One week ago Monday, I walked out of a lengthy interview with Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle feeling reasonably confident that Tracy Claeys will remain his football coach.
Coyle wouldn’t discuss Claeys’ contract situation and gave a measured evaluation of his football coach’s job performance, but nothing in his comments suggested that Claeys would not return next season.
A day later, the football program got tossed upside down by a public-relations tsunami that has brought national embarrassment.
Now I’m not sure how Claeys can survive past the Holiday Bowl.
His return likely hinges on whether Coyle and his boss, university President Eric Kaler, believe this storm eventually blows over and public outrage subsides.
Fans showed increasing pushback toward the program and rising ticket prices this season. Average home attendance dipped to its lowest level in 14 years.
College administrators often talk about their “brand” in schmoozing donors and corporate sponsors. The image of Gophers football is not appealing right now. The stain from this painful episode will be permanent.
Seven months into his job, Coyle faces a critical decision in assessing how to proceed with his top revenue-generating program.
There are qualities about Claeys that I admire and respect, but his program is in chaos right now and the anger coming from Gophers fans can’t be ignored.
Anyone still believe that Claeys will receive a contract extension after the bowl game?
I argued on behalf of retaining Claeys immediately after the season, while acknowledging that an 8-4 record felt like a missed opportunity. The arguments were based purely on football matters.
The conversation changed to more serious tones last week, with the suspension of 10 players following a school investigation of a sexual assault allegation. Last week changed everything, and school officials are left to determine whether Claeys can effectively lead, knowing the level of disgust that now exists among those financially and emotionally invested in the program.
Claeys was put in a difficult spot the moment his players called him into a meeting Thursday and informed him of their plans to boycott the Holiday Bowl in protest over the suspensions.
It seems he had two choices: risk losing his team or risk losing his job.
Kaler had showed so little respect for Claeys that he told select boosters in an e-mail that it was Claeys’ decision to suspend his players when, in fact, the decision was made above him.
On the other side, the players were so incensed by what they perceived as a lack of due process that they went through with plans to boycott, despite knowing it put Claeys’ job in jeopardy.
Claeys ultimately sided with his players and then doubled down with a regrettable tweet that incited outrage once the school’s investigation report became public a day later.
I have a hard time believing that Claeys would fire off such an insensitive, indefensible remark with full knowledge of the details in that report.
Claeys admitted Sunday that he should have chosen different words to convey his message, but the damage was done. Now, his job status is tenuous.
Coyle was not available for comment Monday, so his thoughts remain unknown. Coyle offered Claeys a vote of confidence after the season by issuing a statement that read: “He is our head football coach … he has my full support.”
Coyle, however, wasn’t exactly effusive in praise of Claeys during a 30-minute interview last Monday. Asked how he would frame this season, Coyle called it “a learning experience” for Claeys.
Claeys has only two seasons remaining on his contract, which if he is retained would be a unique circumstance for a major-college football coach. I asked Coyle if he prefers that his football coach has more years on his contract.
“I never talk contracts,” he said.
I mentioned reports that he will extend Claeys.
“Again, we don’t make comments when we deal with contract extensions,” he said. “But I support Tracy like I support all of our coaches.”
Has that changed? We could find out before the new year.
Claeys wasn’t the only person in a leadership capacity that made mistakes in dealing with this crisis. The head coach, however, bears ultimate responsibility with his program.
Here’s the next step: Coyle and Kaler must decide, if they haven’t already, whether Gophers football can win back support and trust with Claeys in charge.