Opinion: Colorado College needs to work on diplomacy

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After a roller-coaster 2018 of unexpected ups, downs, twists and turns, Colorado College’s athletic department produced yet another unusual headline this week.

Ken Ralph, the school’s director of athletics for 11 years, announced his immediate departure to take the AD job at the University of Maine. That came just a few weeks after unveiling controversial plans for a new on-campus hockey arena, with much public-relations work ahead to win over many alienated supporters — including corporate sponsors — and CC’s displeased neighbors.

Someone else will have to mend those fences now. But to hear many reactions from across Colorado Springs, including the informed business community, Ralph’s sudden exit didn’t create panic or major concern. In fact, a very different response has emanated from numerous sources.

Good riddance. To be blunt, maybe this is positive news.

Through his time at CC, Ralph never seemed like a guy with real vision. He didn’t endear himself to local businesses who could have been, and once were, more supportive. He presided in 2009 over Colorado College killing its football program, an integral element of CC’s history for 100-plus years, including a victory long ago over the University of Texas.

Women’s water polo and softball were cut at the same time, but doing away with football caused lasting damage that endures today. Many of CC’s former football players had become generous alumni, yet they were given no chance to influence the decision or help provide alternatives. Ken Ralph couldn’t heal those wounds.

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Ralph also inherited one of the nation’s most respected college hockey programs, but he never really meshed with longtime head coach Scott Owens. Ralph’s clumsy handling of Owens’ departure in April 2014 left a sour taste with many, including the media, in part because Owens had nurtured so many strong relationships throughout the city. Yet he was cast aside without the courtesy of a respectful, deserved farewell, leaving with such bitterness that he hasn’t come near his own alma mater since.

After years of sporadic promotion and increasing disconnects with hockey’s fan base, Ralph oversaw the steady deterioration of success (35 wins, 95 losses since 2014) and attendance.

Then came the coup de grace.

Ralph turned a planned “practice arena” on campus into a much bigger concept — a 3,000-seat structure, merging into Colorado Springs’ meandering downtown City for Champions plans. But the athletic director’s actions surrounding that project were slipshod and disingenuous.

For many months, Ralph misrepresented the truth of what was happening. While hockey coach Mike Haviland actively sold recruits on playing home games in a new campus arena, Ralph and CC repeatedly denied to media that the facility would be anything more than an 800-seat practice rink.

Meanwhile, he trampled on the college’s relationship with the Broadmoor World Arena, which was built in the 1990s with CC hockey as the cornerstone tenant. El Pomar Foundation, headed by one of CC’s most prominent graduates, Bill Hybl, had made its largest-ever donation to ensure hockey’s stability, as it had done financially (funding scholarships) for years. But then Colorado College and Ralph walked away from all that.

It might have helped if CC had been transparent with its own neighborhoods, the Old North End and the northern side of downtown Colorado Springs. But that’s not the case. The college insists it has sufficient parking for the coming Robson Arena, southwest of Nevada Avenue and Cache la Poudre Street. Nearby residents know better and are rightfully concerned about traffic impacting their neighborhood.

One other point: While CC says the new arena will have 3,000 “permanent” seats, what isn’t being said is that the building could have hundreds more “non-permanent” seats, adding to the traffic problem. We’re told that the solution will be forcing fans to park downtown and ride shuttles to the arena. Good luck with that.

So now Colorado College has to look for a new athletic director at an inopportune time. Yes, some of the downtown community and the city government are happy about the City for Champions marriage, but the college’s next AD will have to repair frayed and broken relationships. Fortunately, CC does have a capable administrator, Greg Capell, to serve as interim AD while the school decides what to do next.

But CC’s hockey fans and many of the school’s loyalists are stunned and disillusioned. They want a better idea of what to expect from Ken Ralph’s successor. They also might feel better if CC would turn to some familiar people with high credibility, like former hockey coach Don Lucia (just retired from Minnesota), for advice in setting a new course.

Otherwise, Colorado College might be dealing with the residue for years to come

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