Slippery Slopes
Ethan Wenberg

Slippery Slopes

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.

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.

A school can be considered such a part of the community fabric that it's area businesses and citizens who come through for their local college sportsmen. Two years ago, the University of Minnesota announced that in order to cut expenses, it was deep-sixing men's and women's golf, as well as men's gymnastics. Minnesota's administration noted that nearly $3 million would have to be raised to keep the sports afloat in the competitive manner to which Golden Gopher fans had become accustomed. Thanks to the work of local businesses and a widely publicized telethon, the money was raised inside of a year.

Other athletic departments have tried to finesse their programs with development officers by pitching programs to sound more academic than athletic. A handful of schools, for example, have convinced wealthy alumni to permanently endow athletic positions -- like an English professorship, only called a "coachship."

Cornell University, in upstate New York, took this a step further. In the mid-'90s, the school challenged ten intercollegiate sports programs to try to become self-sufficient. Some -- equestrian, for instance -- have struggled to raise money. Others, such as baseball, have flourished outside the school's general fund.

Already blessed with an endowed "coachship" and manager's position, Cornell's baseball staff sent out a plea to alumni and athletic supporters to endow ten additional player positions. One former player wrote a generous check to cover the entire team. As a result, a talented young freshman infielder might find himself Cornell's 2005 Mike Branca first baseman, or the Marlin McPhail Endowed second base player.

When it comes to finding private money, Western State has been on a roll. Not long ago, it finished its first major fund-raising campaign a year early. Instead of reaching its $5 million goal in five years, as hoped, the school raked in $10 million in four years.

Heartened by the haul, Western's administrators decided to tackle sports, too. Rather than praying for the day when taxpayers would give them enough money for their teams to compete, they concluded instead that relying on legislators was far too fickle a way to manage an athletic budget. "We need to act more like a private college," explains Waggoner.

One reason the ski program was selected was sheer cost. When measured by cost-per-participant, skiing is the most expensive sport to support -- about $10,000 per athlete per year. But skiing also presented the greatest opportunity as a money magnet. After all, schussing is Western State's signature sport -- what the school is known for -- as well as part of the fabric of central Colorado culture.

"Western State losing skiing would be more profound than if Notre Dame dropped football," pronounces Phil Klingsmith. Klingsmith, a former coach at the school, former gubernatorial candidate, and currently a local attorney (his family holds the sixth season pass ever issued at nearby Crested Butte), is president of the Sweitzer Foundation. Named for two brothers from a prominent ski-racing family who died within a month of each other, the foundation has already pledged $120,000 to sustain Western State's skiers.

Paying for the local college's skiers to break away from the state budget "is a daunting challenge," he says. "But it's a worthy one. This is a story that will be written many times in the coming years. Universities will have to look hard at evaluating their athletic programs."

Waggoner, whose entire department has been restructured so that he can spend more time traveling and fund-raising and less time running the day-to-day sports operations, says the program needs about $200,000 a year to compete -- or a $2- to $4-million pot to fund it in perpetuity. "If [we're] successful, [the ski program] will become the most secure athletic program on campus," he says.

The NCAA never met a rule it didn't like, so saving a sport is not quite as simple as passing the hat at the monthly Rotary Club dinner. Schools must consider Title IX, the law that requires schools to have an equal number of men's and women's sports. When the Valley Soccer Foundation proposed collecting enough scratch to revive the Fresno men's soccer program, fans were told they also had to come up with the money to save a women's sport, too. (They did, choosing women's swimming and diving.)

The two-for-one requirement has stymied potential benefactors in the past. Dave Plati, a spokesman for the University of Colorado's athletic department, says every so often a group of alumni proposes bringing back CU's defunct baseball program. But, he adds, their enthusiasm sputters after they learn they must also scrounge up enough cash to support a competitive women's sport, as well.

There is also a hint of cynicism to some of the athletic departments' efforts to extract money from the private sector. Selecting certain sports for extinction can seem similar to the gamesmanship a city embraces when, confronted with a budget crisis, its leaders threaten to get rid of the zoo or trim the fire department. It's probably not a coincidence that Minnesota's deans selected its collegiate golf teams for the ax -- knowing all along that the state boasts the highest per-capita number of golfers, many of whom might be just outraged enough to write a check. Similarly, Western State's ski team is probably far more likely to receive a financial shot in the arm from alumni than its Division II football team, which has no similar storied history to rely on.

Scaring up enough private coin to support a huge Division I sport may not be realistic. The world of intercollegiate sports is serious, multimillion-dollar business, and the cost of mounting, say, a competitive football or basketball agenda climbs every year. The University of Colorado spends $300,000 annually just to make sure it follows NCAA rules. Another $135,000 goes to teach its young recruits sufficient "life skills" to keep them well-behaved enough to run, block, tackle or pass for the Buffs another year.

Then again, maybe it is possible. If they really want to see something badly enough, people have been known to support all manner of big-ticket athletic events and venues, from professional wrestling to half-billion-dollar football stadiums. As money for higher education becomes tighter, universities may need to take the radical step of narrowing their focus on what actually makes them universities -- and rely on others to pay the bills for the jocks.

Some acts, like Cornell's horse-riding team, probably won't make the cut. But, as Western State is discovering, you never know what's possible until you ask.


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