USC-North Dakota - Brett Harrison

North Dakota catcher Brett Harrison. (Shotgun Spratling)

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Dodson, North Dakota Living A Nightmare

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As the final minutes of Tuesday ticked away, North Dakota eighth-year head coach Jeff Dodson had many thoughts cascading throughout his head. Was today a dream? Is there a chance the program can be saved? Heck, is this it for me, and my program?

NorthDakota90X90Those were all valid questions, with very few answers, of course. Earlier in the day, the University of North Dakota and athletic director Brian Faison announced sweeping university and athletic-wide budget cuts mandated by the state, in part because of falling oil prices and other factors. Faison said $9.5 million was to be cut from the university, with $2.4 million of that coming from athletics. Baseball, which operated with an annual budget of $605,000, was one of two sports, including men’s golf, that were eliminated from the athletic department.

Dodson got the news Tuesday morning, though the actual decision on baseball’s future was made last week, but delayed because of North Dakota’s trip to the Frozen Four to compete for the hockey national title. Faison called a meeting with Dodson and his coaching staff, and Dodson knew the news couldn’t have been good.

“It was really out of nowhere. I got to school today and got an email saying we needed to meet with the athletic director, and when we got there the golf coach was there as well. So, Brian comes in and gives us the news,” Dodson said. “We started to have some conversations and we expressed some concerns one-on-one after the meeting.

“We had a team meeting in the afternoon and there were lots of tears and hugs,” he continued. “I just told our guys to do the best we can to focus and finish out the season. We talked about a lot of choices they could make in the short term, and with all the character kids we had, we all decided to do the right thing.”

The news was a punch in the gut for Dodson, who had worked hard to try to keep the program afloat despite some crucial constraints. For instance, UND entered the Western Athletic Conference in 2013, and as a result, the baseball program was forced to scale back from 6.35 scholarships to five, despite the fact that much of their competition was operating at a full 11.7 scholarships.

Dodson was also forced to do some serious fundraising to pay for operational expenses and other activities, while also attempting to put together a program that could compete in a much tougher conference. Sounds easy enough, right?

“It’s been a real battle. We cut 1.35 scholarships back in 2014 and it was just a day-to-day fight to get some respect for our program around here,” he said. “On paper, with our situation, we’re not supposed to win any games. We’ve been a developmental operation the entire time I’ve been here, and some of the resources and scholarships others had simply weren’t there.”

In hindsight, the move to the WAC crippled the baseball program. The travel costs hindered the budget, and Dodson admits the Summit League would’ve been a much better option from a baseball standpoint because of the opportunity to bus a few places. However, he had to make do with the situation he had.

USC-North Dakota - Zach MuckenhirnZach Muckenhirn threw a three-hit shutout against USC earlier this season. (Shotgun Spratling)

“We were in the lower half of the league in terms of operating expenses,” he said. “It was an expensive league, though, because of our travel and things like that. We were best suited for the Summit League but what are you going to do?”

The natural response in situations such as these is to ponder the idea of what needs to happen to keep the baseball program afloat. Dodson believes North Dakota can, at the least, get short term funding to keep the program afloat. However, Faison informed Dodson earlier in the day that the program cuts are more than likely a final decision and that it would take $15 million to essentially endow the program forever. That means someone would need to step up, raise money, or get a generous donation from someone, perhaps even UND alum and prestigious NBA basketball coach Phil Jackson.

“The feeling I got from the meeting is that it didn’t matter how much money we raised, but hey we can have a miracle, right?” he said. “It was a pretty cut and dry decision and I’ll get involved if there’s a movement out there to keep the program. But, I have tried to fight so hard for this program, just attempting to get a little respect for it.”

In the meantime, North Dakota will press forward, with ironically enough, a midweek bout Wednesday night against in-state rival North Dakota State. UND began the season with high hopes after upsetting USC on the road with Zack Muckenhirn leading the charge. However, things have since gone a little south with a 6-17 mark and only three home games played thus far.

Now, Dodson must try to personally regroup, while also trying to keep all of his players on the same page. Meanwhile, he knows this season may be it for him. Though Dodson could have some other opportunities in college baseball after this season, he’s made multiple stops as a coach and his goal coming into the profession was to be a Division I head coach at some point in his career. Well, he’s accomplished that, and he feels like his future might be in something else that’s not college baseball.

“I’ve thought about it [my future]. I think my coaching days are probably done,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for 22 years and I’ve been very fortunate to be doing this a long time. The only thing I’d miss is the relationship with the players and coaches. I’ve never been that guy that’s going to aim for the lights or the big time. I just wanted to be a part of building a program, and to turn it around.”

Dodson isn’t giving up hope his program can be saved, but it’s out of his hands at this point. The nightmare is real for the UND baseball program.

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