Minnesota Men’s Program Gets The Axe

Oh no! He didn’t know it at the time, but when Obsa Ali won the ’18 steeplechase he probably became Minnesota’s last men’s track champ. (MIKE SCOTT)

IN A SHOCK to the collegiate track world, Minnesota announced in early September that it would be dropping 4 sports at the end of the school year, among them the men’s track programs, indoors and out.

Among current Power 5 universities, Minnesota joins Northwestern (’88), Oregon State (’88), West Virginia (’03) and Vanderbilt (’71) as the only institutions that have eliminated men’s track & field.

The move came a week after William & Mary cut 7 sports—including men’s indoor & outdoor track—with the athletic director putting the blame on COVID-19. Responded former head coach Alex Gibby, “COVID is being used as an excuse for the financial mismanagement on the AD’s part.”

In its public announcement, the Minnesota athletic department cited a projected $75 million loss in revenue this fiscal year, and noted that it has to “keep pace with our growing female undergraduate population percentages,” to not run afoul of Title IX.

“It’s heartbreaking to me,” said head coach Matt Bingle, who will continue to run the women’s side of the program, along with men’s and women’s cross country. “Let’s say a young boy in Minnesota has a dream of competing for the Gophers: that’s at risk. Those types of things are at risk. I think they feel that way at William & Mary, they feel that way at Central Michigan [which saw its program cut in May]. I feel bad for every program right now.”

It didn’t take long for Gopher track alumni to lead an effort to get the administration to reverse the decision, as was successfully done by Brown earlier this year.

Hassan Mead, a ’16 Olympic finalist at 5000 and 9-time Big 10 champ, said, “It was not a good day to be a Gopher,” adding, “If money was the issue, and that’s what they’re claiming, they never asked if we have donors… But I don’t think it’s about that.”

Fellow alum Ben Blankenship, a Rio 1500 finalist, called the decision “a sham,” on Instagram. He subsequently told T&FN, “For a program not to say, ‘We’ve got to cut for the 2020 season and we’ll have to reevaluate,’ and instead say, ‘Hey, this is over. This is a dead stop,’ that’s a sham. It’s a sham that they say ‘Hey, these are our points here,’ and none of them really hold water.”

Many have questioned how much can be saved financially since the Minnesota team is already a combined men/women program, and any savings would be negligible. It’s estimated that the elimination of the 4 sports will save $2.7 million annually. Yet the affected track athletes alone pay about $1 million a year in tuition and fees. Notable also is that two years ago the school built a $13 million track facility and also unveiled a $166 million athletes’ village that includes football and basketball practice facilities.

Within the week, Houston head Leroy Burrell, as president of the USTFCCCA, sent a letter to the nation’s Div. I coaches, calling the Minnesota decision, “a shot across the bow that threatens every Division I men’s track & field/cross country program in the country.”

The former 100 World Record holder continued, “It is clear to me that our sport is being made a scapegoat due to years of athletic administration mismanagement and poor decisions that have led to departments that are highly leveraged. Looking for excuses in the name of temporary financial shortfalls as a result of COVID-19 and ‘Title IX compliance’ is unacceptable. The ‘difficult choices’ cited by Minnesota and others to drop men’s track & field and/or cross country does little to nothing to rectify their temporary financial situations, while permanently eliminating student-athlete opportunities.”

While admitting that the response of the USTFCCCA to recent program cancellations is a work in progress, Burrell added, “Going forward, I am directing our national office to seek out a public relations firm interested in providing pro bono professional assistance to create and execute a national campaign to educate university administrators and the general public on the values and benefits of a track & field/cross country program.

“In addition, I am requesting the national office to identify a law firm and/or lobbyist to assist in guiding our campaign’s direction. Further, I plan to challenge our association’s board of directors, executive committees, and all member coaches to engage in our messaging as we move forward.”

Burrell added to T&FN directly, “We’re the diversity sport. Especially after all that’s happened in Minneapolis [regards the George Floyd case], this sends the wrong signal.”

Sam Seemes, the CEO of the USTFCCCA, pulled no punches in his reaction, tweeting, “How are these people part of the educational system? The University of Minnesota President and AD appear to have produced a stunt to deliberately exploit Title IX. With past-and-present forced reductions to women’s rosters, they fraudulently claim a need to ax men’s sports.

“Sports like men’s track & field are eliminated to ‘fix the problem’? Those two caused the problem! Is subverting educational opportunities, including those for Black males, in the best interest of the university and the community?”

For his part, USATF president Vin Lananna, who is also the head coach at Virginia, tweeted, “Tone deaf is the elimination of the track & field program at the flagship university in the city that has been at the center of social injustice. TF is one of the sports that provides access to students of color. College track and field provides access to education for 1000’s of students of color every year.

“As these programs are eliminated what happens to these student athletes and their coaches? Speak up!”