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Chuck Haga, Forum Communications, Published May 01 2012

UND alumni group's leader says Sioux logo 'not about preference anymore' as retirement campaign begins

FARGO - The University of North Dakota's Fighting Sioux nickname has been "a source of pride, honor and excellence for a long time," the head of the university's alumni association said here today, but NCAA sanctions mean that "keeping the nickname comes at too high a price."

Tim O'Keefe, CEO of the UND Alumni Association and Foundation, announced the start of a statewide campaign to encourage a yes vote on Measure 4 in the June 12 primary election, which would allow UND to retire the nickname. He said the Alumni Association "will take the lead role in the "Vote Yes" campaign.

"It's not about preference anymore," O'Keefe said. "It's about the price (UND) will pay if we are forced to keep the nickname."

A law adopted by the 2011 Legislature requires UND to keep the Sioux name, first adopted in 1930. That law was repealed during a special session in November but reinstated when nickname supporters filed petitions to refer the repeal to a vote in June.

O'Keefe was joined at a Fargo news conference by Rick Burgum, head of the UND Foundation, and other members of the Alumni Association. News conferences were to follow in Bismarck, Minot and Grand Forks.

O'Keefe said he had "the unanimous support" of the association's board and felt confident that a strong majority of Alumni Association members back "the aggressive position we're taking and will maintain to June 12."

A budget for the campaign is still being developed, he said, but the effort will rely on donations made expressly for that purpose. Alumni and other leaders around the state "have stepped forward and offered financial support and their time and talents" to get the message out.

As a publicly funded institution, the university "is very limited as to what they can say or do," O'Keefe said. "They can inform, but they can't advocate."

UND alums will write op-ed pieces and letters to the editor, speak to local service clubs and carry the "Vote Yes" message to cocktail parties and other social gatherings, he said.

He said he understands that some within his association's ranks remain committed to the nickname, "but right now there is nothing more important to students and the university" than retiring the nickname and moving on.

"We've measured those risks," he said, "and I believe we will come out of this stronger than ever, and we will bring the whole tent together again" once the long-running nickname issue is resolved."

He said that for the first time in the history of the debate, the entire university community leadership - the administration, athletic leaders and coaches, the Alumni Association and the university, staff and student senates - have accepted the need to retire the nickname and avoid further NCAA sanctions.

"I will always cherish the nickname," said O'Keefe, who played hockey at UND. "But this issue is not about these emotions anymore."

If UND is required to keep the nickname, "there is no question the NCAA will continue to enforce the sanctions we are already under," including a ban on hosting championship events.

The sanctions will lead to a deteriorating athletics program, the loss of great athletes and coaches and lost revenues for hotels, restaurants and other businesses in Grand Forks, O'Keefe said. The city and state will lose tax revenue.

"It's impacting recruiting now," he said, as some prospective UND athletes are raising questions about "conference uncertainty." UND is set to compete next year in the Division I Big Sky Conference, but the conference commissioner has said the Big Sky presidents want to see the nickname issue resolved.

O'Keefe says SDSU won't schedule any more football games with UND until the Grand Forks school is “in good standing.” SDSU officials were not immediately available for comment.

He repeated earlier warnings, that such schools as Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa already have cut athletic connections with UND because of the nickname struggle and NCAA sanctions. "Even UND's outstanding hockey program is at risk," he said.

As O'Keefe and other alumni leaders traveled the state today, a spokesman for nickname supporters said they will meet the energy and commitment of the "Vote Yes" side with their own efforts.

"We expect and hope to ultimately prevail in federal court with the Spirit Lake Nation lawsuit against the NCAA over their unfortunate policy which has caused so much controversy," said Sean Johnson of Bismarck, a spokesman for the group that circulated petitions to force the June 12 vote.

Johnson said they "expect a favorable outcome at the ballot box on June 12, through a vast majority of North Dakotans voting 'no' on Measure 4 to save the proud name of the Fighting Sioux, and to continue the proud and positive traditions that accompanied that name for over 80 years."

He said the NCAA sanctions "are minimal and easily managed," and UND remains a Big Sky Conference member with competition scheduled into 2015.

To nickname supporters who say the sanctions are insignificant and other potential consequences speculative, O'Keefe said, "They're simply not paying attention."

He said the often rancorous fight over Fighting Sioux also is having an effect on academics at the university.

AP contributed to this report.