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UNM regents approve cutting four sports

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By Phil Scherer

The Board of Regents at New Mexico's flagship university voted Thursday to eliminate four sports teams and make other changes to its troubled athletic department to address persistent budget problems and failures to meet federal gender equity requirements under Title IX.

University President Garnett S. Stokes and athletic director Eddie Nunez presented recommendations to cut men's soccer, along with the men's and women's skiing and beach volleyball programs, during a special meeting.

This decision will have an impact locally on the Southwest Nordic Ski Club, which has had a relationship with the Lobo ski team since the 1980s. As the longest running Nordic ski club in the state, the Los Alamos-based group has worked closely with the athletes from UNM in the past, and the two groups have combined to run programs in the state.

A big part of the Southwest Nordic Ski Club is its athletic development program, which works with young skiers in the area to train them for top competitions. As part of the program, the kids worked with the skiers from UNM’s team, giving the locals exposure to some of the top athletes in the sport.

“It was a very enriching experience for the kids, and it’s sad that we won’t have that anymore,” said Clay Moseley, the president of the Southwest Nordic Ski Club.

He said that everyone around NCAA skiing knew that UNM was a powerhouse, and represented the state well.

“There is going to be a big void,” Moseley said. “This is heartbreaking.”

It will also have an impact on the Pajarito Ski Area, which also worked with the Lobos over the years. In addition to having the team up to the mountain for events, Pajarito also helped support UNM’s ski team each year as a sponsor for its golf tournament.

“We enjoyed a strong relationship with them over the years,” Pajarito Mountain General Manager Tom Long said.

Long believes that the UNM ski team helped the state overcome its reputation as a desert state that isn’t meant for winter recreation sports, and that that will now be damaged.

“Having them helped with the perception of skiing in the state, and this is certainly going to be a blow to that,” Long said.

Long believes that the university is making an error in judgment by cutting the sports they chose, and that this will not have the impact the university desires.

“This mess is bigger than the ski teams and the volleyball team,” Long said.

The idea to cut the UNM ski teams was first brought up in 2017 by then-Athletic Director Paul Krebs, who gave the proposal to the Board of Regents for approval to save approximately $600,000. At that time, though, the programs survived. They were not so lucky this time, as pressure mounted to control the spending of the UNM athletic department.

Also affected will be local soccer players, many of whom followed the Lobo men’s soccer team the way kids in other states would watch Major League Soccer teams.

Ron Blue, who coaches the Los Alamos High School boys’ soccer team, took his players to watch the Lobos play whenever they took a trip to Albuquerque, and enjoyed being able to support the team.

“It’s obviously disappointing,” Blue said.

He said that opportunities for talented soccer players to take their skills to the college level continue to shrink, as New Mexico no longer has a Division-I men’s soccer program, and there are very few in surrounding states.

“It’s a shame that it all has to come down to money,” Blue said.

The unanimous vote came after the board heard hours of testimony from coaches, players, alumni and community members about the importance of the programs. Some in the crowd responded with boos and heckles.

 

"This is a very difficult day," Stokes told reporters after the meeting. "We would not be here if we did not believe this was absolutely essential for us to do."

 

She and the regents acknowledged that not addressing the budget problems within the athletic department or finding ways to come into compliance with Title IX requirements would end up being more costly for the university and could potentially lead to more federal intervention.

 

Many options were reviewed, but Stokes said every potential opportunity for maintaining the teams would have meant finding significantly more recurring funding or exponentially increasing student fees.

 

"You're talking about huge amounts of money," she said.

 

Men's soccer has perhaps the highest profile nationally of Lobos men's sports, having twice reached the Final Four and the championship game once.

 

Head coach Jeremy Fishbein, who has been quite vocal in support of the athletic department and his program, warned regents the university could become a laughingstock if his team and the other programs were eliminated.

 

He touted the academic success of student-athletes, their contributions to the community and the effects they will have on the world as young leaders.

 

"How do you put a price on that?" Fishbein asked.

 

With the vote, the programs will be discontinued as of July 1, 2019. University officials say they will honor the scholarships of the affected student athletes through their graduation.

 

The athletic department overestimated revenues and overspent its budget nine of the past 11 years, resulting in a deficit of nearly $5 million. While it was tasked with reducing its annual spending by nearly $2 million by 2020, officials are still predicting a recurring deficit of $2.3 million in 2019.

 

Some in the audience criticized the athletic department for its history of fiscal mismanagement and questionable spending by the previous administration, saying it was unfair to cut the teams.

 

They called for more scrutiny to be placed on the budgets of more costly programs like football and basketball.

 

In April, regents approved a plan calling for reducing the number of sports to help close the spending gap and cut future expenses. With 22 sports, New Mexico supports the most programs in the Mountain West Conference. The national average is 16 to 18.

 

Stokes and Nunez said other changes will be needed to balance the books, such as moving some functions from the athletic department to the main campus and that the university has to look at boosting its own support of athletics.

 

An analysis of the university's sports programs found that over the past decade, expenses have continued to increase, revenues have decreased and the operating budgets for each sports program have been incrementally reduced.

 

Cutting soccer and the other teams along with the roster modifications will save an estimated $1.148 million annually, according to the report.

 

As for the Title IX requirements, a report issued in May by an independent firm showed there were 317 men participating in sports compared with 247 women, resulting in inequity when considering the percentage of men and women who make up the university's overall enrollment of full-time undergraduates.

 

The disparity is greater when viewed in terms of athletic scholarships, with men receiving a larger percentage of financial aid.

 

Stokes, who took over earlier this year, said she will work on educating an angry populous about how the university ended up in this situation and will try to rebuild the community's trust.

 

Fishbein, who has coached the soccer team for close to two decades, vowed to fight for his program.

 

"It's really disappointing on a lot of levels. I love this place. I love our guys. Clearly you can see how important soccer is to so many people," he said. ". It's unfortunate but I believe this is not the end of things."

 

Glen Rosales and Susan Montoya Bryant of the Associated Press contributed to this report.