Haskell University Battles Cutbacks With Billy Mills as Best Weapon

Billy Mills knows every dream begins with a first step. The American distance running legend has a vision for how he’d like to help Haskell Indian Nations University. But for now, it will have to come one step at a time.

The Haskell Indian School graduate and only American to win an Olympic gold medal in the 10,000 meters is taking an active fundraising role to help Haskell athletics reach its full potential. Mills, who helped found Running Strong for American Indian Youth, and Haskell athletic director Judith Gipp have some ideas to improve the university in Lawrence, Kansas. “We pretty much run on federal allocations,” Gipp said. 

“Just like any other federal institution, we’ve had cutbacks. Our budget has been cut back significantly and forced us to become more self reliant.”

Gipp said the operating budget in October of 2012, not including coaches’ salaries, was $485,000. In October of 2013, it was reduced to $202,000. “My personal intention is to make a major, major effort to raise enough money for a new track, a new stadium and hopefully at some point in time find matching funds,” Mills told ICTMN. “I personally would like Running Strong to raise $4.5 million and that any other funding that would be needed could come in from government backing. That’s my objective.”

The 130-year history of Haskell is rich in athletic tradition and the stadium and track seemed like a natural place to start. Great things have happened on that track. Mills, for example, was groomed on it and there were major results. His gold medal run at the Tokyo Games in 1964 is considered one of the 10 greatest moments in Olympic distance running history. And fellow American Indian Athletic Hall of Famer Phillip Osif (Pima) was a member of the Haskell two-mile relay team that was undefeated at the Texas Relays, Kansas Relays, Knights of Columbus Games, Penn Relay Games, and Rice Relays in 1927, just to name a few.

Courtesy Haskell University

Haskell University's track

It’s not just the site of past glory. Haskell will host the 2014 Midlands Collegiate Athletic Conference Outdoor Track and Field Championships on April 25-26. “Our football stadium is a historical marker. It’s in the national registry. Each bleacher has it’s own registered number and the arch itself has its registered number,” Gipp said.

 “The width between each set of bleachers does not afford us room to put an eight-lane track in there that would be metric. So we’re trying to figure out how we can get another track built not just for our track athletes, but as a means for other athletes, other students and our community to have a place to walk or train on.”

Gipp and Mills have also discussed other needs like an indoor facility and grants available to build a multi-purpose complex for the entire campus. One possibility that has great potential is to make Mills the Alumni Relations Coordinator and expand the student-operated H-Club into a fundraising arm for alumni student athletes.

“My dream for Haskell is to organize the implementation of the fundraising effort,” Mills said. “I would like to use Running Strong and my name to reach out to H-Club members across the country. Former H-club members are now governors, presidents and chairmen of various tribes. They could head up key positions. I think with that effort of involving the H-Club, we could get the majority of the tribal leadership behind us. If it were a four-year project using $25,000 from a number of casinos with matching $25,000 from the vendors that do business with the casinos, we would be able to build a very quality track for Haskell.”

The Haskell educational tradition is as rich as its athletics. Mills said he will be in touch with alums like former Haskell basketball player Ernie Stevens Jr. (Oneida), now the Chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association. Stevens’ son Brandon YellowBird-Stevens is currently serving his second term on the Oneida Nation Tribal Council and serves on the Haskell Board of regents.

Courtsey Haskell University

Haskell University's stadium entrance

Ernest Stevens III works in communications and co-produced the motion picture Crooked Arrows. He learned his media skills at Haskell’s Film and Media Studies and the Haskell Theater. Jeff Grubbe played football for the Fighting Indians and is now the Chair at Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians in Palm Springs, California. There are many nations, many options for a school that first opened its doors in 1884 to begin an educational program that focused on agricultural education.

His vision also includes a new health and education facility for any student that wants to take additional classes to learn nutrition, diet and a healthier lifestyle that would help fight Diabetes. 

Mills’ bout with Type 2 Diabetes is well documented.

“This is still in the daydreaming phase,” Mills said with a laugh. “If every student took the classes, not necessarily required, it would give Indian Country tremendous knowledge on how we can take control of our diabetes. We could do the same with anger management or suicide prevention or crisis intervention. Pretty soon Haskell would be one of the quality places in the nation, not just Indian Country, for people to go and learn better quality lifestyles while they’re getting their education. I’m very much involved in that thought process.”

Billy Mills grew up with the four Lakota values – generosity, courage, respect and wisdom. He’s doing his best to give something back to a school that helped him to where he is today.