On Saturday, Dec. 15, the University of Nevada, Reno’s athletic department announced the Wolf Pack rifle team would be disbanded following the 2018-19 season. In their place, men’s cross country would be reinstated as a sport on campus. The decision was made in an effort to strengthen Nevada’s place in the Mountain West Conference, this according to a news release from the university.
Nevada rifle has a history of excellence at the university, reaching the NCAA Championships eight times, and having an individual winner, Ryan Tanoue, in 2004. Rifle is also the only sport in Nevada history to ever have an athlete win the NCAA Elite 89 — Olivia Pennell won in 2013. The award is given to an NCAA athlete with a GPA that ranks within the top athletes 90 nationally. The award at the time selected 89 athletes but it has since been upgraded to 90.
“After a long period of careful consideration and a thorough evaluation of our intercollegiate athletics program, we feel these moves best represent Wolf Pack athletics in the current intercollegiate athletics landscape and our future within the NCAA and the Mountain West Conference,” university president Marc Johnson said.
The announcement came with no prior hint that rifle was in jeopardy. An email was sent to the team, and then a team meeting was held to formally address the announcement. Team manager Colby Sakumoto said that the news came as a shock to them.
“The entire team was stunned and heartbroken by this unexpected announcement, made during the middle of final exams, as there was no prior indication that terminating the program was even being considered,” Sakumoto said.
Despite the unfortunate circumstances, the team says they will continue to proudly represent the university and are appreciative to their supporters and head coach Fred Harvey, who has led the rifle program for 23 years.
“We are thankful that the university was able to fund us for so long,” said Casey Iwamoto, a junior on the team. “We do hope that there is some way that we can bring back the rifle program, we’re looking at different ways as a team to try and do that.”
Just a few weeks before rifle learned that it would be terminated, the team was also informed that it would be losing its practice range in 2019. The university announced earlier in the month that they would be trading buildings with the Nevada Historical Society. The university would receive the historical society building, 2.68 acres of land and a cash payment of just over $770,000. The historical society would in return receive the Nelson Building, a building off campus, in the heart of downtown Reno. The basement of the Nelson Building houses the team’s practice range.
The Nelson building was only supposed to be a temporary location for the rifle program. Following the expansion of the university’s seismological lab that pushed the team out of their previous range, rifle took up residence in shipping containers near campus. The shipping containers served as an interim home before the team made the move to the Nelson building. However, a more permanent dwelling was being planned for the program.
Back in 2015, Nevada athletics director, Doug Knuth was featured in a video detailing the proposed new home of Nevada rifle. The practice facility was planned to be a 33,000 square foot state of the art facility featuring a 100-yard rifle range and dozens of inside and outside shooting positions ranging from small bore to tactical handgun. The complex was being planned with spectators in mind as well, making rifle a more accessible sport to the everyday fan with monitors and lobbies to watch the events. Local police departments would have also had access to the facility for training.
Aaron Keller, statewide outdoor education coordinator for the Nevada Department of Wildlife, said that his department — with the help of private donations and Washoe County — had offered a subgrant to the university to help fund the new range.
“We subgranted 800,000 dollars to what we call the University of Nevada shooting range, then we also pledged money over the next five years and that amount depended on what was needed,” said Keller. “We also planned to improve the range over time”.
The portion of the subgrant given from the Department of Wildlife could theoretically still be on the table, as the grant cycle expires in June. Keller stated that the Department of Wildlife is very excited to partner with the university and hopes they will get to build the facility.
Even with the outside support of the rifle program, it’s believed to have been shut down because of cost and lack of competition from schools in close proximity to Reno. Nevada is one of only 23 schools Division I programs in the nation who compete in the sport.
According to the Board of Regents, the annual budget given to fund the rifle team is close to $245,000. Harvey disputes those claims, estimating that the actual budget is closer to $168,000. There is currently no explanation known how the two budgets are almost $77,000 off. $27,500 of that total goes to the operating costs of running the program with an additional $10,000 going to Harvey’s salary, Harvey then donates the entirety of his salary to help fund the team. The remaining balance goes to fund scholarships.
The scholarship budget isn’t completely funded by the university. $80,000 — the amount going towards women’s scholarships — is funded via the state legislature. Cutting the program takes $80,000 from women’s scholarship opportunities on campus, an expense that costs the university nothing. Subtracting the scholarship fund from the budget, the rifle program operates at a cost of less than $100,000 per year, a number that no other sport on campus can even approach. On top of the low operating cost, Harvey also added that the program arguably brings in a significant profit to the university and community.
“There are 15 plus scholar-athletes on the team,” said Harvey. “If these team members pay tuition, fees, books, room, and board — estimated $40,000 each — the university and community are receiving $600,000. The university and community are receiving a net gain of $500,000 annually. With the loss of the rifle team, we in Nevada are foregoing that opportunity. Those that want to shoot will go somewhere else,”.
The university’s decision has left the rifle team confused on their next move, but Sakumoto has already begun to push to keep the team alive. He is urging all supporters of the team to email or write Board of Regents Chairman, Kevin J. Page and Chancellor Thom Reilly, in hopes that the team can be saved from termination. Sakumoto and the team also suggests that if anyone does send a message, that the message does not contain anything hateful. They want the messages to reflect the best qualities that the team, supporters and students have to offer.
Ryan Freeberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @SagebrushSports.