University President Eric Kaler grabbed a hard hat and a gold shovel adorned with the inscription “Nothing Short of Greatness” and dug the first, ceremonial scoop of dirt Friday.

Surrounded by top university officials and donors, Kaler led the groundbreaking for the $166 million Athletes Village, a gesture of hope at a moment of sudden, sweeping uncertainty for Gophers athletics.

“Let’s just say through all the consternation we’ve had here at the university over the last few months, it’s a good day to celebrate,” said Board of Regents chairman Dean Johnson.

The renewed anticipation over a state-of-the-art home for the athletic department came just two days after coach Jerry Kill left Gophers fans reeling with the stunning announcement of his resignation. Kill’s exit leaves the department with an interim football coach, Tracy Claeys, and an interim athletic director, Beth Goetz, while it is trying to raise an additional $113 million and hit the original fundraising goal for the Athletes Village project ($190 million). Meanwhile, two separate investigations — one of gender discrimination complaints and another of sexual harassment claims against former athletic director Norwood Teague — are ongoing.

Independently, each of those probes is significant. Collectively, they create a delicate time for the department.

“They’re in flux, no question,” said Bob Stein, former Gophers football All-America who later became team president of the Timberwolves. “But sometimes question marks are opportunities, too.”

The athletic director and football coach are the two most powerful figures in the athletic department at most major schools. Kill, who retired to deal with complications from epilepsy, also served as the Gophers best fundraiser and most vocal advocate for improved facilities. Claeys wants the job, but he’s been put into a difficult situation, especially for recruiting. The football staff can now sell recruits on the Athletes Village but can’t promise who will be coaching when those facilities open.

The tenuous nature of having two interims in key positions creates a unique hiring timetable. Ideally, a new athletic director would hire the new football coach, but Kaler indicated this week that the two searches might be conducted “contemporaneously.”

“A lot of moving parts right now,” Kaler said at Kill’s retirement news conference.

What comes first?

Johnson has a clear vision of the order in which the issues should be resolved.

Addressing the two investigations, he said, should be a priority, with decisions on the athletic director and coach to follow. “It’s kind of a 1, 2, 3,” he said. “I don’t think it’s fair to an athletic director to name a head coach before an athletic director, and it’s not fair for a head coach to come into place when they don’t know who the athletic director is going to be.

“The lagging question is: What is the timeline?” he added. “And I don’t know. It’s wait-and-see on the investigations.”

One scenario holds that the university should wait until the investigations are complete and the findings released before launching an AD search because the unknowns could affect the pool of candidates.

However, former Gophers athletic director Rick Bay, who inherited a department under investigation by the NCAA regarding major violations in the late 1980s, said the investigations won’t necessarily be a deterrent if the search begins immediately.

“I think in this case, I don’t see it being a deal-breaker,” he said. “I don’t see it as a hurdle at all in terms of somebody who really wants the job.”

Johnson said the oversight committee hopes to receive a report within 30 to 45 days and that the university will swiftly follow with any necessary action.

In the meantime, Johnson, along with Regent Michael Hsu, said he is happy with how Goetz is performing and the temporary arrangement with Claeys. But Hsu, while saying the university is “in good shape, in good hands,” acknowledged that the situation could affect fundraising.

“We have a lot of donors who are waiting to see what comes out of this,” he said. “They don’t want to make a commitment until they know. And so it really is going to hinge on what comes out of the investigations and whether or not they’re comfortable giving us a donation at that point.”

Prominent booster John Lindahl said he doesn’t foresee fundraising suffering because of the uncertainty.

“I don’t think it will have an impact,” Lindahl said. “Kaler and the regents have really put a lot of emphasis behind [the Athletes Village] and I think it’s going to continue to gain a lot of momentum and support. There are a lot of people we’ve talked to who have not stepped back. I think they’re waiting until the first of the year to make some permanent commitments to the project.”

Unusual, not unprecedented

Former Wisconsin athletic director Pat Richter described simultaneous openings at athletic director and football coach as “unusual,” but it’s not unprecedented. The University of Michigan faced a similar situation recently. Wisconsin also started over at those two positions in 1989 when it hired Richter, who subsequently named Barry Alvarez football coach.

“Even though it’s unusual,” Richter said, “that usually is where people get a chance to show what they can do and make their mark, so to speak.”

Johnson, who took over as regent chairman in July, noted with a chuckle that he’s drawn on a long background of leadership roles in half a year.

“I’ve been working for 40 years-plus as a parish pastor, a military chaplain and Senate majority and minority leader — and it’s taken all of my experiences to deal with these situations,” he said.

Bay experienced difficult times running the department and is well-versed in the challenges.

“The hardest thing is to keep the eye on the future,” he said. “You get so much negative energy that it just wears you out. It’s important to have positive things to build on while you’re dealing with the crisis.”

Goetz views the Athletes Village in that manner. The project is expected to be completed in two years or less and will bring the Gophers more in line with Big Ten competitors.

“It’s a great symbol of what we want to be,” Goetz said.

Johnson also remains optimistic that in time, the university will resolve its issues.

“There are a couple of torpedoes that have been launched into the department,” he said. “We took some hits. But the ship is still sailing.

“Does it set us back? Sure it sets us back. What organization and individuals don’t have setbacks? But the strength of the University of Minnesota department of athletics is how we have and are responding in these difficult times. We will be better in many respects than we are today.”

 

Staff writer Joe Christensen contributed to this story.