At first, he was in disbelief. Then, Joe Plencner was angry.
On Sept. 10 — the day the University of Minnesota announced it was shutting down its men’s track and field program — the former Gophers pole vaulter received solicitations through e-mail and regular mail from the Golden Gopher Fund. The athletics fundraising arm for his alma mater wanted a donation, even though the U was eliminating his sport.
“I e-mailed them and said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ’’ said Plencner, who competed for the Gophers from 2006-10. “It was tone-deaf.’’
Plencner said he will never give another dollar to the U if the Board of Regents approves a resolution to cut men’s track and field, men’s tennis and men’s gymnastics. Other supporters of those programs, including two who told the Star Tribune they have given more than $100,000 to Gophers athletics, also plan to stop donating and buying season tickets for football and other sports if the programs are dropped.
The Board of Regents is scheduled to vote Friday on a resolution to eliminate the sports at the end of the school year. The resolution would pass if seven of the 12 members vote in favor.
Athletic director Mark Coyle said the proposed cuts are needed because of Title IX compliance issues and financial challenges magnified by the pandemic. In his announcement, Coyle said he understood it was “devastating news’’ and recognized there would be a “ripple effect’’ on alumni, donors and others. “We did not make this decision lightly,’’ Coyle said.
Each of the sports has endowed scholarship funds and “enhancement funds’’ donated specifically for that team’s use. A U spokesman said Thursday if the scholarship funds can no longer be used for the purpose the donors intended, “the university will work with the donors to redirect those dollars.’’ Any enhancement funds remaining after the sports shut down “could potentially be used to support returning students in pursuit of their undergraduate degree.’’
The spokesman said the amount in the funds is protected information under Minnesota law, but a source who asked the Golden Gopher Fund said the total from the three sports combined is about $4.3 million.
History of giving
Bill Smith, a Gophers runner from 1971-75, was co-chairman of the fundraising campaign for the track and field facility the U opened in 2018. He gave a six-figure amount himself and helped raise more than $1.5 million.
Smith said it’s impossible to quantify the revenue that would be lost if the sports are dropped, but added the track alumni alone represent a large and loyal group.
“The thing that is getting overlooked, I think, is the complete turnoff of the faucet of the track alumni, both in terms of donations when they’re alive and the estate gifts,’’ said Smith, a retired 3M executive. “I know there are some sizable gifts, in excess of $1.5 million. Those gifts will go away.
“I told my wife, if there’s no [track] program, I’m never setting foot on that campus again. I’m done. There’s no way in the world they would see one penny from me. These are the kinds of decisions [the U] can’t see.’’
Former Gophers track athlete Mike Linnemann said his program has a long tradition of giving back, spurred by legendary coach Roy Griak. Griak used to send handwritten notes to men’s track alumni urging them to donate, so future athletes could have the same meaningful experiences.
That culture has endured after Griak’s death. Linnemann believes if the U had let alumni know the sport needed extra funding, they would have pitched in. He has seen their generosity firsthand over the past week, as leader of a pledge drive to save Gophers men’s track and field.
The effort has raised pledges of $362,344 per year for five years, from 294 households, plus $455,000 in planned gifts. If the sport is eliminated, Linnemann plans to stop giving to Gophers athletics.
“If you cut my team, you sever my main connection to the U,’’ said Linnemann, a professional fundraiser. “My monthly gift, I severed that. We had a planned gift, I just changed that. We have men’s hockey tickets. Depending on how this goes, we’ll be canceling everything.’’
Erik Allen, whose son Jackson is a senior on the Gophers tennis team, also said he will end all ties to the U if men’s tennis is terminated. He donates to the tennis program and has given to men’s basketball in the past, and he has 10 football season tickets on the 50-yard line that require scholarship seating donations above the cost of the tickets.
Allen planned to be a lifelong donor, and he said friends who came to his football tailgates bought season tickets themselves. But he is troubled by the U’s lack of transparency about the sports cuts.
Like Linnemann, Allen said athletic department officials did not ask the programs’ supporters for more financial support during the pandemic, and he doesn’t believe they understand the passionate following for the three sports.
“Our support of the U runs pretty deep, not only financially but emotionally,’’ said Allen, a certified public accountant. “If the regents support this, that tells me they don’t value our contributions.
“The thing that’s a little bit sad for me personally is that I’m kind of losing my team. But if that’s the message they’re going to send me, so be it. I can move on as well.’’
Plencner, a high school math teacher, said he is not a high-dollar donor, but he has given money consistently in honor of Griak. So have his parents. After the announcement that men’s track would be cut, he asked the Golden Gopher Fund to refund his donations.
He said a fund official told him it is “against policy’’ to give refunds, even though he and his parents gave to an endowed scholarship fund for men’s track and field.
Smith said competing for the Gophers had a profound impact on his life, and the team’s elimination would “make you feel like you’ve been erased.’’ He believes U officials know they will lose some donations if the cuts are made, but he isn’t sure they understand the full impact.
“It doesn’t take a lot of disgruntled alumni to feel like they’ve been minimized, and they tell other people,’’ Smith said. “The donor impact we’re seeing now is just skimming the surface.”