They stumbled. They bumbled. They fumbled.
They hurt the innocent, further damaged an already-shredded brand and, once again, left the University of New Mexico with another public relations Matterhorn to climb. All true. All embarrassing.
But you can’t say the Board of Regents, and by extension, new UNM President Garnett Stokes and athletic director Eddie Nuñez, were wrong to rip the Band-Aid off the Lobos’ bewitched athletic department last week.
Let’s face it: The wound that is UNM’s athletic budget has been festering for years. Maybe decades. It was time to start – and it’s only a start — finding a cure.
The decision to drop men’s and women’s skiing, men’s soccer, women’s beach volleyball and the school’s women’s diving program by the end of the next fiscal year is painful. The athletes and coaches in those sports deserved more humane treatment. But while it’s a particularly bitter pill to let go of men’s soccer, arguably the Lobos’ most consistent winner, the understandable acrimony over who got let go shouldn’t obscure the larger truth that it was time to let go.
Release the almost laughable delusion that New Mexico can afford anything close to 22 sports.
Because, at the end of the day, that’s the problem almost any sixth-grader can see: UNM cannot afford what it wants and really, never could. But it was always willing to patch together fantasy budget after fantasy budget — forever hoping for a big payoff, a playoff win or manna from heaven, none of which never came to fruition.
And now, here the Lobos are: millions in the hole, with almost no prospect of escape unless someone had the guts to bite the bullet — or maybe, take the bullet.
Enter Stokes and Nuñez, both in their first year at UNM.
Stokes and Nuñez deserve no medals for courage; they get handsomely compensated to make such decisions. And they certainly won’t get to share a plaque for smooth crisis management – their neck-snapping, 18-hour, announcement-to-vote timetable left scars that may never fade.
But at the end, they did their jobs – fully understanding a deficit in the millions and potential Title IX issues aren’t tenable.
Which brings us to those regents. They have signed their names to these cuts, clearly unwilling to leave expensive new hires like Stokes and Nuñez twisting in the wind. We’ll acknowledge the regents made a tough call.
But we’ll also note that it was these regents who failed to heed the recommendation of a previous UNM athletic director when he asked to cut skiing. And we also recall previous boards that, after cutting sports, nodded their assent as the Lobos brought once-chopped programs back from the dead. For all their empty talk about fiscal responsibility, this board and most boards are happy to look the other way when mission creep oozes back into the picture.
The elephant in the room is an often-moribund football program. But the bitter reality for UNM is that without football, there’s no easy conference affiliation. And without a nearby and viable conference in which to participate, a lot of other sports become as vulnerable as men’s soccer, which participated in far-off Conference USA, not the soccer-less Mountain West Conference.
And so, there are four gone. If this board and president hope to have any credibility, and if these cuts are to mean anything, they’ll demand Nuñez take another hard look at the administrative side of his department — a place where job titles like “director of operations” and “senior manager” abound.
This time, it was four sports. If the Lobos don’t learn their lessons, it soon could be more.