– The Gophers football team will play a game here Tuesday night, which can be viewed as either a relief or a meaningless diversion given all that has transpired the past 14 days.

What happens afterward remains uncertain, though it would be naive to think the operation will hum right along unchanged.

Programs don’t go through events like what the Gophers just experienced and emerge without damage. A full-blown crisis of this magnitude will have repercussions. We just don’t know the full extent yet.

Playing a game will help provide some sense of normalcy and briefly take the focus off fallout from the university’s sexual assault investigation. But it’s not being melodramatic to suggest Gophers football has reached a critical crossroads that will shape its future.

The most pressing matter starts at the top. Will the school retain coach Tracy Claeys or fire him? Neither outcome can be dismissed. Judging by my e-mail inbox, public support exists for either option.

If athletic director Mark Coyle sticks by Claeys, he must voice his support right away and then decide what to do with Claeys contract. He has only two seasons left on his deal. To do nothing would signal tepid support, at best.

Will the 10 suspended players have their punishment upheld or reduced on appeal? If their punishments remain unchanged, the team will lose those five players recommended for expulsion and perhaps a few of the five who face one-year suspensions from the university. That level of personnel loss — three key defensive backs and possibly the starting quarterback next season (Seth Green) among them — in one swoop would be devastating.

How will this scandal affect recruiting? This situation becomes another hurdle that Gophers coaches must navigate in the cutthroat nature of recruiting. Don’t think for a second that other schools won’t use this against them. Of course they will and probably already have.

Claeys’ staff — or the next staff if there is change — will have to work even harder to sell their message to recruits and their parents and hope they can limit the damage. Recruiting at Minnesota has unique challenges. This adds another layer of complications that won’t be easy to overcome.

Will players transfer if they feel disgruntled with the process, their perception of a lack of institutional support or if a coaching change occurs? A few transfers sounds plausible, but a sizable exodus seems highly unlikely because NCAA transfer rules are restrictive. If a player already has used his redshirt season, would he really be willing to forfeit another year of eligibility under transfer rules?

Will fans drop their tickets in protest (or boycott, in this case) after another painful episode in a long line of them by this department? This should be a big cause for concern after average attendance at home games plummeted to its lowest level in 14 years.

Apathy toward Gophers football has started to set in. Now fans are disgusted and disheartened, too. I can’t recall a time with more hostility being directed toward the football program, certainly not in the past few decades.

Coyle has a serious issue on his plate.

Sometime in the next few weeks, the athletic department will receive results of a survey conducted during the football season to understand declining attendance. One main reason: The scholarship seating program instituted by former athletic director Norwood Teague was a colossal failure because expensive price hikes drove loyal fans away, possibly for good.

Coyle also is considering forming a “fan council” to give fans a more intimate platform to share their experiences and frustrations.

“We need to get feedback from our fans to find out what is working, what’s not working, what can we do better?” Coyle said a few days before his department was engulfed in crisis. “I don’t blame people. It’s not their fault that they’re not coming to games. We have to figure out how to create an atmosphere where they want to be a part of that.”

Their work has become infinitely more difficult the past two weeks.


Chip Scoggins chip.scoggins@startribune.com