Greg Manos is aware of the perceived stigma surrounding the Chicago State athletic program.
A Niles native and former girls volleyball assistant coach at Evanston, Manos is in his first season as the women’s volleyball assistant coach at the school and said, at least from his experience, perception is not reality.
“I think there’s been a lot of talk swirling around Chicago State, but I think when you get here and you see what’s going on day-to-day, I don’t think it’s as hectic as people make it seem in the media,” Manos said. “To be honest, I know that there’s things that we hear from the outside and that we hear from the inside and they are often different. Unfortunately, what people perceive the school to be is not always what it is. … In terms of immediate limitations and stuff like that, I haven’t really seen it.”
The stigma is in reference to the concern that athletics will be terminated or no longer compete at the Division I level at the public university on Chicago’s Far South Side because of the school’s financial problems. Cutbacks in its state financing, because of a budget stalemate between Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democratic-led legislature, left Chicago State with only emergency funding from the state, according to The New York Times. In the past, the state has provided 30 percent of the school’s budget.
Last spring, the school laid off more than 300 employees, which was about one-third of its workforce.
Just 86 freshmen enrolled at Chicago State in the fall, dropping its total enrollment to 3,578. The next smallest school in the Western Athletic Conference is Seattle, which has 7,755 students, according to the WAC website. Five schools in the eight-member league have at least 15,000 students.
The budget issues have had an immense impact on the school’s academics, and the athletic product has suffered. The Cougars volleyball team went 3-26 this past season after going 1-27 in 2015. Manos said when it comes to recruiting, rather than viewing the situation as dire, he and the coaching staff sell prospective athletes on what Chicago State can offer.
“We just try to highlight the positives about the school, so the biggest things for us are: the location, we’re not far from (downtown) Chicago, that’s a big plus. Some kids I think that are looking for an urban life, whether they are not in it before or looking for it full time, I think that’s something that attracts a lot of them here,” Manos said.
Chicago State interim athletic director Tracy Dildy, who is also the men’s basketball coach, said he sells recruits and their families on athletes’ success in the classroom. For Cougars athletes who initially enrolled in 2009, they had a 68 percent Graduation Success Rate. The GSR takes transfers into account.
Berina Gradjan came to Chicago State from Oakton Community College two years ago excited for the opportunity to play Division I soccer. Gradjan, a Niles North graduate and Morton Grove resident, just completed her senior season with the Cougars. Chicago State went 1-16 overall and 0-7 in the WAC in 2016. However, their lone win was against an NAIA team.
As a result, fourth-year coach Tony Tommasi was relieved of his duties at the end of the season. He launched the program, guiding it to become a varsity sport in 2014.
The baseball team includes redshirt junior pitcher Brad Moore, a Hersey graduate and a transfer from McHenry County College. The Cougars baseball team was 13-42 last season and is 3-4 so far this year.
Gradjan said the struggles can be directly linked to the school’s financial shortcomings.
“I think our coaches try to give us the best experience that they possibly can. I think they put in a little more effort, just because our situation with our administration and our budgeting,” Gradjan said. “You know, we’re not really like a winning program or a Division I program. I think we definitely deal with a lot of struggles. It’s a lot, especially hearing from other people and their input and what’s been written about us. It puts a lot of barriers on us and challenges, but I think for the most part, a lot of the teams are pretty close, so I think we kind of work to make our experience the best that it can possibly be, but it’s kind of hard with all the challenges we face every day.”
One of the main challenges, Gradjan said, is travel related. When the team goes on road trips it’s often a waiting game for whether or not they’ll receive funding for meals, Gradjan said.
“We kind of wait for the very last minute to get our money and sometimes you don’t know if you’re going to be going on the road without money or not,” Gradjan explained. “It does come through, but you can definitely sense that there’s pressure with budgeting and putting our teams in (a bind).
“It’s a lot of pressure because you don’t know if you’re going to have that money in time or not. So it makes us feel like, not that we’re not important, but it just kind of burdens us to know why can’t this be done ahead of time?”
Dildy disputed Gradjan’s account of funding for road trips.
“I can tell you that we have never had a road trip where our student-athletes didn’t have money to eat,” he said. “That has never happened. That has never happened. The other side of that is our experience for our student-athletes is no different than any other student-athlete’s experience when you talk about a university of our caliber in our conference.”
At home, the soccer team also is in an unenviable situation. For practice they use the baseball team’s artificial turf field and they travel about 15 minutes away to Kroc Stadium for games.
“We have to rent out extra times so we can go train on a soccer field. I think for the girls, it’s hard, because practicing on a baseball field instead of a soccer field is completely different. You don’t get that kind of advantage, so that’s also a challenge that we have,” Gradjan said.
Chicago State has hired a new women’s soccer coach, but Gradjan estimated seven or eight players from the 2016 team have opted to transfer. Gradjan is on track to graduate in May with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.
Manos said that despite the obvious financial hindrances he’s been satisfied with his experience at the school and that what Chicago State lacks in funding, it makes up for with overall support.
“I’ve had a very positive experience and I’ve really enjoyed it,” Manos said. He added: “To be at a school that supports the team in every way — all the coaches are at our games and we like supporting them. The community supports us. It’s not a big campus, we don’t have as high of an enrollment number as some of the other schools that play in our conference. So that’s the biggest difference for me, but I think there’s a lot of positive things going on here and I’m enjoying my time here as well.”
Brett Christie is a freelance reporter for Pioneer Press.