Mark Coyle’s return to Minnesota is drawing applause nationally from coaches, executives and others who expect him to continue his run of leadership success. But as they say: It won’t be easy. U President Eric Kaler even used the word “challenges” in his introduction of Coyle on Wednesday. Here’s a look at five of the major challenges ahead for Coyle:
1. Repair the U’s image
Gophers leaders and athletes wound up making news several times in the past year because of poor judgment when it came to sexual behavior and spending money. “Cleaning up the image” could top anyone’s list. Norwood Teague’s scandalous resignation in August started this process. Audits both external and internal in recent months have flagged overspending and uneven spending by those in Gophers athletics. A federal investigation into gender discrimination that has male-female sports spending roots is approaching its 18th month. These are unrelated matters, but together they have caused the public to repeat the chorus: “What the heck is going on over there?” Coyle now becomes the cleanup man.
2. Get basketball on a rebound
Embarrassments on and off the court are what people will remember about the 2015-16 Gophers basketball season. On the court, Richard Pitino’s program posted one of the worst seasons in school history, finishing 8-23 overall while winning only two Big Ten games. It was worse off the court: One player was arrested, but not charged, this week for probable cause of criminal sexual conduct; three players were involved in a sex video appearing on a player’s social media site; and a senior was kicked off the team for behavioral reasons. All this came a season after another player dismissal and a player being arrested on two felony charges of domestic assault. Pitino, 33, signed a two-year extension this past summer that both gave the coach a raise and more than doubled the buyout terms — to a potential $7 million should he be fired this offseason. Kaler singled out the program in his introduction of Coyle on Wednesday, flagging it intentionally or not as Issue No. 1.
3. Find football stability
A bowl-game victory this past season and a Jan. 1 bowl appearance the previous season suggest the Gophers are playing some of their best football in decades. But Jerry Kill’s sudden retirement last October shook the program. Kill’s right-hand man, Tracy Claeys, took over and had an uneven finish in a 5-7 regular season. He gets his first full swing this year. A supposedly softer schedule awaits, making this a must-win season for Claeys in the eyes of some.
4. Facilities, fundraising victories
Where is the track and field complex going? How can the U close the large gap in fundraising for its athletic development complex? Facilities and fundraising questions seem stuck, and Coyle could find a big early victory if he’s able to regain some lost momentum. Whether they crawl or sprint to the finish answering these questions and reaching their goals, Coyle likely will oversee the opening of some key recruiting and development facilities.
5. Decision on Lucia
Two NCAA hockey championship trophies have Don Lucia’s fingerprints on them, but the Gophers didn’t qualify for the NCAA tournament this year. The 57-year-old coach has only one season remaining and has said he expects contract negotiations to begin this summer. Coyle said Wednesday he has great memories of attending games at Mariucci Arena, and now the decision to re-up Lucia or make a change looms as one of his first big decisions.
Star Tribune sports staff