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Pledge by Engelstad throws fiscal lifeline to UNLV men’s soccer

Rich Ryerson played soccer at UNLV during the team’s glory years in the 1980s, and he hopes to conjure some of that same magic as he enters his second season as the Rebels’ coach.

But a cloud of financial uncertainty had followed the program since last year, and Ryerson didn’t know how much longer he would have a team to coach.

Help has finally arrived, and now Ryerson can concentrate on building the program rather than simply keeping it afloat.

The Engelstad Family Foundation pledged $850,000 over a five-year period, including $250,000 immediately. Added to another $50,000 in donations, the men’s program has a little more than $300,000 in total giving for the year. Its projected budget is about $450,000.

The annual donation by Engelstad decreases by $40,000 each year, pegging the remaining contributions at $210,000, $170,000, $130,000 and $90,000.

“It’s not a question anymore,” athletic director Jim Livengood said. “UNLV is going to have men’s soccer.

“Now it’s a question of how far can the Rebels go in men’s soccer.”

Livengood said the five-year commitment doesn’t mean the program will again be in jeopardy after that period, but this contribution puts soccer on the way to being able to sustain itself.

Ryerson said the donation makes a major difference in “the attitude of our players. They know now, and I don’t think we need to bring it up anymore as we move forward.

“I was able to go to them and tell them, ‘You guys took the risk and stood by us. You guys stuck your necks out. You’ll be able to reap the benefit of that now by finishing your academic career here.’ “

Foundation trustee Kris Engelstad McGarry became interested in helping the program because her husband, Tim, was concerned about soccer’s survival. He played for the Rebels in the late 1970s.

“We became aware with all the cutbacks, a phase-out of the soccer program would be completed,” Engelstad McGarry said. “So we started having discussions in our household of how we could help them.

“There are a lot of kids who can’t go to school without a scholarship. It isn’t a glamour sport. It’s not football. It’s not basketball. So we hope the scholarships will keep them in athletics and in school.”

Engelstad McGarry downplayed the foundation’s role in keeping UNLV men’s soccer viable, but Ryerson acknowledged without the cash infusion, “we might not have moved forward with the program at all.”

Now that it can move forward, UNLV has the opportunity to establish itself as at least a Western power. The Rebels, who began playing in 1974, are the only Division I men’s program in Nevada, and no such teams exist in several nearby states, including Arizona and Utah.

“Going forward, there’s no reason why this can’t be a premier men’s soccer program in intercollegiate athletics,” Livengood said. “No reason.”

Ryerson said recruiting — the issue of the program’s stability can no longer be used against the Rebels – has been strong, pointing to landing the first Reno player in school history, two Salt Lake City athletes and four locals.

“For a lot of players from neighboring states, we’re the aspiration,” Ryerson said.

Livengood was hesitant to say soccer was saved by private money, but no one at UNLV likes to think about what would’ve happened without it.

“Thank goodness we don’t have to know,” Livengood said.

UNLV’s athletic budget drops by about $1 million the fiscal year that began
Friday to about $27 million largely because of a $1.7 million reduction in state funds.

Soccer joins men’s golf as two sports largely funded by outside support. The same type of backing has occurred at schools including California with baseball and Arizona State with wrestling.

“That probably is going to be the model going forward with many of our Olympic programs,” Livengood said. “It’s not just here, it’s going to be a lot of places.”

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.

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