Spot News: Second Place

2008 Minnesota Associated Press Sports Association Sportswriting Contest

 


 

By Eric Stromgren
Pioneer Sports Writer

Craig Hougen will begin his 20th season coaching the Bemidji State men’s track and field team when organized indoor practices begin next Monday.

It could also be his last as the program is scheduled to be cut at the end of the 2008-09 outdoor season under a proposed BSU Department of Athletics reorganization plan announced Wednesday.

“I was very surprised and very disappointed when I found out,” said Hougen, who graduated from Bemidji State in 1979. “I’ve put 20 years into this program and to have it cut — that is very hard to take.”

The primary cause for the proposal is an administrative response to a February 2007 directive from BSU President John Quistgaard to reduce Bemidji State’s direct financial contribution to the Athletic Department by $750,000 over a three-year period. The other cause, Haugen believes, is Title IX considerations.

The women’s track and field program and the women’s cross country program are not affected by the proposal.

The overall financial directive was part of a $5 million university-wide budgetary restructuring initiative.

As part of efforts to come up with the $750,000, there were increases to the student athletic fee, increases in men’s hockey ticket prices which included charges for student tickets and a requirement that all student-athletes be self-insured to compete.

“The proposal to eliminate the program was a last resort,” BSU Athletic Director Rick Goeb said. “We will try to pursue all other avenues out there and do everything possible, but we have a directive to eliminate $750,000.”

The proposal was put forward by Goeb, Quistgaard and Bill Maki, vice president of finance and administration.

“I am very disappointed about this but sometimes you have to look at the overall picture of the entire program,” Goeb said. “We are expected to make prudent and financially responsible choices and that is what we are doing.”

The proposal will receive input from the Inter-Faculty Organization and a final decision will likely be made before the end of fall semester on Dec. 17.

Hougen, who also coaches women’s track and field, cross country and serves as an associate professor, is concerned about the effect on the students should the men’s track and field program be eliminated.

“We’ve had success and I think the university should be about having all kinds of activities to participate in,” Hougen said. “It is part of college life.”

Team reaction

Some members of the BSU men’s track and field team were taking part in unofficial practices Wednesday at Gillett Recreation-Fitness Center.

Some became aware of the news by reading the Bemidji State Athletics Web page, where the press release detailing the proposal was released Wednesday afternoon.

“We have some very upset kids here,” Hougen said. “We have big men here in tears because some are going to have to leave Bemidji.”

Hougen estimated that about half of the 50-member team were aware of the proposal as of Wednesday night.

One of the team members is junior decathlete and heptathlete Zac Preble.

Preble was named to the Division II All-Academic Track and Field Team last season, is the two-time defending Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference decathlon champion and qualified for the Division II national tournament last season.

“I’m really at a loss for words, it was pretty stunning to show up to practice today and hear this news,” Preble said.

Hougen said that the proposal will mean hard decisions for some of the team members who want to continue competing through graduation. If the program is cut, some will likely transfer to other schools.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do yet,” Preble said. “If men’s track and field is not going to be here, I’m going to have to go somewhere else and compete.”

Preble is a graduate of Greenway High School in Coleraine and planned to attend a technical school to pursue a degree in construction, but chose Bemidji State for the opportunity to compete on the football and track teams.

He has developed into a decathlete that Hougen believes has the talent to compete at the Olympic Trials.

Hougen’s outlook is not far fetched as BSU’s men’s track and field program has a record of success. Joe Remitz, last year’s NCAA Division II shot put champion, was invited to compete in the shot put at the Olympic Trials last summer.

“I really don’t know what word to use here other than hurt,” Preble said. “We have a lot of guys out here who go through sweat and pain every day. We put in a lot of time and energy. I’m not elevating the men’s track and field team above everyone else here, it’s just any time that you have to lose a team is terrible.”

Local outlook

If the proposal goes through, Hougen said the effects will go beyond Bemidji State.

BSU men’s track and field draws high school players from small towns from around the region to Bemidji State and Hougen said that the loss of the program would “hurt local track and field immensely.”

The men’s track and field team sponsors several high school track meets throughout the year including the Little Amik I, Little Amik 2, the Lions’ Club meet and the Beaver Relays.

The events draw schools from as far as Fargo, Grand Forks, International Falls, St. Cloud and the Twin Cities metro area.

Without the volunteer efforts of the men’s track and field team to help administrate, Hougen said it will be difficult for those events to continue without funding from the high schools.

“We would come out there and help with the high school meets and we did it without getting paid. We came out not because we had to and I enjoyed it,” Preble said.

Bemidji State hosts the NSIC Indoor Championships each February and Hougen said not having that event will affect local businesses.

“If we didn’t have that conference meet — we have 14 schools coming in for two days with busloads of around 500 people. That’s a lot of hotel rooms and a big economic impact,” Hougen said.

Should the proposal move forward, Bemidji State would be the lone team in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference without a men’s track and field team.

Hougen said NSIC Commissioner Butch Raymond is aware of the proposal and the two spoke over the phone Wednesday.

“We will probably have some women leave our women’s track and field team because of this,” Hougen said. “(The proposal) has already affected our team negatively. This is a very negative day.”

Goeb said he was concerned about the possibility of women leaving the program.

“It concerns me, but at the same time I have to look down the road to see what the ramifications are going to be,” Goeb said. “I have to not only look at next year but also five years down the road. I have to look at the entire athletic program.”

Goeb said he hopes to “absolutely” increase the offerings for the women’s track and field program and other sports programs at BSU.

The NSIC expanded from 10 teams to 14 teams this season and Goeb has a priority to keep Bemidji State competitive in one of the largest Division II conferences in America.

“Certainly with the expansion of the conference it has become much more competitive,” Goeb said. “The little bit we get from the men’s track and field program we can use to help other programs like increase scholarships and get new equipment. That sounds like a small thing but those increments can make a big difference and we’re hoping that the women’s numbers will increase.”

Hougen said he has a hard time understanding the financial aspects of the decision.

“If we were to have 10 students leave, that’s $130,000 a year in tuition and I don’t think we would be saving that much money,” Hougen said. “If we lose over $100,000 by cutting the program, that’s not good. I’m not an accountant, but I’d like to see somebody prove me wrong.”

Hougen said he does not plan to sit by and wait for the proposal to become finalized.

“I’m going to fight for this program,” he said. “I’m an athlete, I’ve been fighting my whole life and I’ll be fighting for the next two months. I’m hoping we can get support from alumni and I hope the people in town can see the benefits of having a men’s track and field team. This program has done a lot for the community since 1929.”

 

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