Last November, the …

Last November, the Gophers soccer team started an upward swing in the University women’s athletics department by winning the Big Ten title. The department raised more eyebrows in December when it swooped volleyball coach Mike Hebert away from Illinois. His 11 NCAA tournament coaching appearances and $86,300 salary commanded attention.
Then last week news came out that women’s athletics director Chris Voelz has asked the University for nearly $3 million to put toward the construction of a new soccer-softball stadium complex. Some people’s reactions were different this time — they were rolling their eyes rather than raising them.
So Voelz wants more money, eh? Isn’t she ever satisfied? In the past few years the women’s department has received funds to add soccer and ice hockey programs, transform the old Mariucci Arena into the Sports Pavilion, and refurbish the Peik Hall gymnastics facility.
There have also been legal expenses. Dismissed coaches Gabor and Katalin Deli (gymnastics) and Stephanie Schleuder (volleyball) brought about unplanned costs with their respective court cases. Schleuder’s case ended with a $300,000 settlement.
Yet Voelz still wants more money. The controversial A.D. says there are plenty of things she wants for her department before she’ll be satisfied. Is she simply being greedy? No, she just wants to help her department reach its full potential.
It appears the women’s athletics department is finally ready to put its problems in the past and take some big steps forward. The academic and civic accomplishments are already there. Now it looks like several women’s teams are poised to excel on the field as well.
The Hebert hiring and the proposed soccer-softball complex are two symbols of the direction Voelz wants the department to go. Schleuder was a competent and likeable coach, but that wasn’t good enough anymore. Voelz decided not to renew Schleuder’s contract, and there was an ugly court case, but the fiasco resulted in the hiring of a top coach — one who has shown he is capable of turning a Big Ten volleyball team into a national power.
Likewise, the soccer and softball teams’ fields are nice, but hardly premiere. Both fields lack on-site locker rooms for the players and restrooms for the fans. The limited bleachers at soccer games force many fans to stand at ground-level, which prevents them from being able to fully watch the plays develop. The softball stadium may be the most tucked-away athletic site on campus.
Although the actual playing surface is excellent on both fields, neither facility will wow a recruit or a fan. The teams have had to do that themselves. Both programs qualified for the NCAA tournament this year but exited with early losses. Voelz wants her teams to reach a level where annual NCAA appearances are expected rather than hoped for. The stadium complex would help soccer and softball.
“I’ll feel a lot better when we pack the Pavilion and when we have a bunch of Big Ten titles and NCAA participation,” Voelz said. “I will feel a lot better when we can match our academic prowess and progressive leadership ideology for women with some great athletic achievement.”
Regardless of what the teams have or don’t have, it’s important to remember how scarce $3 million can be at the University. There are obviously many areas that need the money more than the women’s athletics department, but don’t rip Voelz just for asking for it. Like any other department head, part of her job is to push for what’s best for her department’s future.
As long as the University places a high importance on athletics, it needs to continue to support women’s athletics. That will mean continued financial help. The bottom-line question that sometimes loses focus is this: Why does the University have intercollegiate athletics? It’s not about generating money. It’s about the experiences athletes and fans are provided with — regardless of gender.
OK, obviously generating money is important. The University needs the income from men’s football, basketball and hockey to keep all of its teams going. But there’s enough of it to go around.
The men’s hockey program is a great example of how well the departments can work together. It agreed to share Mariucci Arena with the new women’s team in 1997. And the men’s team won’t have to give anything up, including its plush locker room, which features a big-screen TV and booming stereo system.
Who knows, if similar cooperation and understanding existed everywhere else, people might stop thinking of Voelz as such an overbearing and demanding person — and her soccer and softball teams might actually be able to play in first-class facilities. They just need some more help to keep the progress going.