Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle is not the most dynamic speaker or a dominant personality, but the man knows how to play to his strengths.
Chief among them is preparation, particularly when it comes to coaching searches — and that attribute is setting Minnesota up to win. Talking to reporters after the introduction Friday of his latest high-profile hire — new women’s basketball coach Lindsay Whalen — Coyle explained his process without patting himself on the back.
“I like to be very prepared. I have a short list of coaches. If you came to my house in St. Paul, I can open up a desk drawer and I’ve got green files of every sport, coaches we want to go after,” Coyle said. “We constantly update that list because you never know when something is going to happen. When something happens, I believe you have to go quickly.”
Those last two sentiments are important because in college sports, and particularly at Minnesota, it seems as though something always happens. And past searches under his predecessors have not always been so smooth or quick.
Coyle has hired six head coaches in less than two years as AD, including three of the school’s highest-profile programs.
In each of those three cases, he has moved quickly and landed his targeted coach: P.J. Fleck, an energetic young coach coming off an undefeated regular season at Western Michigan; Bob Motzko, the best combination of experience, accomplishment and local knowledge; and Whalen, another young coach who can jump-start a program.
Coyle knew Motzko and Whalen already from his previous work as a Gophers administrator from 2001-05 and said he even used to throw T-shirts into the crowd during Whalen’s games.
With each hire, he seems to have taken into account the specific natures and needs of each program. With Fleck, Coyle emphasized a culture change needed to take the football program to another level. With Motzko, there was a greater foundation and the possibility to aim for a more established coach.
With Whalen, there was a unique opportunity to hire the most universally loved athlete in this market — college or pro, male or female — of the past two decades. She will bring instant credibility to recruiting and has already boosted ticket sales.
Coyle said Whalen was already on that short list on a file in his house long before Marlene Stollings left Minnesota for a pay raise and what could be deemed a better fit on both ends at Texas Tech. He acted quickly to make what seems like an obvious hire in some case — but it also carries some risk, given Whalen has never been a head coach.
“I wish I could describe that ‘it’ factor, but you guys know her and she has it,” Coyle said of Whalen.
Coyle’s predecessors tended to use coaching search firms in processes that took longer, cost more and sometimes ended in high-profile rejections. He eschews them, taking that part of his playbook from Kentucky AD Mitch Barnhart, under whom Coyle worked for several years.
“I don’t believe in using search firms,” Coyle said. “I feel like that’s my job as an athletic director.”
It sets Coyle up to get the glory or the blame depending on how things work out. What we know right now is that all his biggest hires have been smart and well-executed.