Mark Coyle fired two coaches during his first year as Gophers athletic director, dismissing J Robinson and Tracy Claeys with the wrestling and football programs engulfed in scandal.
Year 2 has been quieter for Coyle, but he has three key decisions looming. He inherited men’s hockey coach Don Lucia, women’s basketball coach Marlene Stollings and men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino from previous administrations.
How satisfied has Coyle been with them? Enough to extend their contracts? Or could he pull a surprise move and let one or more of them go?
Coyle typically won’t address coaching contracts during the season and declined an interview request for this story, but all three situations are worth tracking.
Lucia’s contract runs only through next season. Stollings was a Norwood Teague hire; the next time Coyle addresses her contract will be the first. Then there’s Pitino, who had one player expelled this season (Reggie Lynch) as his injury-riddled team stumbled back toward the Big Ten basement.
A closer look at the contract status of the Gophers’ three high-profile winter sport coaches:
Longer with Lucia?
Contract info: Coyle gave Lucia a two-year extension in October 2016. Lucia is making $612,500 this season. To buy him out after this season would cost $315,000.
Decision time: Lucia, 59, is in his 19th season at Minnesota and has given no indication he’s ready to quit. The Gophers are surging with a 6-1-1 record in their past eight games. To bring Lucia back without an extension could damage recruiting by creating too much uncertainty.
The case for: Lucia led the Gophers to NCAA titles in 2002 and 2003 and had them back in the NCAA championship game as recently as 2014. His players continue to thrive in the classroom. The team’s most recent multiyear APR (academic progress rate) was a perfect 1,000.
The case against: The Gophers haven’t won an NCAA tournament game since 2014, when they lost the title game to Union. Attendance is dropping. The proud program has advanced to the Frozen Four only twice in the past 12 seasons. The Gophers suffered first-round NCAA exits in 2013, 2015 and 2017.
Forecast: Lucia could quiet, if not silence, critics with one NCAA tournament victory. Two would send the Gophers to the Frozen Four in St. Paul. Another year without an NCAA tourney win, however, would elicit more calls for change.
Extension for Stollings?
Contract info: Stollings signed a one-year extension in August 2015 under interim athletic director Beth Goetz, shortly after Teague’s dismissal. The contract runs through 2020-21. Stollings is making $500,000 per season. The buyout is $325,000 per remaining season, a total of $975,000.
Decision time: Extend her contract now, or continue evaluating?
The case for: Stollings, 43, has corrected course in season four. After a first-round NCAA loss in 2015, the Gophers finished 20-12 and 15-16 the past two years, settling for the WNIT. But her team is on a serious run, at 21-7 and 10-5 in the Big Ten, including an upset of then-No. 10 Maryland last Sunday.
The case against: The Gophers drew an announced 2,415 for last week’s victory over a ranked Michigan squad, followed by crowds of 4,625 for Maryland and 3,477 for Indiana. Minnesotans haven’t quite connected with Stollings. Pam Borton recruited Rachel Banham and Carlie Wagner. Minnesota natives have transferred into Stollings’ program, including Kenisha Bell, but the coach has yet to sign one in-state scholarship recruit out of high school. And this year’s team still has work to do to avoid missing the NCAA tournament for a third consecutive year.
Forecast: Before the season, some boosters predicted change was coming, but Stollings has changed the conversation. If the Gophers make the tournament, would Coyle reward Stollings for an NCAA appearance, as he did Pitino, with an extension? The buyout will be interesting to track in any contract revision, because it’s rare a school would fire a nonrevenue sport’s coach with a buyout approaching $1 million. When Teague fired Borton, for example, her buyout was $335,000.
Pitino on notice?
Contract info: Last May, Coyle gave Pitino a one-year extension through 2021-22, but the additional year is not guaranteed and didn’t affect his buyout. Pitino has three more guaranteed seasons remaining. He is making $1.7 million this season. To buy him out at season’s end would cost $4.05 million.
Decision time: Ride this roller coaster, or hit eject?
The case for: Pitino, 35, was Big Ten Coach of the Year last season after steering the biggest turnaround in conference history. He also led Minnesota to an NIT championship in 2014. This year’s free fall from the Top 25 to the Big Ten’s bottom half can easily be explained with Lynch’s expulsion and injuries to Eric Curry, Amir Coffey and Dupree McBrayer.
The case against: In five seasons, Pitino’s Big Ten record is 31-58, including volatile swings the past three years from 2-16 to 11-7 to 4-13 (with a game Sunday at Purdue remaining). Embarrassing and troubling off-court issues have come in each of his seasons, a significant strike against him.
Forecast: University President Eric Kaler recently told boosters, “I have full confidence in [Pitino] and our coaching staff. These are great guys. We have a great recruiting class coming.” After the team went 8-23 two seasons ago, Pitino’s buyout was $7.1 million. Last year, his back was against the wall, and he led the Gophers to the NCAA tournament. Fast forward a year: If Pitino is struggling again, his buyout will have lowered to $2.7 million. If he bounces back, his Gophers will be trying to get to the Final Four in Minneapolis. Coyle likely rides the coaster at least one more season.