Adds quote from Coach Dufner, information on players reopening their recruitment/entering transfer portal, and School District Superintendent Olson's comment on Pirates' future at Ed Widseth Field.
The University of Minnesota Crookston announced Tuesday that it is ending its long-struggling Golden Eagles football program. The 2019 season, in which the Golden Eagles failed to notch a win, will be the last for the NCAA Division II program that competes in the powerhouse Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference (NSIC).
The contracts of seven coaches on the UMN Crookston staff are not being renewed, UMN Crookston Chancellor Mary Holz-Clause said in an interview in the Kiehle Building. Depending on their length of employment on campus, Holz-Clause said the non-renewals will take effect anywhere from February to April 2020 for the most part. As for head football coach Mark Dufner, the chancellor said he also coaches math and he will continue in that capacity, along with the assumption of some advising duties.
“A sad day for Golden Eagle Football,” Dufner stated on Twitter after the announcement. “Fortunately I have had the privilege of working with some outstanding coaches and players along the way. Thank you for all that you have done.”
Before meeting with the media, Holz-Clause, Athletics Director Stephanie Helgeson and Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs John Hoffman met with the coaches and football players on campus.
“It’s difficult for all of them; it’s a tough day, a tough day for everyone. It’s not an easy decision to make. You’re affecting people’s lives,” Helgeson said. “Our coaches were the consummate professionals. You can tell they have given so much to their football players.”
“The young men were heartbroken, but at the same time they were a team, they are a team, so they were also professional,” Hoffman added. “Going in, you could anticipate a full range of responses, but they responded, I felt, with character. I am confident moving forward that they will continue to be a team, supporting one another. I was impressed with them in a very difficult situation. I think it’s a reflection on them, as well as the coaches and staff.”
Holz-Clause said the timing of the announcement to the players was meant to coincide with them going home for the holiday break and being able to discuss their higher education future with their families.
The University will honor scholarships for any student-athlete who wishes to continue academically at UMN Crookston as long as they are academically eligible, the campus stated in a release that coincided with Tuesday’s announcement. Staff on campus will assist them in any way they need, Hoffman said.
Helgeson said there are 69 student-athletes currently on the football roster. Out of 36 available scholarships, scholarship dollars were awarded to 24 student-athletes on the team this year, she added.
Many Golden Eagle football players, after Tuesday’s announcement, took to social media, mostly Twitter, to express their sadness and thank UMN Crookston for giving them the opportunity to play Division II football. But, mostly, they were reaching out to announce that they were entering the transfer protocol and/or re-opening their recruitment. Many of their tweets also included their standout football statistics at UMN Crookston, in addition to their height and weight. A couple included links to videos highlighting their play.
Holz-Clause said that a specific cost savings has not been identified or projected as a result of ending the football program. But she and Helgeson noted that funds made available by Tuesday’s decision will be invested in other athletic programs. “What we’re doing is reinvestment, with more scholarships for some other sports, and staffing,” Holz-Clause noted.
If a lot of the football players leave the Crookston campus as a result of Tuesday’s decision, it’s going to result in a significant hit to on-campus enrollment. UMN Crookston’s student-athlete to student body ratio is already high compared to most schools.
Asked about enrollment concerns going forward, the chancellor noted that UMN Crookston this past fall added men’s and women’s cross-country, as well as a trap-shooting team, although the latter is not an NSIC-level sport. The Crookston campus also continues to advertise for a head coach to launch a Golden Eagles “club” hockey program.
With the football program gone, UMN Crookston will field 12 NCAA Division II athletic programs.
"The goal of the NSIC is to provide a smooth transition as both SCSU and UMC remain vital members of our conference," the league said in a release.
Helgeson said that while the decision is painful, it will improve the overall health of Golden Eagle Athletics in the long run.
Asked if moving the football program and UMN Crookston Athletics to Division III/NAIA was ever seriously discussed or was ever a realistic option, Holz-Clause said that several UMN Crookston chancellors before her and including her have talked about that possibility. “But based on the competitiveness in our other sports, we felt that Division II is very important to the character of this university,” she added.
