, and track winning at least one conference title in the 1920s, and most took home multiple. Bobby Jones left Tech to become world-renowned as the best amateur golfer to ever live. This was not just a football school.
The other essential consideration to understand is the state of academic affairs at the school. By the end of the 1920s, the Georgia School of Technology, as it was known then, had made a name for itself in the region as a leader in technology and engineering education, the embodiment of the post-Civil War New South mentality.
Despite chronic underfunding and undermining from elected officials and representatives of the more powerful state university in Athens, Tech had managed to develop a wide profile of engineering, science, design, and commerce degrees by the time the stock market collapsed in 1929.
The final recommendations of the Georgia Tech Board of Trustees, written January 7, 1932, concludes,
We beg to call your attention to the fact that although the State of Georgia has appropriated but a very few hundred thousand dollars to the plant and equipment at Georgia Tech, the Institution through its policies and its position of national prominence, and through its friends and alumni has accumulated a property value for the State in excess of several million dollars. This Board and members, who have gone before us, have given close business study to the operation of this Institution and in many instances lent their personal endorsement to see that its progress was never retarded.
Robert McMath, historian and former Vice Provost of Georgia Tech, and his colleagues in Engineering the New South remark that the Trustees recognized this gap as their primary concern in order for the school to remain operational.
As is implied by those being the final remarks ever issued by the Board of Trustees, things were changing for the academic administration, too. The University System of Georgia was founded in 1931 as a way to rationalize the state’s increasingly convoluted and bloated higher education system, and among its primary advocates was Tech’s president, Marion L. Brittain. Brittain and other officials, as noted by Robert Wallace in his 1963 book, Dress Her in White and Gold, had cause to be concerned, however.
The power politics between schools came into play, and, to make a long story short, Georgia Tech’s School of Commerce was deemed to be duplicative of the business school in Athens.
The Board of Regents noted that Atlantans in need of business education in the city could just go to nearby Emory, which is, of course, a private school. Speculation raged that further cuts could come to programs like architecture in the name of streamlining degree offerings. On top of all of this, the Regents suggested they explore cutting faculty pay as an additional measure, which Tech was compelled to do, as Brittain noted he was “only able to pay 60 percent of the salaries, with the hope of offering another 30 percent in a few months. Ten percent represents almost certainly a permanent cut.”
A third of Tech’s enrollment being pulled away in a single day was a terrible blow for the institution. The Georgia Tech Athletic Association (GTAA) in particular found itself between a rock and a hard place. Because of the ongoing economic crisis, revenues had dropped 50%, forcing GTAA to convert scholarships into player loans. To make matters even worse, the USG’s ruling meant that few of Tech’s athletes had an active program of study since almost all of them had been in the commerce program.
Quick action came from the administration, when Brittain announced a school of economics and industrial management, along with a course of study in “general science.” Ironically, the Board of Regents had used the lack of an economics department as an express reason behind moving the School of Commerce in the first place. These new programs saved a handful of the students from the commerce program, including many athletes, who vocally announced they preferred to stay at Tech more than they wanted a degree in commerce.
But thanks to the unrelenting economic crisis, more drastic measures had to be taken.
Thus, in 1932, the GTAA announced that “in football, equipment would be limited to fifty men, and in baseball and track to forty, with no money available for trophies, banquets, tutors, or any other sports. Swimming, golf, boxing, lacrosse, and tennis were eliminated” (Robert McMath, et al, Engineering the New South).
McMath neglects to mention the added excision of rifle, but nevertheless: when the dust settled, almost every minor sport at Tech had been eliminated, with basketball as the lone exception — Tech hoops had cobbled together a team of other sports’ athletes, and thus all of its players were already accounted for.
These weren’t abysmal programs Tech was getting rid of, and it wasn’t like the department wanted to get rid of the programs, benefits, or scholarships – this was born out of necessity.
But those cuts didn’t last forever, thanks to a grassroots push to rebuild the department.
The Georgia Tech swim program had been regarded as the best team to ever compete in the South from the first year it was organized, so it makes sense that there was an outcry to save them after the 1932 cuts.
In the period from 1925-1936, Tech would win ten regional swimming titles in the eleven years preceding the introduction of the Southeastern Conference’s swimming and diving championships. Notice that period includes the 1932 cut.
Much like how Stanford and other schools in the modern day are offering assistance to cut teams wishing to stay together as club organizations, Georgia Tech’s swimming program continued to compete independently of their varsity sanction, which helped them to raise awareness as a group and to raise funds. The “Tankmen,” as they were known, saw monetary assistance from sporadically-held, student-organized benefit shows, akin to a PBS special, while Tech’s honorary societies sponsored weekly Saturday night dances to support them and other sports.
An example of this effort can be found in the January 25, 1931 edition of the Technique, where ANAK endeavors to support apparel purchases for spring sports with a series of dances.
