Hundreds of people were packed into the Student Union Building at Thursday's University of New Mexico Board of Regents meeting, where the fate of several sports programs hung in the balance.
The meeting lasted nearly four hours as dozens of advocates — head coaches, current and former student-athletes, alumni and other members of the community — made statements to the regents urging them to table the issue or reject the motion to eliminate sports.
But the parade of testimonials from supporters wasn't enough to sway the minds of the board, which voted unanimously to approve the proposal submitted by NM President Garnett Stokes and Athletic Director Eddie Nuñez to eliminate four sports programs and impose roster management mandates on two others.
The recommendation will result in men's and women's skiing, men's soccer and women's beach volleyball coming to an end in 2019 and well as removing the dive component of the swim and dive team and reducing the men's cross country and track and field roster.
Nuñez said the continuation of UNM Athletics was unsustainable as currently constituted and said the difficult decision to call for a reduction in sports had to be made. He said financial considerations, Title IX compliance and Mountain West conference affiliation were among the main criteria when determining which sports to cut.
UNM volleyball head coach Jeff Nelson was among those to deliver a statement to the regents, and he chronicled the implementation of the beach volleyball, saying he was tasked with assembling a team about five years ago in an effort to pursue Title IX compliance.
That idea came to fruition, although the University never built the team a permanent facility in which to hold matches. UNM beach volleyball played its home matches at Lucky 66 Bowl, a local bowling alley with an outdoor sand court.
Nelson called the student-athletes who helped build the beach volleyball team "pioneers" and said they were aggressive in trying to make it a success. He said they sometimes drove 16 hours to compete against other schools and worked hard to become nationally ranked in two of the last four years.
"We asked those kids to ride in those vans, to raise $80,000 a year to keep themselves going," the head coach said. "And four years later, when we're not compliant, those are the kids we are bailing on as a university. I don't find that (to be) the right thing."
Nelson said he questioned whether everything that was being discussed was even legal, as the decision will result in a reduction of women's rights to pursue athletic opportunities instead of the other way around.
Lauren Twitty, one of the members of the volleyball team, said in her speech to the UNM Board of Regents that the reported cost to operate the team had been misrepresented and claimed that the university would only be saving about $18,000 by cutting beach volleyball.
The UNM ski team was the first-ever NCAA national championship program for the University of New Mexico, but it will be dropped for the second time after being cut — and later reinstated — in 2017.
A couple of supporters of the ski program said private donors were asked to help fund the team through the upcoming season with the promise that a plan would be made to sustain the program moving forward. One of them said questions about receiving support "fell on deaf ears" and the 50-year-old program is heading toward an end again.
UNM men's soccer had the largest amount of supporters in the room, as head coach Jeremy Fishbein continued his crusade to save the program he said encompasses the diversity that represents New Mexico and the rest of the world. He mentioned that he met his wife of 21 years through soccer and shared several stories of how the game is transcendent.
Fishbein praised those who spoke on behalf of all the sports programs, pointing out that they were able to do so despite having mere hours to prepare their statements. He said Nuñez had informed the affected programs of the news at about 5 p.m. the previous day.
Approximately 100 youths dawned UNM men's soccer t-shirts and lined the back of the room during the meeting, and were just a small part of the soccer community. Fishbein pointed out the support to the Regents and said "if you had given them 24 hours notice, there would be thousands of them", hammering a point shared by many that the community wasn't given much time to respond to the news.
Julia Warren, a former UNM volleyball player, reminded voters that they were about to eliminate a sport with a 4.0 grade point average. Beach volleyball led the way for all UNM sports, while the other programs were among the top performers as well. Men's soccer earned a 3.10 GPA, women's skiing a 3.65 and men's skiing a 3.29 mark. The swim and dive team posted a 3.44 GPA.
Some speakers called for across the board budget reductions, other pleaded for a delay in voting to make sure all options were exhausted, but the members rendered a 6-0 ruling in support of the proposal (Regent Hosmer was not in attendance). They called for greater oversight and responsibility moving forward, both fiscally and regarding Title IX.
Stokes, Nuñez and the Board of Regents expressed that it was unfortunate the current student-athletes had to pay for the problem they were not responsible for creating, but said the decision was not short-sighted or made hastily. One regent saying he viewed the process as objective.
The move is projected to result in a savings of $1.1M to the UNM Athletics budget and potentially help prevent further reductions in the future.
Nuñez said that all student-athlete's scholarships would be honored, not only for the upcoming academic school year, but through graduation. He also said that his understanding, from discussions with the NCAA, is that players would be allowed to transfer without having to sit out a year as a result of the sport being discontinued.
Robert Maler is the sport’s editor for the Daily Lobo. He primarily covers basketball and football and contributes content for various other sports as well. He can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @Robert_Maler.