Tracy Claeys is expected to learn his fate as early as Tuesday. Finally. This awkward dance between the Gophers football coach and his employer needs a resolution so that everyone can move forward.
Two weeks ago, I thought it would be hard for Claeys to survive this messy situation. Emotions were raw. Allegations in a sexual assault investigation that led to suspensions of 10 players were reprehensible. Claeys publicly backed his players’ boycott with a poorly worded tweet that put him at odds with his bosses.
Now I’m not sure how this will end. Either outcome seems possible. But as a decision nears, here’s my vote: Retain Claeys and add one season to his contract with the same buyout provision ($250,000 per season), giving him three seasons remaining. I see enough positives in Claeys and his staff to maintain continuity.
For a week, we have all been reading tea leaves, thanks to a vague statement by athletic director Mark Coyle: “Now that our football team has completed its season following an exciting win in Tuesday night’s Holiday Bowl, Coach Claeys and I will take this opportunity to reflect on this past season before sitting down together to talk about the future and my expectations for our football program.”
What does that mean?
Does the delay signal that Claeys’ job is safe? Is Coyle buying time while he works back channels for a new coach? (Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck has been the hot name.) Did Coyle and university President Eric Kaler need time to consult key boosters and constituents before making a decision?
This nonsense, this weird limbo status, has to end. It’s not good for the program, and it’s unfair to Claeys and his staff. They deserve to know if the school supports them or wants to make a change.
Coyle’s statement certainly was less definitive than his statement supporting Claeys right after the season.
“He is our head football coach,” Coyle said then. “… he has my full support.”
If that’s still the case, Coyle needs to make his feelings known publicly immediately and not through a flimsy statement.
If Coyle and Kaler decide to keep Claeys but leaves his contract unaltered, that would signal only tepid support. Basically, they would be admitting that they don’t want to fire Claeys, but they are not sold on him either. Maybe that’s how they feel privately.
The Gophers won nine games for the first time since 2003, but an 8-4 record in the regular season was a minimum expectation with a weak schedule. They beat bad teams, lost to good teams. Some might view a one-year extension as rewarding mediocrity.
That’s fine, but Gophers football has a perception problem. And having a coach with only two seasons left on his contract hardly registers as a vote of confidence.
That argument has nothing to do with recruiting. I’d bet most recruits have no clue about a coach’s contract terms. But fans and media do.
Does the university really want to subject Claeys and his program to another job-watch season? Every loss this season brought speculation and online polls about whether Claeys would be fired. His status became an overriding narrative.
Adding one year to his deal with a minimal buyout might remove some of that tension while also protecting the school financially in the event of a future coaching change.
Claeys still has a lot to prove, on and off the field. He could have handled this crisis better, just like everyone else involved.
The total breakdown in communication between Kaler, Coyle and Claeys was staggering and made this situation infinitely more complicated.
Those three should have read the 80-page report from the university’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action together line by line before deciding their response.
Instead, they acted like a house divided, particularly Claeys’ two bosses, and that snowballed into a national embarrassment.
This ugly chapter has divided fans, too. One segment blames Claeys, another segment blames Kaler and Coyle. When the Claeys decision comes, there will be unhappy people, either way.
A decision is necessary, though. It’s time for school leaders to emerge from their bunker and let everyone know their vision for the football program.