McMath notes, “School spirit was always strong at Tech, and the students often joined together to aid the school in financial help to the teams or in events like the Ramblin’ Wreck Parade,” the latter of which began as a ridiculous and interesting offroad race of junk cars to Athens, a fascinating story for a different column.
The direct intent of these events was to raise awareness and money for these organizations in the fall of 1932. But when the money raised from student activism wasn’t enough and the banks refused GTAA’s requests for further loans, the student government stepped in to help out.
This external support was critical. But Georgia Tech football helped a lot too.
Conference schedules were not standardized back then, so like many other programs in urban areas or transportation hubs, Georgia Tech hosted a ton of home games. Catching rivals Auburn, Alabama, Tulane, Georgia, and Clemson all at home was a financial boon for the Jackets, who saw their record, which had completely bottomed out just two years out of winning a national championship, rise to 4-5-1. Eight home games in the following 1933 season, which included the same five rivals and added storied rival Vanderbilt to the slate, further filled Tech’s coffers.
With its newfound financial flexibility, GTAA brought swimming and cross country back to the Tech lineup in 1934. It wasn’t a smooth process, though. Though cross country immediately began a dominant run of six straight SEC titles starting in 1935, eventually settling for eight of the first ten the conference offered, swimming went on the chopping block a second time for the 1936 season when cuts again became necessary as finances again deteriorated. More worryingly for Tech, baseball also fell on the sword for GTAA in this second round of belt-tightening.
However, the experience of the swim program a few years prior proved to be a strong model for them once more and could be applied to baseball.
The baseball team remained relatively intact, and their coach happened to be a football assistant by the name of Bobby Dodd, so he stayed in the department as well. The swimmers, bolstered both by their success in the water and their previous success at weathering tribulation, also did not disband — rather, with a new gym and pool being constructed for the school as part of the Works Progress Administration, investment and time seemed to be on their side. The student government stepped up to fund the rest of their expenses when Athletics could not.
The combination of increasing football and basketball revenues and grassroots activism proved successful once again. Just a year later, department finances had increased enough that baseball returned with a six-week schedule and tennis, part of the original 1932 cuts, returned to the Flats in time to win the inaugural SEC title in 1938. It wasn’t consistent, and didn’t happen all at once, but, eventually — in some form and with some help — these programs came back.
Prior to the market crash, Tech’s large sport offerings already stretched department finances. Marginal sports like rifle, boxing (which never really caught on anywhere) and lacrosse (a pet project of the modern languages department head-turned-athletic director J.B. Crenshaw) never really stood a chance of coming back. It just didn’t make enough sense given the athletic landscape of the time. They were extraneous to both the department’s core mission and the interests of the students and fans of the school’s sports teams; at the time there wasn’t the financial, political, or societal draw to make the hard investments of time and resources into bringing those programs back.
But for those sports that did eventually return — baseball, swimming, cross country, golf, and tennis — it took a lot of work, some of which might be viewed as downright unconventional today. Starting an intrastate backroad antique car speed derby from Atlanta to Athens to raise money would simply put, never happen in 2020. The federal government isn’t going to step in and start building facilities for sports cut due to financial hardship during the pandemic, as far as I know. Getting schools’ honor societies to sponsor weekly dances — let alone ensuring enough student attendance to make them viable sources of income — probably wouldn’t happen either, nor would loans directly from the student government.
Simply put, priorities aren’t the same to the typical college student in most of today’s higher education system as they were 90 years ago, and this is something reflected in the student attendance woes schools faced even before the pandemic as well as the rise of eSports, though most sports fans, journalists, and administrators like ourselves would probably like to believe the opposite.
However, there are things from this period that still do work: grassroots movements and keeping teams together provide opportunities and attention to causes.
Just like Tech’s Depression-era programs, Bowling Green baseball has been reinstated, as the Falcons successfully leveraged the resources and influence of its interested parties to make productive change. William and Mary athletics reinstated women’s swimming, gymnastics, and volleyball, though the fate of their recently-cut men’s sports are still unknown. Cuts have been reversed at other programs as well.
We really don’t know exactly how things are going to play out after the pandemic, but at the very least, we have some historical precedent. Some teams, students, and schools might fundraise or find ways to reverse-engineer the necessary funds internally to continue their programs at the varsity. Others may choose to drop to the club level in order to continue to compete. There are plenty of stories about a varsity program dropped to the club level sticking together as a successful organization (the swim programs of Clemson, Maryland, and Colorado come to mind).
The world of athletic department financing has always been a tricky balancing act. In these times, that difficulty is only more pronounced. However, Georgia Tech’s Depression-era example proves that the commitment and support of students and alumni can help those fallen programs endure and, in some cases, return to the varsity level and thrive.