If you watched University of Minnesota graduate Shane Wiskus compete at the Olympics or the Olympic Trials, you’ve undoubtedly heard NBC analyst Tim Daggett mention the U dropping its men’s gymnastics program. It’s a bad look for the U at a time when Olympians like gymnast Suni Lee, swimmer Regan Smith and volleyball player Jordan Thompson are showing the world Minnesota athletes can do more than ski, curl and skate.
But there’s something else going on Daggett hasn’t talked about, something even those close to U athletics may be unaware of: An ongoing effort by boosters to reinstate the three men’s programs — gymnastics, tennis and indoor track — the school’s Board of Regents voted to eliminate last October. The group, calling itself the Minnesota Athletic Alliance, continues pushing the U to acknowledge the changing NCAA landscape and reconsider the cuts.
“When I tell people we’re still fighting, they say, ‘I thought that was over,’” said Anne Marie McNamara Rogers, president of the men’s tennis Baseline Club and one of the leaders of the Alliance.
McNamara Rogers isn’t some random annoyed alum. She’s the daughter of the late Bob McNamara, the Gopher football great and legendary U fundraiser who died in 2014. McNamara Rogers, three-time Olympic gymnast John Roethlisberger, and retired 3M executive Bill Smith — who co-chaired the fundraising campaign for the new track — are among those who believe the U acted too hastily. They’re asking the Regents to revisit the financial arguments and reinstate indoor track and tennis, while gymnastics transitions to a self-sufficient club program.
The U pushed to drop the programs to alleviate a pandemic-related budget deficit and Title IX compliance issues, according to Athletic Director Mark Coyle. (Outdoor track was also on the block until a last-minute reprieve.) The savings were minimal — $1.6 million out of a projected deficit of $45 million to $65 million — and Coyle reportedly told boosters not to bother raising money because the decisions were final. Even so, Smith said track boosters pledged $1.7 million in a little more than a week, while McNamara Rogers said tennis boosters kicked in $1.3 million.
So far, neither the Regents nor the athletic department have shown much interest in talking about it. The Alliance asked for speaking time at the last Regents meeting in July and the next one in September but was turned down. (For what it’s worth, the Regents meet in the McNamara Alumni Center that’s named for the late Richard “Pinky” McNamara, Anne Marie’s uncle and a prodigious giver to the U.)
“We’re still fighting this fight,” said McNamara Rogers, also the president of Gopher football’s Goal Line Club. “I told (Coyle) in March when we met: ‘Mark, I will never, ever, ever give up on this.’ I can’t. It’s my family legacy. My dad would be rolling over in his grave if he knew this was happening. And I just keep thinking if he was here, it wouldn’t have happened. He would have figured out a way to make it not happen. But who knows?”
She may be right. When men’s gymnastics and men’s and women’s golf were endangered in 2001, Bob McNamara and fellow boosters Lou Nanne and Harvey Mackay led a Save Gopher Sports campaign that raised $900,000 through a KARE-11 telethon and private donations. Athletic Director Joel Maturi, always a big-tent guy, encouraged their efforts.
McNamara then spearheaded a pull-tab drive at four northeast Minneapolis bars that McNamara Rogers said raised almost $2 million to finish construction of the U’s Baseline Tennis Center. McNamara also left a $1.2 million endowment to fund the program’s 4.5 scholarships — protection against any future attempt to drop it. Or so he thought.
The boosters teamed up shortly after the Regents voted 7-5 last October to eliminate the three sports after the 2020-21 school year. Successful efforts to reinstate programs at Clemson, Stanford, William & Mary and Iowa featured multiple sports working together, Smith said, so it made sense for the U’s to do the same.
Curiously, other than coaches of the teams seeking reinstatement, no U head coach has voiced public support for the Alliance. Not a tweet, not a peep. Compare that to Stanford, where an advocacy group representing all 36 sports saved the 11 that were in danger. Like at Minnesota, Stanford administrators also said the cuts were final, until they weren’t.
In all those other cases, pending litigation pushed administrators to back off. And the Alliance considered it. McNamara Rogers said the Baseline Club retained Arthur H. Bryant, the nationally known Title IX attorney who helped get women’s teams reinstated at Dartmouth, Brown, William & Mary and locally at St. Thomas. (The U eliminated some women’s roster positions along with the men’s teams, and tennis boosters weren’t convinced the U actually had a Title IX problem.) Bryant concluded the U cut too many men, but was concerned litigation might endanger other programs, McNamara Rogers said. (The U disputed Bryant’s figures.)
None of the boosters relished the prospect of suing the U anyway. Roethlisberger essentially grew up on the campus, where his father Fred coached Gopher men’s gymnastics for 32 seasons until retiring in 2004. Smith ran track for revered Coach Roy Griak in the 1970s. And McNamara Rogers bleeds maroon and gold as much as anyone; she has an M logo stamped on her driveway.
Roethlisberger understands the financial challenges facing Coyle and U President Joan Gabel. Still, he was disheartened U officials wouldn’t join with alums to brainstorm a creative solution to retain and fund the programs, one that other universities in the same predicament could study and copy. If Minnesota is the world-class institution it claims to be, Roethlisberger said, why not put all the smart people in a room and figure it out? Instead, he said, they chose the easy way out.
“The fact of the matter is, this is a problem that is far more reaching than just the University of Minnesota,” he said in a telephone interview from Stamford, Connecticut, where he’s working for NBC as an Olympics analyst. “This is about a massive shift that has to happen at the NCAA level, at the collegiate level. It’s about, what are our priorities? What is our mission? What is the mission of collegiate athletics?
“I can certainly have a conversation with anybody that would like to, and I could be wrong, but I think Mark Coyle and some of the Regents have failed as leaders in this moment. Not because of the decision they made, but the way they’ve handled this entire process.”
Smith, in a separate interview, agreed with Roethlisberger. “The resources at the disposal of the university and their alumni base that could have been tapped into to look at innovative solutions was completely bypassed,” Smith said.
So what’s next?
First, secure the cramped, aging, chalky gymnastics room at Cooke Hall for club use, merging with the existing student-run club program. The athletic department wants to turn the space into a dryland training room for the diving team. Roethlisberger said negotiations are ongoing. “This is something we can work out,” he said. “I really hope so.”
Second, keep the issue out there while maintaining cordial relations with U bigwigs.
Others outside the group, however, haven’t been as diplomatic.
Wiskus, for one, remains publicly critical of Coyle. When Stanford reinstated its teams, he texted Coyle a screenshot of the announcement. Conversely, during the various U.S. Olympic Trials, the U’s athletic communications department issued press releases about Gophers competing, except one — Wiskus. And when Wiskus made the Olympic team, a congratulatory tweet from the @GopherSports account elicited more than 200 mostly negative responses from angry gymnastics supporters.
Smith, like many, sees big changes coming in college athletics. Just look at what’s happened in the last few weeks: athletes monetizing their name, image and likeness; Texas and Oklahoma leaving the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference; the NCAA rethinking its role in governance and rules enforcement.
Given all that, Smith believes the U would be wise to retain all its programs until there’s a clearer picture of what’s ahead. That’s part of the message he hopes to deliver to the Regents.
“If we get that meeting, it’s not going to be a complaint session,” he said. “It’s not going to be, you made the wrong decision. It’s not going to be, we want our teams back or else. It’s going to be, we really believe in the value of athletics and the opportunity for student-athletes, and we want to help. Here are some of the ideas that we believe will help sustain the athletic programs at the University of Minnesota for many years to come. That’s what we want.”