It has seemed in recent years that a disconnect exists between the University of Minnesota’s former Black athletes and the school they once played for. Several of these athletes have shared this perception with me, albeit off the record.
But U of M officials now are saying that the new Athletes Village, set to officially open in February, could be a way to lure these former Gophers of color back to campus in a welcoming and meaningful way. “I do think that will help,” Lea B. Olsen said of the new six-story all-athletic facility built next to Bierman.
“I think it will create more of an environment that feels more welcoming. It should be easier to have events for athletes and alums,” Olsen said.
Two weekends ago, the annual Gopher women athletes reunion was held, which included a tour of the new Village and a halftime recognition of the Gopher hoopsters alumni at the January 21 contest. But this columnist soon noticed that only a handful of sistahs were in attendance.
“I’ve noticed some people are not coming back [to campus],” Olsen observed. Then, as Lea Bergin, the Minneapolis native played at the “U” in 1989 and 1990. She’s now a Fox Sports North broadcaster.
“I want to reach out to the most disgruntled, upset group of alumni we have,” Quincy Lewis boldly told the gathering at Williams Arena during a January 21 pre-game gathering at Williams Arena. Lewis played on the Gophers men’s basketball team (1996-99). He has been working in the school’s fundraising office for several years now and in early January was named interim leader of the legendary Gopher “M” Club.
Lewis doesn’t have to look too far for the most disgruntled former Gophers — it’s mainly Black alums who felt a cold shoulder from the school after their playing days ended. “We want to be more inclusive,” Lewis told me before his two-minute or so speech. “We want to give opportunities for them to come back.”
As a former Gopher himself, “He can reach out,” said Ashley Ellis-Milan (basketball, 2007-10). The St. Paul native now teaches and is an assistant women’s basketball coach at Concordia University. “I think if he can try this and get us involved, not just in our sport but wrestling [and other sports] — bring us all together in the ‘M’ Club.”
Peyton Owens III had heard similar complaints from some Black former Gophers. “I think some of the frustrations are valid,” the assistant athletic director in charge of student-athlete services told the MSR. The alumni weekend offered him the opportunity “to get the pulse of the former student-athletes and the alumni and how we can move forward.”
He supports Lewis’ intentions: “We want to make sure that our net is wide and broad when we cast it,” Owens said.
Both Olsen and Ellis-Milan nonetheless admitted that they have felt welcomed whenever they return for the alumni events, but both know this isn’t always the case for other Black former Gophers. “There’s something so unique and special about this place that whenever I do walk in here, it makes me happy,” Olsen declared.
“I try to get back as much as I can outside of Alumni Day. I always feel very welcomed,” Ellis-Milan stressed.
A reconnection effort by the school toward Black Gopher alums has been needed for some time now, even if some officials or alumni don’t want to admit it.
“It’s just important…that you don’t lose people,” said Olsen.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.