Facing a massive budget hole, the University of Minnesota athletic department announced Sept. 10 it was recommending to the school's board of regents that it drop three men's sports to save money. Indoor and outdoor track, gymnastics and tennis had their necks placed in the guillotine.
"My first reaction, after working on a large fundraising campaign for the program a few years ago and being a six-figure donor myself, was that I was sorry I gave our kids' inheritance to something that's not going to be there anymore," said Bill Smith, a retired 3M executive and former Gophers runner. "There was a strong level of disappointment over that."
Smith ran for the legendary Roy Griak from 1971-75 and stayed close to Griak until the coach's death in 2015. He co-chaired a 2016 campaign to raise $19 million for a track and field facility on the Minnesota campus.
His second reaction?
"Maybe we can do something about it."
When Smith heard that John Simons, a younger Minnesota alum who is now an assistant coach at Dartmouth College, was trying to rally ex-Gophers in an attempt to save the program, Smith didn't wait for Simons' call. He called Simons.
"I told John he was going to be the face of this and, given my experience at 3M, I would help out with the operation. I'm going to be standing right to your right, one step back, doing the operational things," Smith said.
And so was born a hastily assembled four-man task force, two other alums joined Simons and Smith, that hopes to convince the 12-person board of regents to reject athletic director Mark Coyle's recommendation to ax men's track. It needed to be hastily assembed. The regents will meet Oct. 8-9 to discuss and vote on Coyle's proposal.
"Our task very simple — to get six votes out of these regents," Smith said. "I wish we had a few more weeks before this vote, but that's not a luxury we have."
Six votes siding with the track alums, or more, means the program would be spared.
It will not be an easy lift. The athletic department says it is losing $75 million in revenue this fiscal year, much of it attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns. The university says cutting the three sports will save $2 million in fiscal year 2022 with an annual savings of $2.7 million once all student-athletes currently on athletics-based aid have graduated.
The university says there are also gender-equity considerations, which is why three men's sports are on the block. The cuts, combined with "roster adjustments" on the women's side, will keep the Gophers in compliance with Title IX, the athletic department says.
Simons, Smith and Co., for lack of a more gentile term, are calling BS.
"When the university says it's about opportunity and diversity and all these things they say they support and then they turn on a dime and go against everything they say they stand for, it's very maddening. We're not going to stand for it," Simons said.
Smith said he is attempting to contact regents before the vote to make the track program's case. The alums will offer alternative funding models for non-revenue sports, including outside sponsorships, because they believe the current model for college athletics is broken.
They are not wrong. It's only a matter of whether the regents will agree to give the programs time.
"I really believe the vote is a tactical vote, a stop-gap measure to temporarily plug a bigger problem," Smith said. "I would really like to ask the athletic director, 'What is the end game here, Mark?' How exactly do you see the athletic department in two years, five years, 10 years? Because the problem isn't going away. You're going to have an athletic department that is dependent on football, basketball and hockey.
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"Is the end game that those are going to be the sports offered at the University of Minnesota? Is that how you want the land-grant university in the state, the University of Minnesota, to look? Are those the only opportunities you want to present to not only the young people in Minnesota, but those in surrounding states? That, to me, is at the very heart of this."
Simons said the fear among track supporters around the nation is that if the Gophers cut the sport, it will open the door for other major universities to follow suit. Minnesota would be the first school from a Power Five conference to cut men's track and field.
Smaller NCAA Division I schools like Appalachian State and William & Mary have cut men's track programs. Akron dropped cross country.
"Now it's creeping up to the University of Minnesota. And the feeling the administration has given out is that there is no way this can be overturned, that it is a done deal, that it is inevitable," Simons said. "The fear of the track community is that it will empower every athletic director in the Big Ten to do the same thing. This will make it easier for them. And then it's going to empower all the schools in the ACC or the SEC to do it. Eventually, and it won't happen right away or even in the next few years, but eventually the cuts will keep coming the sport will become extinct at the college level."