In this edition my semi-monthly summary of big Duluth news, I will avoid sounding like a broken record on the School Board and instead talk about two powerful Duluth women who are moving in different directions.
The first, At-Large City Councilor Emily Larson, has become the second person to officially enter next fall’s race for mayor. She immediately becomes the establishment pick to succeed the outgoing Don Ness, and the only chance she has of losing that title might be through an Yvonne Prettner-Solon candidacy. Throwing her name in the ring this early is a shrewd move that may head off potential competition from other center-left DFL figures. I’d label her the favorite (sorry, Howie), and that might not change even if YPS enters the race.
Larson is hard not to like. She is warm, considerate, open, and tireless. She’s been a relentless advocate for parks and libraries in particular, and it was no surprise to see her make her campaign announcement in front of the library. She has that charisma that can make a difference in a local campaign, and performed well across the city in her race for the Council in 2011. Larson is still a relative newcomer to politics, and is probably the youngest among the names that get tossed around. She definitely would keep the Ness vibe of youthful, optimistic energy going. Lack of executive experience is probably her most obvious shortcoming, and there is some risk of overabundant enthusiasm getting in the way of more detached assessment. But if she surrounds herself with the right people and has a good grasp on the budget, she will be a formidable figure in the race.
A bit further up the hill, at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, a hockey controversy is brewing. Shannon Miller, who has overseen the UMD women’s hockey program since its inception and won five national titles, will not be back next season. UMD chose not to renew her contract—which, at $215,000 when perks are factored in, is the highest of any women’s hockey coach at a public university, and probably the highest in the nation—and will hire someone new, probably for about half the salary.
UMD athletics are in a financial crunch, and has one profitable program—men’s hockey—that subsidizes the other fifteen. Miller’s behemoth of a contract stuck out like a sore thumb, and UMD Athletic Director Josh Berlo has used the market as his explanation: Miller is grossly overpaid in a sport that makes nowhere near the revenue that could justify such a salary. Miller, citing equity concerns, grouses that she is not paid as much as Scott Sandelin, the men’s head coach. And so we tread into that ever-contentious territory around Title IX, and while Miller doesn’t really have a legal case here, the effects of this one could linger.
Neither side seems to be handling the affair especially well. Miller has come out guns blazing, ripping UMD for failing to even propose a pay cut, which she claims she was willing to accept. (A 50 percent pay cut, though?) She also criticized the timing, saying it was a terrible thing to heap upon her team midseason—and during finals week, no less. After first saying he was just trying to be up-front and honest with Miller, Berlo has now gone back to say the university was required to give her six months’ notice. There are stories suggesting that Miller had burned a number of bridges in the Athletics Department over the years; she’s always been one to make sure others know her opinion, loud and clear.
Miller’s departure also may not bode well for the future of UMD women’s hockey. While they are doing well this year, the program has been trending downward since its last national title in 2010; as Bruce Ciskie notes here, they are now a clear step behind Minnesota and Wisconsin, and perhaps even North Dakota. It’s not hard to see the writing on the wall here, as college sports continue down the road toward the rich getting richer. Miller’s departure has upset many players, and there is some chance of a transfer exodus, or perhaps de-commitments from the recruits she has secured. In this climate, she will be a very difficult act to follow.
Another factor lurking somewhere in this decision might be Miller’s recruiting strategy. The Lady Bulldogs have long relied on a steady stream of foreign talent from Europe and Canada to beef up their lineup. The scholarships she gives these girls end up being much more costly to the university than those given to in-state players, as they need to cover out-of-state tuition. And, while understandable given the collapse of borders in most college sports, it is enough to give us Herb-Brooks-strengthen-the-base-of-the-pyramid acolytes some pause. Does importing foreign superstars really do much to grow the game locally?
Whatever the root cause, UMD women’s hockey has not been drawing big numbers to Amsoil Arena. Attendance is down. It is all tied up in the odd and frustrating state of women’s hockey, where the costs and the rat race for special training and scholarships is just as crazy as on the men’s side, only without any of the potential payouts at the end. (Here, one is reminded of the retirement rant of former University of Minnesota and Finland standout Noora Raty.)
With money playing such a prominent role, it’s unlikely there is any way UMD will recant. At this point, one can only hope that Bulldog women’s hockey proves bigger than its current coach, and can endure without her.