By Derek Stiles
As the search for Washington College’s 28th president continues, uncertainty looms for the college’s athletic department as many wonder how it will continue to expand now that former President Mitchell Reiss, who was a strong supporter of collegiate athletics, has left office to take a post as the CEO of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
Reiss wanted to keep up with fellow Centennial Conference schools not just in academics, but on the field as well.
“As long as people keep score, I wanted to win,” Reiss said. “Now, realistically, that really means being competitive on an annual basis. It starts with attracting and retaining great coaches, ensuring that they have the right philosophy for Washington College for scholar athletes, and then making sure that the facilities are first rate. I think we made great strides in all these areas in the past four years.”
During his four-year tenure working with the Shoremen, Reiss provided a vast number of improvements to the athletic department and its facilities, according to Director of Athletics Bryan Matthews.
“[Former] President Reiss made many significant contributions to athletics during his tenure,” Matthews said. “We moved all head coaches to 12-month contracts, renovated the locker rooms in the basement of Cain, resurfaced the tennis courts, replaced the lighting and ceiling in the Field House, and completed the addition to the JFC weight room.”
It seems to be a consensus agreement among the key figures in the athletic department that the facilities have been underfunded prior to the arrival of Reiss in Chestertown. According to Matthews, WC’s coaching salaries, facilities, and sports budgets have not kept pace with competitor institutions.
“I think it’s accurate to say that the college had been under-investing in athletics for many years, so this investment was a long overdue corrective,” Reiss said. “It was also clear to me that a significant percentage of our students actively participated in intercollegiate sports, intramurals, and team sports and they were not being well-served by the level of the facilities.”
Since his departure, the athletic department completed the renovation of the outdoor tennis center as two new scoreboards and a sound system were installed, and there was a complete renovation of the interior. Most recently, however, the new turf in Roy Kirby Stadium was finished, which according to Vice President of Finance and Administration Mark Hampton, cost just over $500,000.
“I think the turf itself was under that but there were some installation and preparation costs,” Hampton said. “I would imagine by the time it’s all done, if you look at the total costs of repairing it and preparing the other fields, it’s well in excess of half a million dollars.”
Before Washington College makes any plans under the guidance of the next president, they will finish the blueprints to a plan Reiss began but didn’t get the chance to finish: the new boathouse on the waterfront.
Under Reiss, the college purchased the Chestertown Armory and an adjacent parcel of land to set up the foundation for a new boathouse on the waterfront. The $10 million effort will place a state-of-the-art facility on the Chester River that will be utilized by athletes, academic programs, and the community.
“We’re working with architects now to create the design of that as well as the advancement office in terms of the funding of that,” Hampton said. “It’s something that serves a number of sports as well as the community as well as students who enjoy the water in various ways as well as our academic programs. That’s something we see as very transformative because it kind of takes a lackluster presence on the Chester River in terms of our study of the environment and our athletics there and brings it up to a state of the art level.”
Hampton thinks the college’s capital campaign is attracting interest and will be enough to secure the total funding for the project as they’re already a quarter of the way there. The timeline for a start date is dependent on funds raised, but Hampton said the initial plans were to begin building next year.
After the boathouse, the athletics department is debating about what the next step is to improving facilities. The direst need of the college, according to Matthews, is a new gymnasium.
“Once we get the waterfront development going strong, the next goal is to improve the college’s indoor athletic complex,” Matthews said. “That is a fancy name for a gym, but these days a college gym can consist of many pieces that all help enhance the student athletes’ experience as well as the college community. Whether that means improving the existing Cain Gym or building a new complex remains to be seen, we must find a way to bring that part of the campus infrastructure up to the quality that represents our college in a way we can be proud of.”
Recently, Matthews was appointed Assistant to the President For Special Projects, a job that has the potential to strengthen the athletic department even further.
“President Griswold is extremely supportive of athletics and we have no doubt that if he has opportunities to enhance the experience for student-athletes he will do it,” Matthews said. “[President] Griswold has asked me to accept the position for managing Special Projects, which could include anything he considers a good use of my energies. At this time the major priority is the development of the College’s waterfront property. This includes the construction of the new Boathouse so there is no doubt that will help the athletic department as well as the entire college’s waterfront experience.”
Plans currently remain up in the air for a new gymnasium, but the future of Shoremen athletics looks bright as the department has continued to flourish since the departure of Reiss.
“We are in the process of implementing a strategic plan and one of key dimensions of the strategic plan is providing more funding and more support for athletics, coaches salaries, the teams themselves, and capital improvement,” Hampton said. “So yes, very much so. It’s [athletics] going to be a focus of our capital campaign going forward to elevate the status of athletics in terms of their funding.”