SAN DIEGO – She stood under a palm tree Monday near the San Diego Marina, listening to the Gophers marching band blare “The Minnesota Rouser” before hundreds of clapping fans.
Mary Stepnick, 33, was a part of that band herself on five bowl trips, so she knew the routine. But this was different, and not just because of the 62-degree sunshine.
Stepnick came to see Tuesday’s Holiday Bowl against Washington State, but she’s more concerned about the football program’s future. She wonders what’s next after 10 players were suspended this month in the latest fallout from an alleged September sexual assault, followed by a two-day player boycott.
Coach Tracy Claeys spoke openly about his uncertain job status last week. Athletic director Mark Coyle has remained mum. About 2,600 fans purchased Holiday Bowl tickets through the Gophers’ ticket office, compared with about 7,800 for Washington State.
“This feels like it could be a step back to 10 years ago, when they hired [Tim] Brewster,” Stepnick said. “We’re going to lose recruits. We’re going to lose everything. I don’t think we look very good on a national scale, but this is our team. What are we going to do?”
Sitting on a nearby picnic table, Maureen Wavrin described the mood for Minnesota fans as “uneasy,” heading into the Holiday Bowl. She and her husband, Dennis, have had Gophers season tickets for 20 years and booked their San Diego flights nine days before the boycott started.
“I thought they might as well shut down the whole football program if they didn’t come to this game,” Wavrin said. “With the football program, it’s one thing after another.”
She added: “I worry about Tracy Claeys, if he could be the fall guy for all of this.”
An online petition on Moveon.org calling for Claeys’ termination drew 470 signatures over four days, while another petition on the same site had 60 signatures to keep him.
When the players were contemplating their boycott, Claeys warned them that such a decision could cost him his job. They went forward anyway Dec. 15, halting all football activities in protest of the administration’s handling of the 10 player suspensions.
Five of them face expulsion: Ray Buford, Carlton Djam, KiAnte Hardin, Dior Johnson and Tamarion Johnson. Four face one-year suspensions from school: Seth Green, Kobe McCrary, Mark Williams and Antoine Winfield Jr., and Antonio Shenault faces probation. All 10 are scheduled for appeals hearings in January.
The crux of the boycott, other players said, was that the university issued the suspensions before the appeals hearings and with minimal explanation from President Eric Kaler and Coyle.
“The players wanted more info, everyone wanted more info, but the U couldn’t say anything because of privacy,” Stepnick said Monday, as the palm fronds above her swayed gently in the San Diego breeze.
On the first night of the boycott, Claeys tweeted, “Have never been more proud of our kids. I respect their rights and support their effort to make a better world!”
Claeys later explained he needed to support his players publicly, though he said he could have chosen “different wording.” Much like the players, the coach has drawn criticism for the stance, especially since Dec. 16, when KSTP-TV posted the 80-page report of the alleged sexual assault from the university’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action.
Claeys later said he hadn’t read that report when he issued his tweet.
“I think that if Tracy Claeys and his staff and the players had the information that Mark Coyle and President Kaler had, they would have reacted differently,” said Bob Hughes, president of the Gophers Goal Line Club. “By no means did this boycott say the team condones sexual violence. It was over the whole idea of due process.”
Claeys’ future was a hot topic on the morning charter Hughes and 161 other boosters took Monday from the Twin Cities to San Diego. Hughes said he heard from 10 to 12 other passengers who strongly supported Claeys.
“I just hope that Mark Coyle and President Kaler and to a lesser degree, the Regents, retain Tracy Claeys and give him an extension on his contract,” Hughes said.
Claeys continued brushing aside questions about his future Monday, saying: “I don’t worry about that. I don’t have control over it.”
Washington State coach Mike Leach was fired after 10 years as Texas Tech’s coach in 2009, over alleged mistreatment of a player who had concussion symptoms. He and Claeys have had some brief chances to talk in the buildup to the Holiday Bowl.
“I think all coaches wish for the best for one another,” Leach said. “I think [Claeys has] done such a fine job up there in Minnesota it’s hard to not respect.”
On Nov. 28, two days after the Gophers’ 31-17 loss at Wisconsin in the regular-season finale, Coyle voiced support for Claeys, and there was talk of a potential contract extension. It’s unclear if Coyle plans to address Claeys’ future again publicly after the Holiday Bowl.
The Gophers are 10-point underdogs, with big holes in their secondary from the suspensions as they prepare to face Washington State’s prolific passing offense. Both teams are 8-4, but win or lose, Stepnick said the game simply isn’t big enough to make the uneasy feeling around the program go away.
“I’ll be a Gopher fan until I’m dead,” she said. “We’ll get through this. We’ve been through a bunch of other stuff. I’m not negative about it, but I’m not that hopeful either.”