Though UNM Regent Tom Clifford last week said the media has been creating a “hysteria” about the current athletics department financial situation, it’s a matter being taken very seriously by those whose futures at the university are now at stake.
“Look, we’re not just talking about losing a sport, we’re talking about actual young men who are being impacted by this who have pledged their future to being here,” University of New Mexico men’s soccer coach Jeremy Fishbein told the Journal on Monday. “That’s what’s impactful here.”
The Board of Regents is expected to vote this morning on a broad athletics department budget proposal being presented by a multidepartment task force that included new President Garnett Stokes and first-year Athletic Director Eddie Nuñez.
The proposal includes, among other measures, the elimination of sports programs, millions in additional institutional support in the coming years and a repayment plan for $4.7 million in accumulated deficits from the athletics department. The department failed to balance its budget in eight of the past 10 fiscal years and is projecting to do so again this fiscal year.
Dozens of current and former players in several UNM varsity sports are expected to be at this morning’s regents meeting – both for the public comment session at 9 a.m. in the Student Union and for an hour before the meeting, gathering outside the SUB.
While none of UNM’s 22 NCAA sanctioned sports would be formally cut today – such a decision won’t come until July at the earliest – Fishbein said Monday he has been told his sport is being “very seriously” considered for elimination, and he says he can’t sit back and let it happen without a fight.
“Wanted all of you to be aware of the seriousness of recent media reports regarding UNM dropping sports,” Fishbein wrote Monday in an email to alumni and local media. “In a meeting this morning (Monday), I was told by our athletic director that men’s soccer is one of the sports being ‘very seriously’ looked at in terms of being discontinued. No sports should be cut at UNM. With proper oversight and support, we can and should be great in everything we do! Give our new athletic director and president time to develop a plan without losing great young people who are future leaders locally, nationally and globally.”
UNM currently sponsors 22 varsity sports, the most in the Mountain West Conference, not counting the Air Force Academy, which has different budgeting criteria than the rest of the league. The league average is about 17 or 18 sports.
The Journal has learned that all head coaches at UNM have spoken with Nuñez, and the gravity of the current financial situation has been made clear to all of them. It is unclear if any have been told they are off the chopping block.
Last week, when asked by the Journal what sports might be considered for elimination or how the proposal arrived at the $1.9 million figure for sports program reductions, the first-year athletic director would only say no cuts have yet been decided on.
UNM tried eliminating the former national champion ski team a year ago but relented after public backlash and a private funding model for what the athletic department says is roughly $300,000 of the more than $600,000 needed to fund the sport annually. The ski team has disputed it costs that much to fund.
Lobo ski coach Fredrik Landstedt said he didn’t know whether his team is once again being considered for elimination.
“This has been very disconcerting for me,” Landstedt said. “(The administration is) taking the easy solution by wanting to cut sports. The budget situation was mismanaged by the previous administration and that administration is still around giving advice. Of course, Eddie (Nuñez) is not from the previous administration, but they are taking the easy solution. There is no consequence for them, but they’re going to cut the opportunities for student-athletes and the livelihood of coaches.”
Landstedt, Fishbein and other UNM coaches said they are now hoping they at least get a little more time to make a case and avoid elimination.
Fishbein says he feels like he’s in an awkward spot.
“I’m very confused about my role here,” Fishbein said, pointing out he is not trying to speak out against his bosses – Nuñez and Stokes, whom he has not yet met – but has to do his job.
“I have kids who passed up going pro to come here and get a degree. I have to protect these kids. That’s what I was hired to do. It’s my job to support these young men and fight for them.”
Journal assistant sports editor Steve Virgen contributed to this report.