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Claeys’ Future Overshadows Bowl Game

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December 26, 2016

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The Gophers play Washington State in the Holiday Bowl tomorrow night. The most important outcome will be whether Minnesota head coach Tracy Claeys still has a job by early January.

The embattled first-year coach has publicly acknowledged his fragile situation resulting from a tweet supporting the team’s temporary bowl boycott earlier this month. The team protested the suspension of 10 players for reasons that included what they viewed as lack of due process. The public stance of Claeys put him at odds with University of Minnesota president Eric Kaler and first-year athletic director Mark Coyle.

Coyle has infrequently engaged the media in recent months, including the future of Claeys who has only two years remaining on his contract and a $500,000 buyout. Fan interest in the team nosedived this season, and there was speculation more than a month ago whether Claeys will receive a contract extension or even retain his job. Season tickets declined in 2016 and all signs are for a further drop next year.

It’s easy to assume Kaler and Coyle are upset their coach didn’t follow the company line last week. With litigation and hearings expected involving the suspended players, are Kaler and Coyle looking for a start-over in the head coaching position?

Tracy Claeys

Tracy Claeys

Making that move means dismantling a quality coaching staff, a group of assistants Claeys inherited from Jerry Kill last year. It also means giving up on Claeys, a gifted defensive coach who produced an 8-4 overall record and 5-4 record in the Big Ten. While the team played the program’s easiest schedule in years and was often unimpressive even in winning, the Gophers were competitive and played above .500 in league games for the second time in three years—and for just the third time since 2000.

An external source who has been close to the athletic department for years believes money is a deterrent to dismissing Claeys and his assistants. While the buyout with Claeys is minimal, adding the total buyout amount for the assistants and the head coach would push the final payout to about $3 million, according to another Sports Headliners source.

Maybe that is a factor about whether to retain Claeys and staff, but it’s doubtful. When Kaler has wanted to spend money on athletics, he has done so. The U dumped basketball coach Tubby Smith in 2013 with a reported buyout of $2.5 million. The school broke ground in late 2015 on the $166 million Athletes Village, a project partially financed with borrowed money and with an emphasis on football.

Former president Bob Bruininks didn’t back off because of an unplanned buyout of Glen Mason. After the December 29, 2006 Insight Bowl, Bruininks fired the Gophers football coach who had finished the regular season with a 6-6 overall record. Mason had revived the program after the Jim Wacker era that saw the Gophers produce a 16-39 record.

Early January that year proved to be a difficult time searching for Mason’s replacement. Tim Brewster, who had never been a head coach, was Mason’s successor and sort of a Wacker replay—espousing a lot of optimism but delivering minimal results after three years.

If there was a handbook for college athletics directors the chapter on “proceed with care” would include caution about hiring a head football coach in January. The field of prospects is smaller than in November and December when most vacancies are filled. By early January coaches can be less likely to accept another offer because the National Signing Day in early February for high school players is just weeks away.

Here is another problem: How many quality head coaches will even be interested in the Gophers job? A new coach inherits the mess of guiding the program through the suspensions and sex scandal. Several key players could transfer and the publicity surrounding the program puts a dark cloud over recruiting. Then, too, it’s no secret that for decades the U administration and faculty support for football has been mixed at best, and the program hasn’t won a Big Ten title since 1967.

Kaler and Coyle could easily end up hiring a new head coach and staff with fewer skills than the present group. Warning: “Be careful what you wish for.”

Could Kaler and Coyle be deterred from letting Claeys go because of legal action? Minnesota employment law attorney Marshall Tanick told Sports Headliners that if Claeys is fired he may have a legal claim against the U under the state’s human rights act. An employer can’t discipline an employee who supports a claim involving human or civil rights activities, Tanick said. In Claeys’ situation he supported players who contend they have been denied due process.

Jerry Kill

Jerry Kill

If there is a coaching change, Gophers fans are right to be skeptical about how adept Kaler and Coyle will be at hiring a high quality replacement for Claeys. It was Kaler who hired Norwood Teague as athletic director in 2012. The impact from that decision was staggering, with the University taking a major hit in image during Teague’s tenure. Teague’s problems ranged from allegations about sexual harassment to controversial scholarship seating donations for football games. He also had a chilly relationship with Kill who was a much superior fundraiser. Friends of Kill insist that the coach’s resignation last year because of health problems was related to carrying too much of the fundraising load in the athletic department.

