Idaho Vandals

U of I soccer players fight to save their program days after stunning news

Idaho’s Chelsie Breen goes for the ball against Boise State’s Tylyn Hughes in a 2011 women’s soccer game. The Vandals’ soccer program is in danger of being cut.
Idaho’s Chelsie Breen goes for the ball against Boise State’s Tylyn Hughes in a 2011 women’s soccer game. The Vandals’ soccer program is in danger of being cut. Idaho Statesman

University of Idaho soccer captain Kelly Dopke was in a meeting last Wednesday with President Chuck Staben as the student-athlete advisory committee president when discussion turned to the potential for the school to cut three sports — including soccer.

Staben didn’t realize the athletic department at large wasn’t aware of the budget dilemma that will reach the State Board of Education later this month. Dopke, who just learned her team might be cut, was asked to keep the information quiet. She went straight to practice and worked out with her teammates. She then told coach Derek Pittman to see acting Athletic Director Pete Isakson right away.

“That’s the exact kind of kid she is,” Pittman said. “She promised Pete she wouldn’t tell anything to me so I could hear it from him first.”

Pittman and the coaches of two other threatened sports — Mark Sowa of women’s swimming and diving and David Nuhn of men’s golf — met with Staben on Thursday, where they learned the Vandals’ predicament would become public Friday at a State Board of Education committee meeting in Boise. Pittman told his players later Thursday.

The soccer players’ response, beyond bewilderment, has been to fight. Team members have been writing letters and emails and making phone calls to State Board members, pushing them to consider Idaho’s plan to change the way the financial impact of athletics is determined. That plan would allow Idaho to save all three sports.

“We mobilized our team and we’re attacking this head-on like we do everything,” Pittman said.

The Vandals’ financial situation wasn’t a secret. The school asked the State Board to allow it to pay off about a $1 million athletics deficit last year, and the deficit is expected to be similar this year.

Swimming and diving and men’s golf were likely targets for elimination because they aren’t among the 13 core sports required by the Big Sky Conference. But women’s soccer, Pittman said, was never part of the discussion. The university asked the Big Sky for a waiver from its sports requirements in March and that was denied, Staben said, which left soccer as the only other sport that could be cut. It’s not a core sport because Montana State doesn’t have it.

Pittman knew about the upcoming challenges but “not even for a second” did he worry that soccer would be cut, he said.

“I had heard the exact opposite from (Athletic Director Rob Spear) and our administration all along,” he said, “because of the positive impact our women’s soccer program had on our department and community, that this was never a possibility.”

The first step to saving the three sports requires the State Board to give Idaho a waiver from the board’s policy of eliminating athletics deficits within two years. That should be decided at the April 18-19 meeting in Moscow. Without the waiver, Staben says, he must start cutting expenses immediately. Idaho would have to add back a couple inexpensive sports for gender-equity reasons, with sand volleyball (uses the same athletes and coaches as indoor volleyball) and women’s triathlon the top contenders.

The second step, which likely will take months, involves Staben lobbying the board to consider the financial impact athletes have on universities through tuition, fees, books, room and board when deciding the acceptable level of spending on athletics. That potentially would allow Idaho to add several low-cost, limited-scholarship sports — men’s swimming, women’s triathlon and co-ed rifle are proposed — that would add students to a campus with declining enrollment.

Current board policy includes strict caps on institutional spending on athletics, but losing 65 student-athletes would shift the athletic department’s “million-dollar problem” to the rest of the university in lost student revenue, Vice President for Finance Brian Foisy said.

“Athletics is working with the president to do all we can to protect all Vandal teams,” said Isakson, who is running the department while Spear is on administrative leave. “Participating in intercollegiate athletics is important to student success and important to the university. While the discussion is about finances and policy, the goal is to preserve, and even add to, the opportunities for student-athletes.”

Three of eight State Board members participated in the discussion at Friday’s committee meeting. They seemed open to Idaho’s proposal.

“I’m loathe to cut athletic programs,” Richard Westerberg, the chairman for the Business Affairs and Human Resources committee, said during the meeting. “It’s a tough thing to do. It sends a bad message.”

By the time the full board takes up the issue, the members should know all about the Vandals soccer program that began in 1998, won back-to-back Big Sky championships in 2015-16, placed 11 players on the dean’s list last fall, won three straight community service awards and produced two of the past three SAAC presidents for the athletic department.

Soccer also is an example of the impact Idaho’s new approach would emphasize. The Vandals carry a roster of 30 players with 14 scholarships, which means the team is contributing the equivalent of 16 paying students to the university — all recruited to campus specifically to play soccer, most from out of state. As a result, the soccer program brings as much revenue to the university as it spends, according to the university’s proposal to the State Board.

“We believe we should be supported on our performances ... but not only that, as a successful program, we deserve investment,” Pittman said. “That’s our aim. We will be doing everything we can to make sure that happens for 2018 and the years to come.”

The soccer team has been gathering in the large living room of one of Pittman’s friends to work on its State Board lobbying effort. Supporters, alumni, youth coaches and other college coaches around the country have participated, too, he said. A petition started by former Vandals soccer player Madison Moore has attracted thousands of supporters in defense of the three sports.

Pittman not only needs to soothe the 22 players on campus but he’s spoken to each of his eight incoming recruits, too.

“I have no doubt that fear and anxieties have crossed (the players’) minds,” he said. “The next 10 days, we’re solely focused on whatever we need to do to make sure our women’s soccer program stays where it should be, and that’s challenging for championships.”

The men’s golf team is dealing with the uncertainty while competing. The Vandals have a tournament this week and the conference tournament later this month. They’ve reached out to alumni asking for help sharing with the State Board the story of what the program has meant to its participants.

Men’s golf has seven players this spring with plans for 10 in the fall. The program gets 4.5 scholarships and posted a 3.13 GPA last fall.

“We’ve stayed really positive,” Nuhn said. “I’ve told them we’re going to do everything we can to get behind the president and this really good plan that he has in place. It’s got a lot of merits to it.”

Swimming coach Mark Sowa told reporters in Moscow that he’s optimistic the university’s plan will prevail. If sports are added, Sowa would coach men’s swimming and help with women’s triathlon, Staben said. Women’s swimming and diving had 20 Academic All-WAC honorees this year.

“This isn’t an Idaho problem. It’s systemic,” Sowa said. “But we are fortunate to have a university president who is willing to approach the challenge differently and take a chance on trying something new. ... Our sport has been looking at ways to revitalize men’s swimming for a long time. We have an opportunity to not only stabilize our program, but do something wonderful for the sport and wonderful for the institution. ... If I need to coach 60 kids in order to do that? Heck yeah. Bring it on.”

Chadd Cripe: 208-377-6398, @chaddcripe