Ongoing merger rumor sidelined now, but U sports debate persists

Minnesota athletics are divided into two, but after a recent rash of personnel and monetary additions and subtractions across the board, the answer for now appears to be zero.

As in, zero chance of blending two into one.

Members of each department expressed feelings of frustration or contentment over how the current departments are set up and operated, yearning for the day all athletics – men’s and women’s – are on the same playing field.

Such are the separate, yet prevailing, attitudes circulating between the two departments, where answers about a merger to enquiring minds range from “no” or “What are you talking about?” to “Why we don’t boggles my mind.”

Perhaps the speculation surrounding a merger of the departments is, as women’s athletics director Chris Voelz said, “nothing more than a media creation.”

But several transactions and transgressions within both departments over the past few months and years have regurgitated some of that buzz – whether real or contrived – among administration, fans and media.

“It’s my 14th school year here and every year I get asked, `How are your teams, how are you going to fund yourself, and when are you merging,'” said Voelz. “I say, `Our teams are getting better all the time, funding is a challenge and merging is off the table.'”

Since Iowa combined its athletics departments last year, only five Division I universities – Minnesota, Arkansas, Texas, Tennessee and BYU – have separate athletics departments.

“There are five (separate) athletic departments left in the country, and no other schools are even remotely going in that direction (of separation),” said wrestling coach J Robinson. “What does that tell you?”

Keeping the status quo

Clearly, Voelz and several under her are adamant about keeping the status quo, and she has a few legs to stand on for keeping her side independent:

ï 27 consecutive academic terms (fall and spring quarters or semesters) with a cumulative 3.0 student-athlete grade point average, beginning fall quarter 1991.

ï Since Voelz arrived in 1988, she has overseen a women’s hockey national championship, six top-ten national finishes and nine Big Ten champion teams.

ï Voelz has been a pioneer in women’s collegiate athletics – most recently at Minnesota – since Title IX’s passage in 1972. She was instrumental in bringing soccer, women’s hockey and rowing to the University in the last decade. She also secured a new women’s hockey and tennis facility currently under construction.

“So you put that together and say, `Why would we want to merge?'” Voelz said.

However, Voelz has been surrounded by plenty of controversy in her 14-year tenure.

After Minnesota hosted the Women’s NCAA Final Four in March 1995, then-President Nils Hasselmo tried to get Voelz to take a leave of absence, to no avail. The local media caught wind of this and ran front page stories about a potential contract buyout. Hasselmo’s plan never materialized.

In April, Voelz fired women’s basketball coach Cheryl Littlejohn after repeated NCAA violations involving recruiting and questionable treatment of student-athletes.

Voelz, however, retained her job, something former men’s athletics director Mark Dienhart and then-Vice President for Student Development and Athletics McKinley Boston couldn’t do after academic fraud swept through the men’s basketball team.

While Littlejohn’s transgressions were of lesser severity than academic fraud, there is documentation showing Voelz knew about Littlejohn’s previous violations. There is no evidence Dienhart and Boston ever knew about Clem Haskins’ cover-up.

Some claim Voelz should have kept her job. Others say she too should have been fired, thus creating a seemingly perfect time to merge the departments.

It never happened.

Said men’s athletics director Tom Moe, “The word I get from administration is that it’s off the table, so that’s the way we’re operating.”

In August, Voelz’s contract was renewed for one year while Moe reduced his three-year deal to one. University administration stressed the move was to keep the position commensurate with other University senior administrators.

Voelz, who’s worked on one-year deals for four years, was disappointed she didn’t get a long-term contract. Most athletics directors around the country work on three-year contracts.

More speculation arose that a joining of the athletics departments would soon follow, but the notion was quickly refuted by Vice President Tonya Moten Brown, who oversees athletics.

“The University has stated for many years that we are committed to the separate department structure,” Moten Brown said earlier this month. “We don’t have any plans to merge the departments.”

Voelz called it simply a “philosophical difference.” Others weren’t so content.

“A lot goes on I don’t understand and I’m not privy to it, but I was really mystified why (administration) did that,” said women’s gymnastics co-head coach Jim Stephenson. “That said, I think the bottom line, and President Yudof said this, `If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.’ It’s not broken.”


Moe sheds interim label

After Dienhart’s contract was not renewed in 1999, Moe resisted the thought of becoming a permanent athletics director. Moe had been chairman and a managing partner of the Dorsey and Whitney law firm for 10 of the past 36 years. He was ready to retire from the firm and move to a Palm Desert, Calif., golf course with his wife by the end of 2000.

