By Jeff Shelman
For Brad James, several weeks of turmoil and uncertainty can be boiled down to a simple e-mail he received less than 24 hours after the death watch officially had begun for the University of Minnesota golf teams. With athletics at Minnesota projected to be $20 million in the red in five years, university president Mark Yudof recommended last month that men’s and women’s golf, along with men’s gymnastics, be eliminated in an effort to get spending in line.
For James, the Gophers’ interim men’s golf coach, the Internet message was a metaphor.
“Coach, you’re leading the Masters by one stroke and you’ve just hit your drive on No. 18, the 72nd hole of the tournament, down the fairway,” read the e-mail from an incoming recruit. “When you get to your ball, you find that it’s in a divot. What do you do?”
Entering next week’s NCAA Division I Men’s Championship, there is little question the Gophers have choked down on the club, played the ball back in their stance and knocked it onto the green.
“I was going to leave,” said Minnesota junior Simon Nash, an Australian who tied for 13th at last year’s NCAA Championship. “I was going to leave up until the Big Tens. I thought that was in my best interest. But I saw that if we stick together and each work toward a common goal, we can do amazing things. It was the best team experience I’ve ever been involved with.”
Trailing by six strokes entering the final round of the Big Ten Championship in Iowa City, Iowa, the Gophers played the front nine 11 under. The quick start led to a final-round 285 and the school’s first conference title in 30 years. Minnesota then placed fourth at the NCAA West Regional – just three shots out of first – and advanced to the national championship tournament for the fifth consecutive year. And as the Gophers kept playing, the chances for their survival increased.
The proposal to drop the three sports was met with an onslaught of public criticism. Yudof backed off and gave the three teams a one-year reprieve to reach fund-raising goals that will ensure their survival. With a number of Twin Cities heavy hitters leading the fund- raising effort, more than $1.34 million has been raised, almost halfway to the $2.7 million Yudof said had to be pledged by February for the teams to survive through at least 2005.
“I think this is a good omen for the future,” said Yudof, who received a check for $900,000 on May 16 from Save Gopher Sports, a committee of more than 60 business and community leaders.
Still, the last two months have been drama-filled for the athletes and coaches. While Yudof said he is happy with the fund-raising process and it appears there is momentum, there is still money that has to be raised. In addition, the golf coaches’ jobs aren’t secure. The yet-to-be-hired athletic director will determine whether James sheds his interim title and women’s coach Melissa Arthur-Ringler doesn’t know if her contract will be extended when it expires June 30.
And many aren’t pleased with the way Yudof has handled the whole episode.
“Most people in Minnesota think it’s unconscionable to drop the golf programs,” said PGA Tour member Tom Lehman, a Minnesota alumnus who first heard about the plans to cut the programs after coming off the 18th green in the first round of the Masters. “If the president had come to the business community first, we all would have stepped forward. To do it the way they did it, it was damaging.”
Regardless, the community has pulled together to help save the sport.
“I don’t think there’s any question that we’re going to get this done,” said Minnesota Golf Association president Cal Simmons. “We have got a lot of people that are very committed and we have the right people that are effective. I didn’t realize how deep the love is for the University of Minnesota through and through until I attended these meetings.”
In addition to the plea for donations, a number of golf events will be held throughout the summer in Minnesota, including an August pro-am at the TPC of the Twin Cities featuring players who miss the cut at the 2002 PGA Championship at Hazeltine National.
“I’ve pledged that whatever help they need, I’ll do,” said Lehman. “Some of that will be cash, some time.”
The Gophers have a rich and successful tradition in golf. Lehman is the most visible graduate of the Minnesota program, but he’s not alone. Former U.S. Amateur champion and Walker Cup player John Harris was a Minnesota All-American. Other former Gophers include Senior PGA Tour player Bill Brask; James McLean, a Buy.com Tour player who won the 1998 NCAA individual title; and Aaron Barber, who led the Canadian Tour’s Order of Merit in 2001.
