By Scott Stewart
UNO Athletics is considering its options to deal with recent budget cuts, staff reductions and concerns of many loyal Maverick fans.
“Everyone’s got athletics on their mind right now,” said Chancellor Nancy Belck. “[The situation] is more complicated than it looks.”
Five staff members, including former Associate Director of Athletics Debra Denbeck, lost their jobs last month when the university announced a $440,000 reduction in the athletic program’s 2005-06 budget. The cuts were part of a comprehensive plan developed by the university to balance a budget that has reported million-dollar deficits the last few years.
“We depleted the athletic reserves initially. Then we put in $1 million of UNO reserves in 2004-05. And then for the current year, we’re looking at-a $1 million shortfall again,” said Associate Vice Chancellor for Administration Julie Totten. “At least now, everything else is fairly healthy, [so] we’re able to bail out athletics. But obviously we can’t do that forever, so it was time to face the decision of getting the budget back in balance.”
Announcement of the cuts were followed the next day by the unrelated report that the University of North Dakota, a charter member of the North Central Conference, had decided to move to Division I. The University of South Dakota also announced it was exploring a similar reclassification, and Augustana College made a similar announcement on July 5.
“After UND made their announcement, then shortly following it USD did, and then that just made it look very bleak for the conference,” Belck said. “That is when we kind of had the outpouring from our stakeholders-on one hand, we’re cutting the budget; other hand, the conference is unraveling.”
Belck has been a vocal supporter of the North Central Conference, but despite initial indications to the contrary, she said the university will be looking into moving to Division I. The university has come under intense criticism from community members and booster organizations like the Maverick Beef Club to consider a Division I reclassification.
“You can’t look at budget and separate that from conference,” Belck said. “As you have these instabilities continue to occur with the conference, and as some of our biggest competitors leave, like the Dakotas, that affects your competitive play and that begins to affect the gate receipts.”
As they continue to explore alternatives, university administrators have been consistent in citing student-athletes as their primary focus.
“We have a lot of things to address in athletics, and we will,” said Athletic Director David Herbster. “I don’t want to put the burden of these things on the students.”
Herbster went on to say that he wants to move to a more integrated fundraising model like that of Creighton University’s Jaybackers, which sponsors all of Creighton’s athletic programs-not just individual sports.
“You can’t do it without volunteers,” Herbster said. “We’re a lot stronger together.”
Both Herbster and Belck encouraged students to continue to support the program through their enthusiasm while attending games.
“I’d like students to be reassured that this university does focus on students, our first strategic goal,” Belck said. “That’s the reason the cuts were made where they were made, so that we didn’t have to cut sports that would greatly affect students-that is like cutting majors and programs on the academic side.”
Belck also said that she does not anticipate any additional cuts and believes in the plan established to balance the athletic budget.
“In our continued optimism, we’re hoping to generate an additional $200,000 of revenue,” Totten said. “At the time we put together the plan, that was challenging. In the current climate, that’s even more challenging, but that’s certainly why we want to get everyone back on board and come to our athletic events, and support us with their attendance and their fundraising.”
Herbster believes that athletics needs to continue to reach out to the community and booster groups, and work on the sources of funding it can control, such as increased gate revenue.
“This is not a broken ship,” Herbster said.