UNM’s decision to drop one of the NCAA’s most successful soccer programs, along with a 46-year-old ski program that has delivered one of the university’s few team and many individual national championships, has left local sports fans scratching their heads.
Not that they haven’t heard the reasons: budget shortfalls and Title IX compliance – real issues that require fixing. University President Garnett Stokes and Athletic Director Eddie Nuñez, both first timers in their positions, did their best to explain why sports needed to be dropped. But vociferous supporters of a soccer program that at one time led the nation in attendance and qualified for the NCAA tournament 11 of 16 years aren’t buying it.
What seems a hasty, short-sighted decision has wiped out Coach Jeremy Fishbein’s remarkably successful 17-year program that produced seven conference championships and two trips to the final four of the NCAA tournament.
Dropping soccer at UNM is more than just discontinuing an on-campus student activity. The Lobo soccer program is something born of and woven into the diverse culture of Albuquerque. Soccer here is kind of a big deal. A glance at parks on the weekends reveals vibrant youth programs in full swing. Sunday kickarounds among groups of Spanish-speaking adult players are the norm.
For decades, the city has played host to soccer events at all levels, including several large western regional youth tournaments, as well as regional and national adult events. With that type of local base for the sport, it always made sense that the university’s team mirror that success, and Fishbein’s program has done that in spades. Now it appears New Mexico’s only NCAA Division 1 men’s soccer program will cease to exist after the 2018 season.
On the heels of a World Cup that captured everyone’s imagination – you had to be living under a rock not to see some of it – passionate fans, still remembering the excitement of the game at its highest level, should be forgiven if they jump to conclusions about this perplexing decision.
Forgive the soccer community if they see an athletic director from Louisiana and a president from Missouri taking an axe to a diverse program that in another part of the country might go unnoticed. Not in Albuquerque.
Excuse soccer devotees when they protest the cutting of 29 diverse soccer players, some from outside the country, while the swimming roster increases from 21 to 32 and the indoor track team numbers go from 43 to 65.
Changing leadership roles and dropping college sports isn’t anything new. The UNM situation fits a familiar pattern. New athletic director, hired from a football powerhouse school, comes to town armed with a new agenda. Those of us involved with soccer have many times watched this play out. But that was a different time and era.
This is 2018. Dropping Division 1 soccer programs has become an anomaly. Soccer is a sport added to university athletic programs, not dropped. Only a few schools across the country have dropped men’s soccer over the past 16 years, and none had programs as good as the one at UNM.
Aside from having to deal with the ratio of women athletes to men in complying with federal law, there is more to consider here. Soccer is the progressive sport of the masses and an important part of the cultural fabric of Albuquerque. The decision to drop a successful program that has brought credit to the university and served as a role model for the youth of Albuquerque smacks of a public university out of touch with the culture of the taxpayers it serves.
Fishbein’s program has thrived in Albuquerque’s diverse culture and has been a centerpiece for the sport – so much so that a minor league professional soccer team is headed for Albuquerque next year. What it will find is a fertile ground for support, developed by generations of players in the community and, yes, by the university’s men’s program.
This is just sad in so many ways – for Albuquerque and a soccer community that has embraced the sport for decades. In a day and age where so many cold decisions are based on dollars and cents, it would be refreshing to learn Stokes, Nuñez and the board of regents really do understand the culture of the community they serve and therefore are open to rethinking, recalibrating and finding a better way.
John Polis, of Brighton, Colo., spent six years as the U.S. Soccer Federation’s director of communications, traveling worldwide with U.S. men’s and women’s national teams, and six years as global soccer brand Umbro’s director of public relations. He also worked in a media capacity at five FIFA international soccer championship events.