Friday Focus: What athletics can do

July 26, 2019

Tori Tragis

UAF photo by JR Ancheta.
UAF photo by JR Ancheta.

— by Dan White, chancellor

I have received many contributions to the Box of Big Ideas over the past week. THANK YOU. Roughly a quarter of the comments were about athletics, and they were split. Some supported athletics, some sought the elimination of athletics, and some sought to keep athletics with modifications. (No one suggested golf.)

I was not a collegiate athlete. Outside of taking in a hockey game at Colorado College or a football game at Notre Dame, I did not attend a lot of athletics events during my college career. My support for athletics has grown over the years as a UAF faculty and administrator, parent, and alum. Here’s why.

Over the past 24 years at UAF, I have realized how much athletics does, and more importantly, could do to recruit and retain students, promote lifelong relationships with alumni, and engage community members. It is an underutilized resource at UAF. I arrive at this conclusion both through observation of our own programs and my experiences as a parent and an alum.

I attended Colorado College (B.A. Physics), Washington University in St. Louis (B.S. Civil Engineering), and the University of Notre Dame (Ph.D. Civil and Environmental Engineering). Colorado College (CC) is a small liberal arts college in Colorado Springs, Colorado. There are more faculty in their philosophy department than their physics department. Even with just over 2,000 students, they have a full complement of intercollegiate athletics. Like UAF, CC has D1 hockey. For those of you who remember when UAF was in the CCHA, we used to play the CC Tigers.

One other team we used to play in the CCHA was the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. Although not made famous by hockey, Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish, led by coach Muffet McGraw, is a powerhouse in women’s basketball — and sometimes in other sports too. Notre Dame has about the same number of students as UAF, 8,600. Even Washington University, known for its schools of medicine and architecture, promotes the WashU Bears as ambassadors of their brand. All three of these very different schools connect to their communities, their recruits, current students, and alumni through athletics. I get many requests for donations from these three schools and not a piece of mail comes in that does not say “Go Irish,” “Go Bears” or “Go Tigers.” They use their athletics teams to build pride, ownership, and comradery. They seek my donations, and they are recruiting my kids by connecting to us as a Bear, a Tiger or a member of the Fighting Irish.

Through my experiences, I have observed that athletics is part and parcel to marketing and communications. At UAF, we have many brands and identities. We are America’s Arctic University, Alaska’s Research University, and Naturally Inspiring. We are also comprised of many different units, each with their own brand and identity. The Alaska Satellite Facility (ASF) receives grants because of its past success, its leader, its staff, and the quality of the products it produces. It is because of the reputation that ASF has built that NASA signed a new contract with them for $50 million. Go ASF! We have the research vessel Sikuliaq because of the reputation the College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences built over decades. Go CFOS! We are also a symphony orchestra, a culinary arts program, and a college for construction trades. The Community and Technical College (CTC)’s brand is not built on Arctic research, but rather on “success delivered” across a suite of high demand workforce programs. Go CTC! All of us can have our own identity and we still have one thing in common. We are all Nanooks. Being a Nanook is open to everyone. And, it is open to our community. Everyone who attends a game or a kids sports camp is a Nanook. Talk about inclusion!

Athletics builds our own community wellness. If you long for diversity and inclusivity (I do), a sporting event is a great place to find it. Catch up with old friends or meet someone new. Your support for the Nanooks gives you one thing in common with everyone there (almost). If you want to take pride in your university (I do), stop by the Patty Center on game night. UAF vs. UAA games are especially exciting. If you want inspiration (I do), watch our student-athletes perform knowing that they train every day and also maintain a GPA that is higher than our average student. 

Notre Dame captures spirit in a single slogan, “Play like a champion today.” While that slogan has a connection to sports, I heard it in dorm rooms, classrooms and labs. Athletics is about playing like a champion today, but also hope. Hope for the next point, the next match or the next season. Right now, more than ever we need a good shot of hope! 

Students, staff, and faculty wellness depends on connectivity, sense of place, sense of community, self-worth, and empowerment. Students are attracted to, stay at, and succeed in an environment where they feel connected. Other universities use athletics as the glue in this connectedness. The colossal budget conundrum we find ourselves in seeks to divide us. While we are not all music majors or engineers, we are all Nanooks. I encourage you to get and stay connected — for you and for us.

We are now one of only three state-funded universities to ever declare financial exigency. One of the others, Chicago State University in Chicago, Illinois, filed exigency in 2016. CSU maintained their NCAA athletics program. UAF is fortunate to have Terlynn Olds as our senior associate director of UAF athletics. Terlynn was at CSU before, during and after their exigency declaration. In her history, Terlynn was a student-athlete, a women’s and men’s head basketball coach, and an athletic director. She helped navigate these waters for CSU and will help us. 

As we enter a budget reduction process, we will be looking to generate external funding to support and maintain the athletics program. Even though we are already a lean program (Muffet McGraw makes more in one season than all of our head coaches combined), Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and Athletics Director Keith Champagne is laying out a new structure for athletics that will create new private revenue and move athletics to a more self-supported funding model. I am confident in our athletics leadership, support staff and coaches, and that the new thinking will carry the Nanooks into the future. 

Besides marketing, recruitment, retention, alumni relations and community engagement, there are the athletes who are leaders on and off the court, ice, trail and range. And, while we don’t have an alum who is a Nobel Prize winner YET, we do have a newly minted Stanley Cup winner. Colton Parayko left UAF after only three years but has made headlines by finishing his business degree while playing professional hockey (and winning a Stanley Cup). This is not only a compliment to Colton, but to the UAF School of Management. Go SOM!

I realize that everyone may not see it the same way, and I am not trying to change your mind. But I thought it would be useful to provide for you a little rationale as to why you continue to see me supporting athletics, why there is an A-bear on the chancellor’s conference room wall, and why I strive to “play like a champion today” and every day.

Go Nooks!

Friday Focus is a column written by a different member of UAF’s leadership team every week.