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Off and running: After scholarship turmoil at Tennessee, Morgan Harvey finds refuge at Pitt

By Chris Puzia / Sports Editor

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When Morgan Harvey walked into her track and field coach’s office at the University of Tennessee, she didn’t expect to leave the room without an athletic scholarship.

Yet, the tissues that head coach Beth Alford-Sullivan laid on a table warned her that this wasn’t a standard player-coach meeting.

“They just told me that I didn’t fit their ‘model,’ but they still haven’t really told me what that ‘model’ was,” Harvey said. “Then she told me that she wasn’t renewing my scholarship next season.”

Harvey was just starting her freshman season at Tennessee as a part of the women’s track and field team, but on Sept. 24 — a little more than a month after she arrived at the school — she and five other women on the team had their scholarships taken away from them.

One of those other women, sophomore Laura Morse, said she decided to stay at Tennessee and compete with a track club instead. However, Harvey still wanted the high level of competition that only varsity track could provide — just not at Tennessee.

Without an athletic future at Tennessee, she considered the next step of her running career.

“After the article came out in Knoxville [breaking the news of their scholarship removals], other schools started calling me and the other people who got released,” Harvey said.

Pitt — specifically, assistant head coach Kia Davis — contacted Harvey once she got her release.

Through Pitt Athletics spokesperson Ted Feeley, Davis and head coach Alonzo Webb declined to comment on the matter.

Alford-Sullivan was previously the head coach at Penn State and had recruited Harvey, who was attending North Hunterdon High School in New Jersey. The coach then left Penn State, went to Tennessee, and continued to recruit Harvey. Morgan’s father, George, was more blunt in how he felt Alford-Sullivan handled her first season at her new school.

“She got down to Tennessee and gave Morgan the axe,” George said.

Harvey’s path to Tennessee became muddled early on, as the team’s former head coach, J.J. Clark, was dismissed on May 21. Clark, now the head coach at the University of Connecticut, declined comment through spokesperson Jeffrey Piascik.

Harvey didn’t know that her events coach, Sharon Couch-Fikes, wouldn’t be brought back as part of the new staff before she joined the program last summer.

“Morgan and the other girls knew that they weren’t going to have their head coach,” George said. “They didn’t know until August that they weren’t going to have their event coach.”

George added that he wished the coaches had given the athletes an earlier warning.

“[Alford-Sullivan] could have told us back in July, when she came to Tennessee,” he said. “She could have told Morgan that she was not going to hire her event coach, because when she didn’t hire the event coach she must have known she was going to release these girls.”

Still, athletic scholarships are only valid on a year-to-year basis, which the program renews each year. So Tennessee and Alford-Sullivan did not violate any NCAA rules in the process, as the initial scholarship offer did not guarantee four years at Tennessee.

Tennessee would have allowed the scholarships of these athletes to run through the remainder of the academic year, according to an article on nj.com.

The University of Tennessee, through athletic department spokesperson Kellen Hiser, declined to comment for the story over the phone twice, including on Feb. 11.

Highly recruited coming out of high school, Harvey expected to contribute early to the Tennessee program — especially during the outdoor season, in which her main event is the 400-meter hurdle.

George said that he had a theory as to why those six girls, who mainly competed in sprinting events, were affected.

“[Alford-Sullivan] wanted to increase the distance running program,” he said. “Tennessee is known more as a sprinting school, so they’re constantly recruiting more sprinters than distance runners. She felt that she could do better in the conference meet with more distance runners.”

Despite joining the team in August, Harvey and the other five girls were not notified of their removal from the team until a month later, after the official indoor season had already started.

“The team can’t practice with coaches until after Labor Day,” George said. “So [Alford-Sullivan] strategically waited until all the athletes were UT athletes, then she released them so that they couldn’t run against her in the SEC.”

Because the girls were cut after official practices had started, they were not allowed to compete in the indoor track season.

“She had a plan, and she executed the plan perfectly,” George said. “It’s a real difficult thing for these girls to pick a school, because there’s a lot of different places they could have gone, and they all picked Tennessee.”

Now, at Pitt — where she enrolled in January after receiving a new scholarship — Harvey is focused on preparing for the outdoor season. Since one of her best events, the 100-meter hurdle, comes in the outdoor season — which begins in March — she said she will take a redshirt for the indoor season. Until then, she is working to get back in competitive shape, as she ended up not competing when she had planned because of the setbacks at Tennessee.

“I’m not in the kind of shape that everyone else is in right now,” Harvey said. “My coaches gave me winter workouts, which I’ve been doing. They’re willing to work with me.”

Not all of the six athletes who had their scholarships cut continued their track careers, however. While freshmen Shelbi White and Margaret Draper transferred to University of Alabama-Birmingham to continue running, Morse remained at Tennessee as a student.

Morse said that she was told in a similar way to Harvey — a private meeting with the coaches — and given little reasoning as to why.

“[Alford-Sullivan] said ‘we’re moving forward, and we decided to take you off the program,’” Morse said. “I think they don’t want to hurt us more than they had to, but it was inconsiderate the way they went about it.”

Morse, who joined the team as a walk-on and did not receive an athletic scholarship, said that she had similar thinking to George as to why the cuts were being made.

“My guess is they needed to free up scholarship money for future recruits,” Morse said. “The new coach probably wanted to change the program how she wanted.”

Morse considered transferring to Eastern Tennessee State University. “I had potential there,” she said, but she ultimately decided to stay at UT and run with a track club.

“That was the hardest thing about what happened, was that I wasn’t given a chance to reach my potential,” she said.

Because of the late decision to transfer to Pitt, Harvey has been playing catch-up to get acclimated to her new university. She enrolled in classes just days before the spring semester started, and — as of Feb. 11 — she is still not listed on Pitt’s track and field roster. Despite this, Harvey is still pleased with the result.

“I love knowing that the coaches I’m working with actually want to work with me,” she said.

George added that the transfer could give her extra motivation in some competitions.

“I’d like to see her beat all of the Tennessee runners in the future,” he said with a laugh. “I hope Morgan has a good college experience, she has not had a good college experience so far. I think she’s been cheated out of that.”

Looking back, Morse and Harvey said they learned that Division I sports function like businesses. They knew that their contributions to the university’s athletic prowess were earning them their scholarships, but Morse said the people coming into that environment are still teenagers, and that the transition could be difficult.

“The first few weeks, we were treated like teenage girls. Then, a few weeks in, we were treated like 35 year-old women in the workforce who were told our business is being shut down,” Morse said. “That’s why it was so hard for many of us, because we’re still pretty young.”

Harvey also said that if any silver lining is to come from the incident, it was “the girls that got released, we all became really close friends” as a result.

Morse said that she texted Harvey shortly after each of their individual meetings with Alford-Sullivan with words of encouragement.

“I knew it was really hard on Morgan because she had come to college almost 100 percent for track, then she had that stripped away,” Morse said. “I’m glad she’s going to Pitt, though. That’s awesome.”

Jasper Wilson contributed to this story.

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Off and running: After scholarship turmoil at Tennessee, Morgan Harvey finds refuge at Pitt