Under Teague’s and Kaler’s watch, basketball coach Richard Pitino was hired to replace Smith in 2013. Early this year Pitino worked his way through a sex scandal involving his players. During Pitino’s tenure he also received a much criticized contract extension and compensation increase from the U administration. His team last season produced the program’s worst Big Ten record ever, 2-16, although his current Gophers are much improved and 12-1 in nonconference games.

It was the decision of Kaler and Coyle to part ways earlier this year with wrestling coach J Robinson. The University investigated Robinson last summer over how he handled allegations his wrestlers used and sold the drug Xanax. In June both Hennepin County and the City of Minneapolis declined to file charges that Gophers wrestlers used and sold the anti-anxiety drug, and that Robinson covered up the alleged activity.

Robinson coached the Gophers to three national championships, and produced a long list of Big Ten team and individual champions, and All-Americans. He positively impacted the lives of U wrestlers and thousands of youth attending his summer camps. He is regarded as a high character educator by admirers.

When Kaler had an opportunity last year to hire Kill as an assistant athletic director, he passed. Like Robinson, Kill is a strong leader who would have contributed to a winning culture in the athletic department. Externally, Kill was the one individual who could have raised a lot of money for the Athletes Village project because of his popularity in reviving Gophers football.

Coyle has hired two head football coaches as an athletic director. When he was AD at Mountain West football power Boise State, head coach Chris Petersen left for the University of Washington. Bryan Harsin, a former Petersen assistant at Boise, was head coach at Arkansas State and a natural choice to lead the Broncos. Harsin has continued the success at Boise but not at the level Petersen achieved.

About 13 months ago as Syracuse’s athletics director, Coyle fired Scott Shafer who he had inherited. He replaced Shafer with Dino Babers who had two years of head coaching experience at Bowling Green. Babers likes a circus passing offense and one of Syracuse’s losses this fall was by a score of 76-61 to Pitt. He was 4-8 in his first season at Syracuse.

If Kaler and Coyle decide to change coaches, the best move among possible candidates might be 36-year-old Western Michigan head coach P.J. Fleck. He has the 13-0 Broncos in the Cotton Bowl on January 2 against Wisconsin. The charismatic Fleck, who has worked for Kill, is already a national media favorite with write-ups that have included the New York Times and Sports Illustrated.

The Gophers football program is caught in a firestorm right now and no one thinks all of this will disappear any time soon. Criticism is directed across the board at Kaler, Coyle, Claeys, the players, the U Board of Regents and others. Among critics is former governor and passionate Gophers fan Arne Carlson who jumped on Kaler and the board last week while talking to WCCO Radio’s Mike Max. Carlson said Kaler hasn’t demonstrated effective leadership in guiding the regents through the latest scandal and previous difficulties.

“He (Kaler) does keep the Board of Regents in his back pocket, and that’s because the Board of Regents doesn’t see itself as responsible for providing oversight. The Board of Regents from my perspective—and I don’t mean to be utterly blunt—is perfectly worthless. And you can’t have it (that way). You’ve gotta have Minnesota’s best and brightest, and most talented, and most successful people sitting on the Board of Regents.”

While a lot of developments surrounding the controversy at the U will require more time, one storyline that won’t is the future of Claeys. That will be answered soon. But how?

The guess here is that the appeal of new leadership, more immediate public support for the football team and the opportunity to have Coyle make his first signature hire will win out.

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David Shama

David Shama is a former sports editor and columnist with local publications. His writing and reporting experiences include covering the Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Gophers. Shama’s career experiences also include sports marketing. He is the former Marketing Director of the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. He is also the former Marketing Director of the United States Tennis Association’s Northern Section. A native of Minneapolis, Shama has been part of the community his entire life. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota where he majored in journalism. He also has a Master’s degree in education from the University of St. Thomas. He was a member of the Governor’s NBA’s Task Force to help create interest in bringing pro basketball to town in the 1980s.

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