Regents save outdoor track but cut three sports that will leave ‘a scar for the rest of eternity’

Shaniqua Juliano

Mike Burns works in a world of razor-thin margins, one in which the tiniest of fractions separates a victory from a loss. But the stakes usually aren’t as high as they were Friday, when the Gophers men’s gymnastics coach waited to see whether the U’s Board of Regents would vote […]

Mike Burns works in a world of razor-thin margins, one in which the tiniest of fractions separates a victory from a loss. But the stakes usually aren’t as high as they were Friday, when the Gophers men’s gymnastics coach waited to see whether the U’s Board of Regents would vote to eliminate his sport.

It did, by the smallest degree possible. In a 7-5 decision, the regents approved an amended resolution to cut men’s gymnastics, men’s tennis and men’s indoor track at the end of the school year. The new resolution, given to the regents moments before the meeting began, spared men’s outdoor track from the list of sports to be dropped.

A 6-6 tie would have prevented the resolution from passing, and a motion to postpone the decision was rejected, also by a 7-5 margin. Though Burns is used to dealing with close losses, this one left him gutted.

“All we needed was one more vote,” said Burns, the Gophers’ coach since 2004. “You take these three programs, and you rip them out of the flesh of the athletic department, and it leaves a gaping wound. It will eventually heal, but there will be a scar for the rest of eternity.”

Athletic director Mark Coyle announced Sept. 10 that the department would drop the sports because of a budget deficit magnified by the pandemic, and to address Title IX compliance concerns. That deficit was projected Friday at $45 to $65 million.

Cutting all four programs would have saved $2.7 million per year, but Coyle said retaining outdoor track will reduce that amount to $1.6 million.

Coyle called the cuts “heartbreaking,” but he said there would be “a significant impact” if they were not approved Friday. It’s uncertain how much football revenue will be impacted by COVID-19, he explained, and athletic department costs are increasing. Though supporters had begun fundraising efforts — with track boosters pledging $1.8 million in less than a week — Coyle said “fundraising is an unrealistic option.”

“We fully recognize this decision caused a lot of pain,” Coyle said in a news conference after the vote. “We are in uncharted waters with this pandemic. It’s difficult. It’s a hard day for a lot of our student-athletes, our staff, et cetera.”

Coyle said eliminating the three men’s programs would impact 34 male athletes. He anticipates the U also will have 31 fewer women athletes next season. Coyle wants the student-athlete population to reflect the gender balance of the student body, which was 54% female and 46% male in 2019-20.

Passionate debate

Regent Michael Hsu, who voted against the resolution, called it “a sad day in Gopherville.” Regent David McMillan, who voted in favor, said it was “a wickedly difficult decision,” one of the toughest he has had to make in a decade on the board.

Regents McMillan, Richard Beeson, Mary Davenport, Kao Ly Ilean Her, Janie Mayeron, Steve Sviggum and Chairman Ken Powell voted to approve the resolution. Hsu, Thomas Anderson, Mike Kenyanya, Darrin Rosha and Randy Simonson voted no.

Rosha moved to postpone the vote after the new resolution was e-mailed to the regents at 9:15 a.m. He urged the board to consider other ways of addressing the budget and Title IX concerns without eliminating sports. While Rosha called the amended resolution an improvement, he said it needed further study before a vote.

Asked why the regents did not see the amendment until right before the meeting, Coyle said only that there had been “ongoing conversations.”

Attorney Andrew Miltenberg, who was retained by some Gophers athletes and alumni to oppose the cuts, said Friday that legal action is possible. In an Oct. 2 letter to U President Joan Gabel and the Board of Regents, he said the process lacked transparency and demonstrated “fraudulent and bad-faith conduct.”

“We think it was a very irresponsible decision, punctuated by the fact that it was a 7-5 vote,” Miltenberg said. “We are considering all options, including commencing a lawsuit.”

Outcry resonates

Bill Smith, a track alumnus who has been working to save the track and field programs, said his sport’s supporters weren’t sure how to feel. They were grateful to preserve outdoor track, but Smith said the lack of a men’s indoor program could affect recruiting and competitiveness.

Alumni, fans and athletes in all four sports had waged an all-out effort to save the programs. They made their voices heard over the past month through websites, social media, commentaries, a march and a sit-in. They also inundated the regents with e-mails, letters and phone calls.

“We are trying to figure out whether we won, or we half-won,” Smith said. “Is it a victory or not?

“I don’t think most people really know how they feel right now. That may be a combination of emotional fatigue and mental fatigue. Maybe in a couple days, we’ll look at it and say it was a huge step forward.”

Smith was certain of one thing: His heart broke for those whose sports did not survive. Andrew Hyde, a sophomore gymnast from Plymouth, said it was a tough, emotional day.

“We’re all just really disappointed in the athletic department,” Hyde said. “We thought we mattered more to them. We really felt through this process that they don’t really care about us and the other nonrevenue sports.”

Several of the regents found it emotional, too. Anderson worried the cuts were a permanent solution to a temporary problem, out of step with the state’s history and tradition. Sviggum acknowledged the pain but said the problems “have to be addressed.”

Hyde was trying to look ahead. He is likely to stay on as Burns considers transitioning to a club program, but first, he wants to make a statement in the Gophers’ final NCAA season.

“Hopefully, we can get our last season done and be successful,” Hyde said. “We want to show them they made a mistake.’’

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