Mark Coyle found himself in a no-win situation with whatever decision he made on his football coach, Tracy Claeys.
It’s hard to know exact percentages, but based on social media feedback and fan message boards, public perception was divided in terms of whether the Gophers new athletic director should fire Claeys or retain him.
Coyle was bound to anger a segment of fans, one way or the other.
The Star Tribune reported Monday that Claeys will receive a contract extension soon. With public speculation in overdrive after the team’s collapse against Wisconsin, Coyle released a statement supporting Claeys without mentioning an extension.
“He is our head football coach,” his statement read. “As is the case with every one of our head coaches, he has my full support.”
From my perspective, Coyle chose a smart, safe option when presented with a complicated picture in an 8-4 season.
Claeys’ status and the state of the program is a nuanced discussion that goes deeper than some fans’ fascination with his lack of emotion on the sideline.
Let’s start with this basic fact: No athletic director would fire a football coach immediately after an eight-win season at Minnesota. Not going to happen, even if those eight wins were inflated by the softest schedule in years.
The Gophers defeated only one team that finished with a winning record — Colorado State at 7-5. Their four losses were against teams with winning records, leaving them with a 5-4 Big Ten record and fourth-place finish in the West division.
Many of us expected more, making this feel like a ho-hum season. Not bad, not great, basically a missed opportunity. No other way to frame it.
But that doesn’t mean Coyle should blow up the whole thing and start over.
No doubt that Claeys has made mistakes. He occasionally makes peculiar decisions in game management, and his team’s second-half struggles in winnable games became troublesome.
But why not show patience to see if Claeys can improve in certain areas while also acknowledging things he does well in creating a solid foundation for his program?
Since 2012, the Gophers national ranking in total defense has gone thusly: 33rd, 43rd, 40th, 24th and 23rd this season.
Given the program’s history of defensive incompetence, those strides under Claeys and now defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel should not be dismissed casually.
The main problem has been on the other side of the ball. Without piling on one individual, it’s worth giving Claeys and first-year offensive coordinator Jay Johnson a chance to operate with a different quarterback starting next season.
Fans love to romanticize the next coach. Sorry, just can’t buy Les Miles being interested. That’s not a defeatist attitude, just a realistic view of where the program stands.
That’s not to say the Tim Brewster debacle should paralyze the school from making future changes. One mistake doesn’t guarantee the same result thereafter. Jerry Kill proved to be a smart choice.
Sticking by Claeys isn’t a sign that Coyle is content with mediocrity. It just shows he believes Claeys can be successful here, presumably with better quarterback play and other improvements, including from the head coach himself.
Being patient is not a sign of weak leadership.
Now, Coyle and Claeys can’t ignore fan disinterest. I’m not sure how they fix that, but it’s a serious problem that must be addressed.
Fans seem to want Claeys to be something he’s not. He’s not fiery or emotional. He’s not a rah-rah salesman. He can’t whip a room of boosters into excitement the way Kill did. Claeys has a different personality than his former boss.
Any buzz for Gophers football is negligible right now. Their average attendance was 43,814, their lowest since 2002. The announced crowd for the Northwestern game in the home finale was the smallest in eight seasons at TCF Bank Stadium.
Some will argue that firing Claeys would solve their attendance problems, but that theory assumes they could hire a big-named, established coach, an unlikely possibility.
Coyle stayed quiet during the season, never publicly revealing his thoughts on Claeys’ job performance. His show of support Monday undoubtedly will receive mixed reviews within his fan base.
Time will tell if he made the right decision, but for now, Claeys deserves a shot to prove his new boss correct.