Slippery Slopes

Western State seeks to save its ski team with a dash for private cash.

Fifty years ago, the athletic director of Gunnison's Western State College, a 950-student school in south-central Colorado, made history when he convinced the National Collegiate Athletic Association to add skiing as an official intercollegiate sport. The idea stuck, and a few months ago, skiers from more than three dozen colleges and universities competed for the NCAA national title.

Despite this pedigree, Western State has never won an NCAA ski title. The closest it ever came was second, in 1966, when the championships were held on the school's home hill at Crested Butte ski area. This year, the school came in sixteenth.

Yet the school -- the smallest public institution competing in NCAA skiing -- has continued to exert a firm influence on the sport. The college with an outdoor spirit has spit out its fair share of individual stars: Mack Miller, a future Olympian, won the men's NCAA cross-country individual title in 1957. Eddie Demers won it two years running, in 1963 and 1964. Dave Gorsuch earned the men's downhill gold in 1963. In 1997, Amy Crawford was the top female fifteen-kilometer cross-country skier in the country. Perhaps more significant than breeding mere winners, the four-year college on 1,500 acres in northwest Gunnison has provided the sport with hundreds of skiing coaches and managers, from high school level to the Olympics.

Ethan Wenberg

Now, as it did fifty years ago, Western State is breaking new ground. If all goes according to plan, next year the college's ski program will be paid for entirely by private money. The administration has given Western State until next May to raise enough cash to underwrite the costs for its NCAA snow riders.

"Sometimes the math just doesn't work," Greg Waggoner, the college's athletic director, says, explaining the ultimatum. "Skiing is very important here. But we have to make some decisions about what we can afford."

The numbers have been bleak. Over the past three years, Waggoner says that state budget cuts have sliced $150,000 from his department. But instead of whining to legislators for more money, the school decided to do something different -- leave taxpayers the hell out of it altogether. In fact, someday, Waggoner says, he'd like all of Western State's jocks to be supported entirely by private money.

To those who worship at the altar of college sports, the plan to separate Western State's athletics from the rest of the school raises uneasy questions about the relationship between colleges and their athletes. According to the NCAA, about forty university sports programs -- all large, visible schools with bigtime sports teams -- manage to support themselves through ticket sales, marketing deals and television revenue.

Such generous economics don't apply to small colleges, though. As a result, many schools -- in particular taxpayer-supported colleges -- have begun to re-evaluate how much they want to pay for the privilege of hosting competitive athletic programs on their campuses.

Last October, Metropolitan State College's board of trustees floated the idea of cutting loose its entire athletic department ("Department of Higher Earning," November 13, 2003). Although the Denver school eventually decided to keep its jocks around, the question will no doubt pop up again as schools struggle to find more money.

"The priorities on campus are academics," says Waggoner. "So we're going to have make some changes in athletics."

Institutions of higher learning, both public and private, are constantly scrambling for money. As cash has become tighter, more and more competitive college sports programs across the country have been placed on the chopping block. Yet schools have discovered that private money can be readily found, and more than a few teams have been saved.

Sometimes it's fans that come to the rescue. In late 2002, California State University at Fresno announced that it was running low on money. Several million dollars needed to be extracted from the school's budget, administrators decreed, and everyone had to feel the pain. The men's soccer, cross-country and indoor track teams, and the women's swim team, would have to go.

Unlike the teams in larger West Coast cities, college sports are the only game in town in Fresno. Taking as its motto "A resurgence of urgency for action," a citizens group calling itself the Valley Soccer Foundation quickly formed. Within months, the private foundation had raised enough money to save the university's athletic programs.

Other schools -- particularly private institutions -- have relied on well-heeled alumni to ride to the rescue. Three years ago, Dartmouth College, an Ivy League school in New Hampshire, determined that its sprawling 34-sport athletic department needed to be trimmed. Instead of spreading a quarter-million-dollars' worth of cuts across the entire department, however, the athletic director decided on an amputation. Taking into account not only the cost of running a sport, but also of maintaining its facilities, administrators deemed that the men's and women's swimming and diving programs would be killed the following year.

The death sentence sparked a fast and furious reaction, this time primarily from graduates with fond, splashy memories of their alma mater. Money began pouring in. Within two months, alumni, parents and former swimmers had ponied up more than $2 million -- enough to support the aquatics teams for the next nine years.

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