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College sports not immune from budget cuts

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Husky football
St. Cloud State defensive back returns an interception for the Huskies during a game last season. SCSU leaders are considering eliminating the football program to help meet a $10 million budget deficit.
Photo courtesy of St. Cloud State University

St. Cloud State University is considering getting rid of something thought to be untouchable on a college campus -- the football program. 

SCSU, like all other public colleges in Minnesota, is planning for budget cuts in the next legislative session as the state deals with a projected $6 billion deficit. Everything, from the classroom to the athletic field, is getting a look as officials figure out how to close the gap.

Just the mention of cutting football at St. Cloud State University may sound like blasphemy to sports fans, alumni and students. 

Cool autumn Saturdays seem tailor-made for sitting in the stands and cheering on the Husky football team.  But it's one tradition SCSU President Earl Potter says the school may no longer be able to afford. 

"I cannot lay off tenured faculty and leave sports untouched," he said. 

Potter has proposed cuts that would eliminate dozens of academic programs and nearly 80 faculty positions on campus, and football may have to take at hit as well.

At St Cloud State, hockey is king, at least when it comes to making money. 

"The hierarchy of sports on this campus in terms of revenue generation -- hockey is at the top and football is a subsidized program," said Potter. 

So as the college looks at cutting $500,000 from next year's athletics budget, the football program is the first target. 

"I cannot lay off tenured faculty and leave sports untouched."

"We don't have many options. If you cut football and one or two other smaller sports, we can do what we need to do," said Potter. "If football is not a part of the picture, then we have to cut as many as eight other sports."

Next month Potter will go to the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference and ask if the school can still be a member if it eliminates its  football program. That's one of the sports the conference requires of its members. 

Potter says he'll make the final decision on whether to cut football in October, after the campus community weighs in. 

Athletics budgets at other state universities are being scrutinized as well. Officials at Minnesota State University Mankato have proposed cuts that would end several sports programs, to help cover a campuswide deficit projected at $10 million.

"When you're facing these kinds of unprecedented challenges, program reductions were probably inevitable," said Kevin Buisman, athletics director at Mankato State. 

The athletics department is being asked to cut $260,000. To help reach that target, Buisman is proposing cutting the men's and women's tennis teams, the men's swim team and the women's bowling team. Those moves would save nearly $200,000 -- and would still leave another $60,000 to be cut.   

Officials at the MnSCU campuses in Moorhead and Winona say so far, they have no plans to cut their athletics budgets. 

Campuses that have considered cutting sports teams say they were surprised at the level of public outcry. 

A few years ago Bemidji State University publicly discussed getting rid of its hockey team. It was part of a shrinking collegiate conference that's set to disappear next year. 

Bill Maki, Bemidji State's vice president for finance, says the community told college officials they didn't want to lose the hockey team. 

"It becomes more than just a financial decision. It becomes a decision that needs to be thought about for its impact on alumni and how it impacts the community," he said. 

Maki says with community and corporate support, Bemidji secured state bonding money for a new hockey arena that will hold 4,500 fans, a requirement for the team to join the bigger Western Collegiate Hockey Association. He expects the team will bring in healthy revenue when it starts playing at the new rink this October. 

Final decisions on which sports programs will be cut at St. Cloud and Mankato have yet to determined. Officials say they won't know how exactly how the cuts will play out until after the next legislative session.