On the women’s side, LPGA founder Patty Berg is a member of the University of Minnesota Hall of Fame. (The women’s athletic scholarship fund at the school is called the Berg Fund.) Karen Weiss, 56th on the LPGA money list in 2001, also is a former Minnesota player.
The school has the only Division I program in a golf-crazy state that is among the nation’s leaders in avid golfers per capita. Junior programs have exploded and the state ranks third in the number of high school girls teams and players, and ninth in the number of boys teams and players.
“Golf is such a great and popular sport in Minnesota,” James said. “Why bring in a sport like (recently added women’s crew) and then eliminate golf? Who rows in Minnesota? If you give up on golf in Minnesota, you might as well give up on ice fishing.”
The decision to target men’s gymnastics – a sport that has seen numbers fall off in the last decade – seems understandable, but cutting golf is more difficult to comprehend. Neither Yudof nor Tonya Moten Brown, the university vice president who oversees athletics, will talk in specifics about the thinking behind the decision, but there are several theories.
One centers around the recent spending on facilities. Nearly every other nonrevenue sport at Minnesota has a facility that is less than 15 years old or, in the case of men’s and women’s tennis, under construction. The university has a golf course and has improved its practice facilities in recent years, but the men’s team rarely plays the school’s layout. It measures only 6,108 yards and it isn’t maintained as well as many public facilities in the area.
The fact that other sports’ facilities are still being paid for – a $20 million women’s hockey arena also is under construction – is a large part of the university’s financial problem. Minnesota is spending more than $3 million per year on debt service. To many of the golfers and gymnasts, the new hockey arena has become the symbol of why they have been targeted. The school, they point out, already has a 10,000-seat hockey arena where the NCAA champion men’s team skates. It is little more than a decade old, and only a block from the new building.
“It’s very disappointing,” golfer Wilhelm Schauman said last month. “They’re going to have two hockey arenas, but not a golf team.”
Yudof’s critics argue that the savings realized by eliminating the golf programs would not be significant. The men’s program was budgeted to spend approximately $260,000 this season, including travel, scholarships and James’ salary. (The school did not have a salary figure for James’ position as interim head coach, although he did receive a raise from his assistant’s salary of $27,403. Means’ salary before he resigned was $58,067.) The women’s budget was approximately $225,000, including Arthur-Ringler’s salary of $48,600.
Arthur-Ringler recently completed her third season, while James was elevated from assistant coach to interim men’s coach last fall when longtime coach John Means resigned under pressure after the administration questioned how several airline tickets were paid for. Because of their short tenures, neither James nor Arthur-Ringler is eligible for a significant severance package.
But the elimination of the teams hasn’t gone the way the Minnesota administration expected. When the recommendation was made, it appeared as if the players would quickly scatter. On the afternoon of the announcement, the Minnesota men’s players stopped in the compliance office to pick up paperwork allowing them to talk to other schools before leaving for a tournament in North Carolina.
With the Gophers in the top 25 of the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, plenty of coaches were interested in landing these “free agents.” Nash had offers from Georgia and Augusta State; Oklahoma State and Georgia were interested in Schauman; Michigan State called in hopes of landing sophomore Justin Smith; and Purdue expressed interest in sophomore David Morgan and junior Matt Anderson.
But when Minnesota won the Big Ten title, it was more than just an opportunity for golf supporters to question the administration’s decision. It also ensured the Gophers would stay together.
While one or two younger players may leave, the regulars on the men’s team are all expected to return.
“If these guys don’t stay, why should the community support the fund-raising?” said James, who acknowledges that not being able to answer all the questions his players are asking is frustrating. “They’re not only doing it for themselves, but they’re doing it for 20 years down the line.”
Means has been involved in the fund-raising process along with former players Harvey Mackay, Phil Ebner and Harris. Means followed much of the final round of the Big Ten tournament over the Internet and was extremely emotional afterward.