A big step up
UMN Crookston football competed as the Trojans when the Crookston campus was a two-year institution. In 1992-93 the campus made major leaps and big changes, becoming the first campus in the country to provide a laptop computer to each student and also moving up to NCAA Division II athletics. The Trojans nickname and mascot also gave way to the Golden Eagles. But while various Golden Eagles athletic programs in Crookston have ebbed and flowed and enjoyed stretches of success, its most visible program, the football team, struggled pretty much every season, sometimes going winless. Not only were the football facilities at Ed Widseth Field not on par with other NSIC football programs – multiple “home” games had to be moved to Grand Forks this past season because of poor field conditions at Ed Widseth Field – the Crookston campus simply could not offer near the football scholarship money that other NSIC powerhouse programs could.
Holz-Clause said that a no-nonsense analysis of the Golden Eagles football program indicated that not only was growth and improvement not financially or athletically feasible, simply trying to maintain the current program seemed too steep of a hill to climb as well.
The Crookston Pirate football team for years has shared Ed Widseth Field at UMN Crookston with the Golden Eagles. A ballot initiative put forth by the school district in 2017 that, in part, sought to build a football facility on Crookston High School property was soundly defeated by district voters. Asked about the future of Ed Widseth Field, Holz-Clause said that she has spoken with Crookston School District Superintendent Jeremy Olson and said he is aware of UMN Crookston’s decision to end its football program.
“We will continue to maintain the field for (the Pirates’) use as long as they have an interest,” the chancellor said.
Olson, reached by the Times Wednesday, said he doesn’t anticipate UMN Crookston’s Tuesday announcement to spur an immediate discussion by him and the Crookston School Board. But, he added, a discussion on district facilities in general is already in the works, and he anticipates that the Pirates’ football facilities will be part of that discussion.
NSIC bylaw change
Asked if the decision to end the football program in Crookston was mandated by U of M system administration in the Twin Cities, Holz-Clause said that no, the decision was not mandated by the Twin Cities.
(New U of M President Joan Gabel, asked during a visit to the Crookston campus in November if she was concerned about the viability of the football program here, simply said, in part, that all athletic programs on every U of M campus are constantly being looked at and evaluated.)
Holz-Clause said a larger discussion began 18 months to two years ago, when the NSIC launched a strategic planning initiative that encompassed every athletic team at every NSIC member school. Holz-Clause said she and Helgeson were involved in the process, along with Assistant Athletic Director Kamille Meyer. While the other Golden Eagles athletic teams were deemed to be on solid footing, it was the glaring lack of scholarship opportunities for Crookston student-athletes on the football team that stood out most. Winning games became almost an impossibility, with the general hope being that losses would be “competitive” in nature, or that games would still be reasonably competitive at halftime. Too often, though, with some of the strongest Division II football programs in the country competing in the NSIC, many of the Golden Eagle losses were of the lopsided variety.
The Golden Eagles’ won/loss record over the past six seasons is 2-64. The team was 0-11 in 2019; UMN Crookston hasn’t put together a two-win season since 2013.
A recent change in NSIC bylaws that no longer requires member schools to field a football program allowed UMN Crookston to make its decision to end the football program, Holz-Clause said.
Also because of the bylaw change, at around the same time UMN Crookston was making its announcement, St. Cloud State University announced it was eliminating its Huskies football program as well, along with men’s and women’s golf. The decision was made there because of a combination of reasons having to due with a projected 2020 $5.1 million budget shortfall on the St. Cloud campus and a recent court ruling in response to a lawsuit filed in 2016 that the campus had violated Title IX since at least 2014.
In addition to the cuts there, in order to comply with Title IX, St. Cloud State will also be adding a men’s soccer program.
(Title IX, a 1972 U.S. law, that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in educational programs funded with federal dollars.)