The young man sat atop a cement pedestal at the south end of Sproul Plaza, at the point where Telegraph Avenue bleeds onto the campus of the University of California. Student? Dreamer? Pothead? It was tough to tell. His message was less ambiguous -- speaking to any of the bystanders or passers-by who cared to listen, he unleashed a passionate lecture on the illusory value of money.

"I want to hear one person from the business school tell me I'm crazy," he bellowed.

"Shut up!" came a voice from the crowd.

Harsh. Then again, the young man was lucky he didn't come face-to-grimace with the school officials who, barely a half-hour after his screed Tuesday afternoon, solemnly announced the elimination of five sports programs from the athletic department.

There was nothing illusory about the announcement from Chancellor Robert Birgeneau. Money's tight. Donations are problematic. The state is "disinvesting" in higher education.

The campus has been riddled by furloughs and rocked by layoffs. Tuesday it was athletics' turn to feel the burn. The goal was to reduce from $12 million to $5 million the annual subsidy funneled to the athletic department from the campus budget. The upshot is that baseball, men's and women's gymnastics, women's lacrosse and rugby have been shuttered.

Rugby, however, will be retained in a new classification -- varsity club. This, Birgeneau and athletic director Sandy Barbour said, would allow it to compete at the same level and enjoy the same varsity resources. Rugby coach Jack Clark, who stood in the back of the room in the Hearst Mining Building where the announcement was made, didn't seem thrilled by the distinction.


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No one was thrilled. Look, this was a real-world lesson in economics for the student-athletes involved. Not to mention the 13 coaches who will lose their jobs. The lesson is this:

When the business model starts leaking oil, you follow the money. And in this case, Title IX.

The money lies in football and men's basketball. A lesser but not-insignificant amount of money is generated by women's basketball. So those programs were golden.

True, the money those programs use on athletic tape would probably have saved women's lacrosse. But without the moneymakers -- and their TV revenue, ticket sales, bowl game and NCAA tournament payouts -- there is no athletic program.

Baseball? According to Barbour, it has the highest net cost of any men's sport. And one of the highest concentrations of male athletes.

Rugby? Clark said his team is self-sufficient to the point that it has money left each year to give the athletic department a little something for its trouble. In a weird way, this may have worked against his program. Why keep it on the books when it can be rebranded and sustained independently?

Gymnastics and women's lacrosse? They probably never had a chance.

This will not soothe anyone directly affected by Tuesday's announcement, but in reality it's been a wonderful life for Cal athletics. The school boasted 29 sports before the cuts. Even at 24 sports, according to the university, Cal will rank tied for second in the Pac-10, and eighth nationally among public schools.

The school has produced a conga line of professional athletes and Olympians of various disciplines. In doing so it has striven for the ideal in breadth and achievement. Which is commendable. It's what college should be about.

The ideal, however, becomes a luxury when tough decisions have to be made. By choosing to limit the campus' largesse to the athletic department, Birgeneau, his panels and his advisers set themselves on a collision course with Black Tuesday.

In some respects Cal is still pursuing the athletic ideal. Birgeneau and Barbour hope to tout their fiscal responsibility to other schools, to bring sanity to what has been called the athletic arms race.

"All of collegiate athletics needs to take a look at what we're spending and why," Barbour said.

It's a well-intentioned notion, but it's going to be a tough sell. The Pac-10 is about to become the Pac-12. The Big Ten is expanding. Schools are looking to supersize their TV revenue and corporate sponsorships. If you think you can convince SEC football programs to draw down, you're as high as the kid on the cement pedestal.

But Cal convinced itself, and that's a start. If you can call drawing the curtain on 13 coaches and 163 student-athletes a start.

Contact Gary Peterson at gpeterson@bayareanewsgroup.com.