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Staff file photo / Mark Mariakis, who recently stepped down at Chattanooga Christian School after a long career coaching high school football in the area, was a sophomore first baseman for the UTC baseball team when the program was shut down after the 1982 season.

Forty years after the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga baseball program was shut down, there is still a difference of opinion on the cause.

Former players including Mark Mariakis, a sophomore first baseman at the time, believe the successful program was an innocent victim of the Title IX gender-equity law signed 10 years before. The university, which never officially announced a reason, insists Title IX was not the cause.

"Title IX was not the reason UTC no longer has a baseball program," the UTC athletic department wrote in a statement to the Times Free Press on Saturday. "Meeting Title IX criteria was the reason the school no longer has a track program, but was not the reason for the baseball program being eliminated."

The statement from the department, which no longer includes any employees from the time the baseball program was shut down, does not list an official cause.

For players like Mariakis, though, the April 1982 announcement that the program would not continue still stings.

"They told us on April 1, so we thought it was an April Fool's joke," said Mariakis, who recently stepped down as head football coach at Chattanooga Christian School, where he worked seven of his 37 seasons. "We had a very successful team with a lot of guys coming back. It was getting close to the end of the year and the future was very bright, so it had to be a joke. When we realized it wasn't a joke, it was gut-wrenching."

Even if it wasn't the cause of UTC baseball's demise, the impact of Title IX on hundreds of men's programs across the country is not up for debate. Lawmakers did not intend for schools to cut male programs, but many did to help offset the additions of women's teams to reach the law's criteria, which was tied to a school's student population.

As prep opportunities grew for female athletes in the 1970s post Title IX, universities had to make changes to follow the law. That meant making hard choices: Spend money to fund new women's teams or reach the level of compliance by also cutting men's programs. While major universities had the financial means to add programs (though many still decided to cut men's programs as well), smaller colleges such as UTC had tougher calls.

Whatever the reason, the timing of the decision was curious. The university had plans to build an on-campus baseball stadium for its successful program, which went 37-20 that final season. Mariakis recalls the confusion surrounding the decision and the reasons given at the time for it.

"At first, we heard the budget was the main reason," said Mariakis, who still has a copy of the plans for the proposed stadium in his house. "But Coca-Cola then came up and said they would double the budget, so money wouldn't be an issue. Then we were told it was a field issue, but Engel Stadium came back and said we could use the field for free. Then it was a schedule issue and that we were missing too much class time.

"We heard all kinds of things, but we all believed Title IX had gotten us. It was a hard pill to swallow. Look, I'm 60 years old and have been blessed with a nice career and beautiful family, so it's difficult to have hard feelings, but as a competitive athlete you have to wonder what might have happened had it not been taken away."

Contact Lindsey Young at lyoung@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @youngsports22.

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