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Football supporters angry MTU cutting program

Athletic director says decision will strengthen cash-strapped department

The Daily Mining Gazette
March 19, 2003

HOUGHTON — Parents and alumni blitzed the Michigan Tech University athletics department with criticism throughout the day Tuesday, after learning that MTU will drop its 82-year-old varsity football program.

Athletic Director Rick Yeo said he fielded numerous phone calls from people who were upset about the decision. He said the immediate and angry fallout caught him somewhat by surprise.

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“When you make a decision like that, where you affect so many lives, you just don’t realize all the things that come into play,” Yeo said.

Yeo said all options were on the table when the department looked at ways to meet a directive from President Curt Tompkins to cut 10 percent from its budget for the 2003-04 fiscal year, and 7 percent and 5 percent in succeeding years.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm has proposed cutting state funding of higher education by 10 percent next year as part of an attempt to resolve a $1.7 billion state budget shortfall. The proposal would cost Michigan Tech about $5.6 million out of its $116 million general fund budget. The university also has an $11 million deficit of its own.

“We looked at all possibilities and for the amount of money that we had to cut from the budget, there were really no other options other than to just destroy the total athletic program,” Yeo said.

Yeo said he faced hurdles that limited his options — including a requirement to field a minimum number of teams to be eligible to compete in NCAA Division II and the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.

Yeo declined to provide budget figures for the athletics department. He specifically declined to say how much money will be saved by cutting football, and whether that accounts solely for the 10 percent cut this year or might also account for cuts required the next two years.

Tech administration said such figures would not be available until later today.

MTU President Curt Tompkins is out of town and was unavailable for comment.

According to information provided by Tech to the U.S. Department of Education, the football program in 2001 had expenses of $969,000 and revenues of $911,000. The total athletic budget for 2001-02 was $3.89 million.

Dave Fischer, assistant athletics director for communications and marketing, said Title IX, the federal program that requires equality of athletic opportunity between males and females wasn’t a factor in the department’s decision. Football accounts for more than a third of all student-athletes at Tech, and about half of all male athletes.

Yeo said the department told players and coaches about the decision Tuesday. Repeated attempts to reach coach Bernie Anderson for comment were unsuccessful.

Yeo said the decision was personally painful.

“To tell your best friends that they’re not going to have a program, its definitely going to hurt,” Yeo said.

Yeo said he made the decision late last week, but delayed an announcement until after the NCAA men’s basketball Great Lakes regional tournament concluded Monday.

Many alumni members of Tech’s Football Advisory Council were concerned Tuesday that enough wasn’t done to save the program.

Paul Butkovich, a fullback who graduated in 1967, said no one was given the opportunity to try to raise the funds to save the team.

“Without a whole lot of foresight, at least that’s my opinion, they’ve cut the football program without knowing the long-term implications,” said Butkovich, of Green Bay.

Butkovich said the decision came as a shock.

“Getting the opportunity to play there was absolutely great,” he said. “To see that it’s no longer in existence, it’s difficult to swallow.”

The news also stunned Mike Scally, a former starting quarterback who graduated from Tech in 1973. Currently living in Boulder, Colo., Scally said President Curt Tompkins, visiting the Denver area with the Tech hockey team a few weeks ago, told him that football was safe.

“His statement was that Michigan Tech would continue to have a football team,” Scally said.

Scally said he disapproved of what appears to be an “all or nothing” approach with the team. He said he and other football supporters helped save the program during the 1970s during another budgetary crisis.

“I hate to see zero opportunity given the history of the Michigan Tech football team,” Scally said.

Yeo said he believes a $10 million endowment would be necessary to resurrect football program. He said yearly private donations wouldn’t be sufficient.

“You can’t go year by year trying to raise enough money to operate; that just wouldn’t fly,” Yeo said.

Yeo maintains the move will make the athletics department stronger. He said 22 current football scholarships held by players will be honored until they graduate, after which they would be available for other teams to use.

Yeo said some of the money saved will go toward reinforcing struggling teams, including tennis and Nordic skiing, which were cut and then reinstated last year.

Anderson likely will be offered a job as strength and conditioning coach for the department, Yeo said. Four other full-time assistant coaches have until the end of the year to find other work.

Fischer said the athletics department has struggled in the past few years.

“The programs operate on a shoestring,” he said. “In the end, what we will be left with is a strong athletic program.”

Yeo said some college football teams have contacted the university expressing interest in some players.

“I was worried about that because I didn’t know if it was too late or what, but apparently a lot of schools have openings for good football players,” Yeo said.

Moving to another school and team is a daunting consideration, said Tom Williams, whose son is Tech junior offensive tackle Tom Williams II.

“If he has to go in and learn a new system under a new coach with new teammates with whom he has not bonded with, I don’t think it would be an easy task for any young man to accomplish,” Williams said.

News of Tech’s decision spread quickly across the country. Williams, of downstate Freeland, said he’s talked to several concerned parents of prospective MTU students who are worried about cutbacks at the university. He said the football program offered Tech a higher profile in his community.

“When my son started going up there, Freeland started paying attention to Michigan Tech, consequently there’s five going up there next year,” Williams said.

Undergraduate Student Government President Dan Adler said cutting football takes some of the luster off the university’s national reputation.

“I don’t think that school spirit is going away just because the football team got cut,” he added. “There’s definitely a void there. It really puts a damper on homecoming.”

Scally said football was the principal reason he chose to attend Tech.

“I certainly would have gone to the Air Force Academy had Michigan Tech not provided an athletic scholarship,” he said.

Butkovich said Tech’s reputation will be tarnished.

“Anytime you cut something of that magnitude, certainly people will be looking in and wonder what’s going on there,” he said.

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