“When it was over, I left my computer, went in the other room and cried for an hour,” said Means, who is working for Simply Common Sense, a group trying to help save men’s nonrevenue sports at Minnesota. “I don’t know how anything could be much worse (than the golf teams being cut), it’s been the love of my life. I’ve been involved in golf in this state since I was 7 years old, and I’ve been a Gophers fan since I was 7 years old. I’m bound and determined not to let this happen.”
While it appears the men’s team will stay together, the same can’t be said about the women’s squad. From the moment the news broke that the team’s status was in jeopardy, little has gone as hoped for Arthur-Ringler’s squad.
That morning, the women’s team was at the Indiana Invitational. A good showing there, combined with good play at Ohio State two weeks later and then at the Big Ten tournament, and the Gophers likely would advance to the NCAA regionals for the second consecutive time.
Arthur-Ringler wanted to keep the stunning news from her players during the tournament, but cell phones and the Internet made that impossible. Preoccupied with the program’s uncertain future, the Gophers women collapsed down the stretch. After averaging 312.15 strokes per round before the news, the Gophers averaged 322.89 strokes per round over their final three tournaments.
Arthur-Ringler said the news shouldn’t have affected her team’s play, but it clearly did. After a last-place finish at the conference championships, the Gophers went from a team likely to reach the NCAA regionals to one that wasn’t invited.
“It caught me way off guard,” Arthur-Ringler said of the news. “I didn’t have any indication. You never think it’s going to be your sport. I know it affected the way they played. We played horribly.”
Next year’s women’s team may not have a returning scholarship player, leaving a program that seemed to be on the rise in sudden shambles.
Oregon native Tai Kinney, who set a school record for lowest stroke average by a freshman (78.2), is likely transferring to San Jose State; junior Karyn Stordahl, a native Minnesotan, is being courted by Michigan, Michigan State, Northwestern, Purdue and Washington; sophomore Karen Quintelier likely will leave for Kansas State; and junior Kirstin Whalen is looking at Arkansas State, Kentucky and Sam Houston State. Terra Petsinger, a walk-on who played her way into the lineup, also has considered transferring.
After signing with the Gophers last fall, Amy Schmucker, the top high school player in Minnesota, received her release and has committed to Michigan. Courtney Mahon, another recruit, has her release and is looking elsewhere.
“It’s hard to be part of a team that doesn’t know if it has a future,” Stordahl said.
“They (the younger players) don’t want to take a chance of waiting and hoping and playing another year and then being in this situation a year from now.”
They’re not alone. Arthur-Ringler has been looking for another job, too. She was a finalist for the head coaching job at Arkansas, which instead hired UNLV coach Kelly Hester, and also has talked with Indiana about an assistant’s position.
Meanwhile, Arthur-Ringler said she’ll go about her coaching business as usual.
“I think what I need to do is move forward as if Minnesota is where I’m going to stay, and to do the things that will keep the program in competitive shape,” she said.
University officials have said the school will field a team next year even if it is made up entirely of walk-ons.
Though the Gophers golf programs aren’t completely safe – something that likely will impact recruiting over the next few years – their future isn’t nearly as bleak as it was a month ago.
“I’ve really been surprised and I’ve really been impressed with the support we’ve received,” junior Matt Anderson said. “I didn’t know how many people were behind us. But there are so many people who love golf here. It’s been very nice to see.”
James just hopes the support from the community will convince the administration that – despite the Minnesota winters – golf is important.
“I don’t think (Moten Brown) knows how good of a golf program we have,” James said. “I don’t think she knew we’ve been ranked in the top 25 or that we’ve been to nationals the last four years and how difficult it has been to be nationally ranked.
“Hopefully we’ve made a big-enough statement.”
Jeff Shelman is a sports writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Editor’s note: Minnesota women’s coach Melissa Arthur-Ringler is the wife of Golfweek scoreboard editor Lance Ringler.