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Chuck Haga, Forum Communications Co., Published February 17 2012

Lennon says UND losing recruits already

GRAND FORKS – Dale Lennon, head football coach at UND from 1999 to 2007, is among the latest Fighting Sioux athletics figures to join in urging retirement of the nickname for the sake of the program’s future.

In a letter in today’s Grand Forks Herald, Lennon wrote that he has firsthand evidence that the ongoing controversy “is hurting (UND’s) athletic programs in recruiting,” and that “any future NCAA sanctions could be disastrous to the completion of the Division I transition.”

Also speaking out now are current UND head football coach Chris Mussman and five football members of the UND Athletics Hall of Fame. “It’s time for UND to stand up for UND,” Mussman wrote in his own letter, and the former players warned that NCAA sanctions and related consequences “will signal the death knell for UND athletics.”

Now head coach at Southern Illinois University, Lennon wrote that he has “asked many athletes who are being re-cruited by top FCS programs including UND why they had eliminated UND as a potential option.”

Those student athletes’ response, he wrote, “was they had a negative perception of UND because of the NCAA sanctions.” And, he added, “Opposing re-cruiters will continue to use the NCAA sanctions to their advantage.”

In a telephone interview Friday, Lennon said, “I recruit against North Dakota from time to time and come across some of the same athletes. I have an opportunity to visit with them about the choices they make.”

Those recruits “are primarily from the Chicago area,” he said. “I always ask the recruits what schools they’re looking at and which ones they’re strongly considering. I ask if there’s some reason they’re not considering North Dakota.

“Sometimes it’s distance, but sometimes it’s, ‘Well, coach, UND has a lot of issues with sanctions.’ ”

‘It’s time’

In his letter, Mussman said he has wanted to speak on the nickname issue but had been advised to let UND and state Board of Higher Education officials take the lead. Recent public statements by Athletic Director Brian Faison, UND hockey coach Dave Hakstol and others “granted all of us a voice,” he wrote.

The former football standouts – Bruce Smith, now a UND dean, plus Corey Colehour, Dan Martinson, David Williamson and Kelby Klosterman – wrote that they “competed proudly as Fighting Sioux football players, and we respect the Native American heritage and traditions that have been an important part of this university for 82 years.”

But retention of the nickname will bring “the sanctions imposed by the NCAA, the loss of conference affiliation, scheduling difficulties, the endless road trips to faraway places, the lack of home games, absence of home playoff opportunities, the potential of not even getting to the playoffs and the intense competition in recruiting that will take the top student athletes away from UND.”

Retirement of the Fighting Sioux name and logo “will not diminish the heritage and proud traditions for the athletes who competed or for the fans and loyal supporters over the past several decades,” they wrote.

“It will allow the athletes, fans and supporters to build a new generation of tradition that will bring all parts of the UND family together, proudly supporting the highest level of athletic competition and academic excellence,” they wrote.

Choice is ‘clear’

Lennon also warned of the consequences of UND losing its conference affiliation and ability to schedule traditional rivals.

“I’m at a point where my understanding of this situation is extremely clear,” he wrote. “If the name is kept, the future success of athletic programs at UND will be limited due to the NCAA sanctions. If conference affiliation is lost, the survival of the athletic department at the Division I level will be in jeopardy.”

The three letters followed similar pained but forceful statements by Hakstol, Faison and Alumni Association head Tim O’Keefe, who said last week that he would appeal to others with ties to UND to speak out.

O’Keefe confirmed Friday that Lennon and the others were among the people who received copies of his statement.

“I asked them to consider the facts within my statement, and to consider going public in whatever way they felt appropriate,” he said. “I suggested letters to the editor in their hometown, service clubs, coffee groups – any way each individual was comfortable putting the facts out there.”

Chuck Haga writes for the

Grand Forks Herald.

“Dale was among those receiving my statement. I have not talked to him. The football letter winner group has been very active in discussions about this matter for years, and there is no voice more respected than his.”

In the interview, Lennon said his statement was partly due to O’Keefe’s action, “but I’ve been thinking about this for a long time and knew there would probably come a time when I would have to speak out.”

Mussman indicated he’s concerned about recruiting.

“With this issue continuing to drag on into June and possibly into November (with possible statewide votes), recruiting will be extremely difficult,” he wrote. “How can we tell a prospective student athlete and their families with any certainty about the future of our program?”

‘Source of pride’

Lennon, 51, compiled a 90-24 record in nine seasons at UND and is the football program’s all-time winningest coach. His team won the NCAA Division II national championship in 2001.

A running back at UND in the early 1980s, he began his coaching career in 1985 at Northern State, followed by one-year stints at Valley City State and Dickinson State. He was an assistant coach at UND from 1988 to 1996, when he took on the head coaching job at University of Mary in Bismarck.

His 23 years as a Fighting Sioux player and coach “will always be a source of pride for me and my family,” he wrote. “I’m writing this letter because I care about the future of UND athletics.”

He has been following the nickname controversy “both as an insider and an outsider,” and it has been “both frustrating and enlightening” trying to do that 1,000 miles from Grand Forks and surrounded by people trying to understand what the fight is about.

If the name is retired, Lennon wrote “UND athletics would regain control of its own destiny” and “recruit the best student-athletes available and allow them the opportunity of competing at the highest level possible in their division.

“As a proud alumnus who wants his alma mater achieving greatness, this is our only option.”

Chuck Haga writes for the Grand Forks Herald.