Lobo players, coaches react to being told their sports are being cut from UNM

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Lobos volleyball coach Jeff Nelson, second from left, talks with members of his beach volleyball team on Wednesday after they were informed their sport was one of four being eliminated from the University of New Mexico. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Jeff Nelson got a call at 3:15 p.m. Wednesday.

He and his Lobos beach volleyball team were summoned to attend a mandatory meeting with University of New Mexico Athletic Director Eddie Nuñez in one hour.

“We were a bit blindsided, to be honest,” said Nelson.

On the eve of the well-publicized Board of Regents special meeting (scheduled for Thursday morning at 9 at the Student Union Building) that was called to vote on a proposal to eliminate sports, Nelson thought he and his teams (he coaches the volleyball and the beach volleyball teams) were surely safe.

After all, the Mountain West Conference requires its members to have a volleyball team, so that was off the table.

And the decision to cut $1.9 million from the athletics budget by way of a “reduction in sports” was decided on in the spring after years of financial struggles that led to an accumulated athletics deficit of $4.7 million, and his beach volleyball team, only in its fourth year in existence, costs “just about $18,000 per year” to operate, he says.

A report released Wednesday by UNM claims the saving to be closer to $62,000.

And when a Title IX assessment was released in May showing UNM is woefully non-compliant in federal gender equity mandates, there was no way the cuts could come on the female side of the ledger, could they?

“It was a little bit emotional in there when they were telling us we were one of the teams they were cutting,” said senior Carly Beddingfield, a Bosque School graduate who plays on both the volleyball and beach volleyball team after attending Long Beach State and transferring back home to Albuquerque.

“He told us he put in his request for what programs to cut and which programs would be most beneficial to the program (UNM athletics) as a whole, and we get what he was saying. We just don’t agree with it. We don’t see how this is cost beneficial.”

UNM on Wednesday informed teams on Wednesday they will be eliminated, pending Thursday’s Board of Regents vote, and two more would see significant changes. Proposed to be eliminated by first-year athletic director Eddie Nuñez and first-year President Garnett Stokes are men’s soccer, women’s beach volleyball and the men’s and women’s ski teams, which one year ago were told they would be cut, only to be told they wouldn’t be cut when private donors stepped up and guaranteed partial funding of the program. Two other programs will see cuts — the diving portion of the women’s swimming and diving team will be “phased out,” according to Nuñez, and the men’s track & field teams (indoor and outdoor) will see it’s participation numbers about cut in half.

Jeremy Fishbein, the head coach of the men’s soccer team that has been in existence since 1983 and appeared in a national title game and is considered a perennial national power, had more warning his team would be given the bad news on Wednesday, both because of a high cost to operate (UNM on Wednesday released data indicating that cost is more than $700,000 annually) and because it has around 30 male participants at a school that has to get its male/female participation numbers to skew far more heavily to the female side.

“It’s a wonderful group of guys that, as a coaching staff, we pledged to look after them,” Fishbein said. “It’s pretty tough. …

“I still strongly say we don’t have to drop sports. We need to support sports. We need to support the people that are going to impact this state. We need to be progressive. I guess that’s my fear — that we really take some steps backwards when we take away these kids from our institution and our state. These are some special kids.”

Fishbein insisted both Nuñez and Stokes, both in their first year on the job, be allowed to try and clean up the past messes that got UNM athletics in its current situation.

“Our athletic director has been here 10 months,” Fishbein said. “He has not been allowed to do what he was hired to do. He was hired to run a department. He was hired to lead coaches, to lead student athletes. And I believe in him — that he’s a good guy. He didn’t come here to cut sports, I’ll tell you that.”

All athletes on teams being cut will have their scholarships honored through graduation, should they decide to remain at UNM and not transfer, Stokes and Nuñez have told the Journal.

And while that’s certainly a plus, it was little consolation Wednesday to players and coaches trying to figure out what they did wrong along the way to face such a fate.

“I mean, beach volleyball right now is the fastest growing (NCAA) sport in this country,” Nelson said. “I think we were blindsided because we’re such a low-dollar sport. We have one scholarship and the coaches don’t make a penny for doing it. Everyone was telling us we wouldn’t be on the (chopping) block because there just wasn’t a lot of savings there and head count wise (it doesn’t help Title IX much). It’s just, we’re still processing it, I guess.”

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