In his head, Shane Wiskus could see the rationale behind the decision. The Gophers gymnast knew the pandemic had decimated the U’s athletic budget, and he realized men’s gymnastics was vulnerable if the administration chose to cut sports.
In his heart, though, Wiskus was angry when he heard his program — along with men’s indoor and outdoor track and field, and men’s tennis — would be discontinued after this season, a decision announced by athletic director Mark Coyle.
“I was so mad,’’ said Wiskus, a senior from Spring Park. “If your job as an athletic director is to protect our opportunities, and provide us with opportunities to compete at a high level, and make sure athletes are being put first, I think he has failed at his job in this scenario.
“Taking away 50 people’s opportunities to save a few bucks here and there? I think that was a horrible mistake on his part.’’
Current and former athletes in the discontinued programs felt a mix of anger, sadness and loss as news of the cuts spread Thursday. All three sports will end their long tenures at the U after their next season, if the pandemic allows them to compete this school year.
Part of a men’s gymnastics program that dates to 1902, Wiskus won the 2019 NCAA title in parallel bars and was the national runner-up in the all-around in 2018 and 2019. Along with his teammates, the three-time Big Ten gymnast of the year heard the news in a Zoom meeting at 2:15 Thursday afternoon, just before practice.
Coach Mike Burns said he wasn’t exactly blindsided by the news, since two schools — Iowa, and William and Mary — recently dropped men’s gymnastics in pandemic-related budget cuts. With Minnesota cutting their team, too, that will leave only 12 NCAA programs in the sport.
“You could see what was going on,’’ said Burns, the Gophers coach since 2004. “This is the day I always feared would come, but hoped it never would. It swept my legs out from underneath me, that’s for sure.’’
Men’s gymnastics was nearly killed in 2002, before a “Save Gophers Sports’’ telethon raised $673,000 to spare it, along with men’s and women’s golf. No such effort was discussed this time, which disappointed Wiskus, Burns and former Gophers runner Ben Blankenship.
In a letter announcing the sports cuts, Coyle and U President Joan Gabel said “we do not believe there is a realistic fundraising goal we could set’’ to keep the three programs. The letter noted the decision was based on Title IX compliance concerns as well as budget issues.
Blankenship, a 2016 Olympian in the 1,500 meters, got Thursday’s news via a friend. He now trains in Oregon but has remained close with longtime Gophers coach Steve Plasencia. Like many U track and field alumni, he credits the Gophers program — run for years by legendary coach Roy Griak — with shaping him as a person.
Blankenship wished something could have been done to save a track and field program that has produced 14 Olympians, starting with hurdler Karl Anderson in 1924.
“It’s disappointing, and I think it’s a little bit shameful the way they went about it,’’ said Blankenship, a Stillwater native who won three Big Ten indoor track titles. “I think all programs are struggling with budgets. And not to ask for help from an extensive alumni network, or to give athletes and coaches the opportunities to help themselves, I think it’s a tragedy for the athletes. It was pulled right out from under them.’’
Henry Meeker, a senior on the men’s gymnastics team, called the decision “a blow to the gut’’ and criticized it as shortsighted. With just $2.7 million in annual savings estimated to come from cutting the three sports, he felt the athletic department should have explored cost-cutting options that were less permanent.
“It seems like it’s kind of a long-term fix to what might be a temporary problem,” Meeker said. “I don’t see how cutting them permanently will really fix anything in the long run.”
Wiskus said his heart aches for his younger teammates, and for the kids who attend meets at Maturi Pavilion. The dream of wearing the block M fueled him during his club days, he said, and it is “devastating’’ to know a new generation will never know that pride.
This season, he will have a new source of motivation. The men’s gymnastics team will host the NCAA championships April 16-17 at Maturi Pavilion. Burns is urging athletes to “spit in the eye of everybody who had something to do with this decision’’ by having the best season ever, a challenge Wiskus already is relishing.
“I’m going to give it everything I have,’’ Wiskus said. “If we can win an NCAA championship at home, they are going to realize the depth of their mistake. To prove them wrong is my motivation.’’
Staff writers Ryan Faircloth and Marcus Fuller contributed to this report.