UND coaches make pitch to keep their programs
Tears ran down the faces of several softball players as they watched their head coach Jordan Stevens fight to keep the UND softball program alive.
When he took over the team in 2014, the program was in shambles, he told the university's Intercollegiate Athletic Committee on Tuesday. Now, they have become more successful, beating two Power 5 schools this past season.
The future is bright for the program, Stevens said.
Softball, along with seven other sports at UND, is at risk of being eliminated, and five head coaches representing six sports made their pitches Tuesday on why his or her sport should continue to be sponsored by the university.
"Despite the possibility of their life being ripped apart by the seams, despite the possibility of being thrown aside because they might play the wrong sport, they've been unflappable," Stevens said of his team. "They've carried themselves with such high resolve and unbelievable dignity. I am so proud of them. Softball is more than just a sport or a game. For the players and coaches, it is our lives."
In a room teeming with visibly nervous and upset spectators, the coaches made their cases one by one to the university's Intercollegiate Athletic Committee and UND President Mark Kennedy to save their sports from being cut.
The eight sports on the chopping block are men's and women's tennis, men's and women's swimming and diving, men's and women's golf, women's soccer and softball.
The 18-member committee hearing their pleas is a longstanding committee of the University Senate made up of UND faculty members, Athletics Department staff, UND alumni, students, a head coach and athletes.
The committee has been asked by Kennedy to examine UND's Athletics Department's financing, conference affiliation, the number of sports it sponsors and the number of athletes it has on campus. He asked for the group's recommendation by Nov. 1, though Kennedy has said he will make any final decisions himself.
Some disagreed with the committee's meeting being the proper venue for coaches to make their presentations, including at least one of its members.
"Since this a public meeting and subject to open records laws of the state of North Dakota, I just want to go on record as disagreeing that this is the proper forum for these presentations," said Lowell Schweigert, a member of the committee.
Making their cases
In approximately 30-minute presentations, coaches of the targeted programs discussed student-athlete academic performance, the teams' successes, the teams' facilities, the history of the programs and their impact on the community, along with other topics.
"The cutting of our program would be devastating to each and every member of our team as well as the Grand Forks area," the soccer team wrote in a letter to the committee. "There is a small soccer presence here and without our women's soccer team, we fear it would vanish completely. The bond we have on our team reaches well beyond that of friendship and delves into that of a sisterhood."
Many argued their programs would be much more successful if they were fully funded, with nearly every coach saying they expect to win conference championships in the next three to five years.
On what he called "the most important day in our program's history," UND swimming and diving coach Chris Maiello gave perhaps the most impassioned presentation of the evening.
"With this, I ask you, from the bottom of my heart, please do not eliminate men's and women's swimming and diving," he said, holding back tears.
With their student athletes in the seats behind them, all of the coaches left to a standing ovation.
Twelve sports—men's and women's hockey, men's and women's basketball, football, men's and women's indoor and outdoor track and field, men's and women's cross country, and volleyball—were identified as programs that UND is committed to sponsoring and appear to be safe from being cut.
The committee previously had asked the Athletics Department to run scenarios for what the department would look like if it had 16, 17 or 18 sports at medium to high funding levels. UND currently offers 20 sports.
Those scenarios, which include two, three or four programs being cut, will be presented to the committee at its next meeting scheduled for Oct. 17.
The possibility of eliminating programs surfaced in August when Kennedy sent out a campuswide email announcing he will reassess the UND Athletic Department budget because of a $1.4 million shortfall in the 2015-16 fiscal year.Baseball and men's golf were cut in April as part of state-mandated and universitywide budget reductions.
Men's golf has since been reinstated for the 2017 and 2018 fiscal years after the program raised money to keep the sport. The men's golf program did not present at Tuesday's meeting because the program has funding for the next two seasons, Athletics Director Brian Faison said.
While eight sports are on the list to potentially be cut, not all can be cut if UND stays in the Big Sky Conference.
Men's and women's tennis and women's golf are all considered core sports by the Big Sky Conference and would need to remain being offered at UND if it stays in the conference.
The Intercollegiate Athletic Committee previously has voted to allow Kennedy to explore the possibility of UND moving to a different athletics conference.