He took the interim position, planned on serving for six months and said he was not a permanent candidate.

“The search process had been stalled and wasn’t producing the results the President was looking for,” Moe said. “I kind of reviewed my own thinking and decided to help on a longer-term basis.”

So in August 2000, he agreed to stay on full time. Yudof originally wanted to sign Moe to a five-year contract Moe felt was far too long. They settled on three years.

It was Moe’s idea to reduce his contract to one year, in keeping with other administration. This opened the door for questions about why Moe was originally given a three-year contract.

“Length of a University commitment to me has never been an issue,” Moe said. “A long-term contract was the University’s idea, not mine.”

Since Moe took over, he has overseen a wrestling national championship, two bowl game appearances and several NCAA appearances, while keeping the department relatively trouble-free.

But Robinson’s wrestling camps have been investigated for questionable practices – a camp he claims is outside his University contract and the school’s jurisdiction. He also has faced minor NCAA violations twice in the past five years.

Golf coach John Means was pressured into resigning in early September for purchasing plane tickets on the University account, which he has since repaid.


Dollars and sense

Certainly, the main factor in determining what path University administration will take on athletics revolves around the dollar.

For the past few years, all revenue generated between the men’s and women’s side was thrown into one pot. A budget was drawn and University administration gave approval.

Total men’s athletics expenditures reached $22.18 million, but total revenue earned was $30 million, leaving an $8 million net gain. Football, men’s basketball and men’s hockey accounted for $24.5 of that $30 million.

Women’s athletics used its entire budget allotment of $10.8 million and made back roughly $9 million.

At places like Tennessee, where the women’s basketball program pulls in $2.2 million of revenue each year, a nice chunk of expense is already provided.

“(Women’s basketball) has the same finances as everyone else,” said Volunteers men’s athletics director Doug Dickey. “They carry themselves, not others, which is a huge plus.

“The problem is that when things grow and get big, all the things not directly related to coaches and their teams become difficult to deal with in terms of alumni, funding and everything else.”

Robinson, the most animated and outspoken of the coaches, believes if the two departments want to stay apart, each should fund and pay for themselves. Right now, he calls the current system “a waste.”

His solution: One department with one set of rules for everyone, and how much “success” you have inside the lines and in the seats determines resources received.

“Why are there two athletics directors?” he said. “Why are there two associate athletics directors? Why are there two marketing departments? It doesn’t make sense.

“It’s called efficiency.”


An odd couple

Although he was quick to support women’s athletics and the work Voelz has done, baseball coach John Anderson said he believes having two departments is a detriment to getting a third-rate stadium replaced.

Almost 2,000 seats at Siebert Field will be removed because they are unsafe. Despite a team boasting 12 NCAA tournament trips over the last 20 years, the Gophers stadium capacity will be 600 – far and away the lowest in the Big Ten.

After several years and a few chances for Anderson to go elsewhere, funding for a new baseball stadium is finally starting to roll.

“We should have one goal, one voice, where everyone is pulling together on the same side of the rope,” Anderson said. “Right now, everyone is fighting for their own cause.

“It’s ironic we have two logos at one school.”

But the representation of two logos is a key reason both Stephenson and volleyball coach Mike Hebert came to Minnesota, and why both have been successful.

Both coaches came from several different schools where little priority was given to women’s athletics. Programs had to barter for money, travel expenses, practice time and space. Equal treatment of any kind didn’t exist.

“This is a coaching heaven,” Hebert said. “We don’t have to wait in line to use facilities, or get up at 6 a.m. to lift weights.”


Agreeing to disagree

body text = With the possible exception of administration, a common thread inside parts of the Bierman Athletic Building is one of suspicion and uncertainty regarding the future of the two departments.

Voelz, Hebert and Stephenson want to keep their status within the status quo – one of opportunity, respect and the chance for student-athletes to achieve.

“For philosophical reasons it’s just a silly idea, but for timing reasons, can it get worse?” Voelz said. “You’re coming off scandals and all sorts of things. If you have one business that’s doing well and one not doing as well, you don’t put them together.”

Many others, including Robinson, Anderson and men’s gymnastics coach John Roethlisberger, cry foul over a system slothing away money and practicality.

“The president makes these kinds of decisions, and it doesn’t really matter what the rest of us think,” Roethlisberger said. “You’ll always get political answers to try and please as many people as possible.”

Said Moe, “Anyone can have an opinion, but the fact of the matter is there hasn’t been a systematic evaluation of doing business like that here. Until a thorough study has been made, you can’t draw accurate conclusions.”


Mark Heller welcomes comments at [email protected]