This long holiday weekend will be no time to rest for Gophers athletics, but instead will be a three-day leap from the final days of a tumultuous 2015-16 sports year to a new era and new leader Tuesday morning.
When new athletic director Mark Coyle arrives this week, all Gophers seasons save for track and field and possibly baseball will have concluded. Banners will be hung for the women’s hockey team’s national title, for volleyball’s charge to the NCAA semifinals and for several Big Ten titles. Elsewhere, notably in Williams Arena, 2015-16 can’t be forgotten soon enough.
Whether teams thrived or flopped, however, trouble away from the playing fields often overshadowed results.
While Coyle, lured from Syracuse on May 11, was in transition last week, his new school took another major image hit when allegations surfaced that a prescription drug problem had taken root within J Robinson’s storied wrestling program.
The alleged Xanax abuse and dealing became the latest concern for Gophers athletics in a year that included suspensions, legal trouble, alarming audits — and began with sexual harassment allegations and a resignation at the top.
“Mark’s new job here is a big one, with large challenges to tackle and exciting opportunities to seize,” U President Eric Kaler said while introducing Coyle this month. “My expectation of him is that he will lead a department that is not only strong in competition and excellent in the classroom, but also exemplary in character and citizenship.
“I expect him to set a high bar and ensure that this department makes news for winning Big Ten and national titles and producing admirable student-athletes, and not for unacceptable behavior by anyone in the department.”
Negative headlines rocked the department before the school year even started. On Aug. 7, the first day of football practice, former AD Norwood Teague resigned amid accusations of sexual harassment.
In October, football coach Jerry Kill stunned his team and many fans when he was suddenly forced to retire due to health concerns. The basketball team followed with one of the worst seasons in its 119-year history, managing just eight wins and a program-record 23 losses in Year 3 for coach Richard Pitino. Meanwhile, a senior was kicked off the team, three players were suspended soon after sex videos appeared on freshman Kevin Dorsey’s social media sites and junior Reggie Lynch was arrested May 8 on suspicion of sexual misconduct.
Interim AD Beth Goetz kept a low public profile through it all. She stepped in when Teague resigned and drew credit within the department for bringing a calm authority. But from August to May, she had her hands full amid the turmoil.
“I don’t know what the standard of operation was under athletic director Teague or under athletic director Beth Goetz,” Dean Johnson, chairman of the Board of Regents, said last week. “I don’t know what the internal memo was to the coaches. But … I think there will be a new standard of transparency under new athletic director Coyle for all sports. Because any kind of allegations in athletics does distract us from our core mission.”
The distraction that will greet Coyle on Tuesday could be among the most serious of the school year. A Gophers wrestler, who spoke to the Star Tribune on the condition of anonymity, said four teammates had 2,500 pills of Xanax, which they were selling for $5 to $8 a pill. The source said Robinson told the team he knew who was selling and taking the prescription sedative and coaxed confession letters from them, promising to grant them amnesty.
Minneapolis defense attorney Ryan Pacyga told the Star Tribune last week that if these allegations are confirmed, Robinson could face criminal charges in the matter.
The developments, and subsequent investigation by University Police, have changed the perception of the national title-winning program Robinson built over 30 years.
If managing the sudden crisis within the wrestling program isn’t Coyle’s first task, it’s near the top of a daunting list.
As he tries to rebuild the department’s integrity, Coyle also will need to make major leadership decisions over the next year. His three highest-profile coaches all face uncertain long-term futures. Pitino has yet to reach the NCAA tournament. Don Lucia’s hockey team also missed the NCAAs, and he now enters the final year of his contract. Tracy Claeys will be met by win-now pressure in football, with a minimal contractual buyout.
“I think Mark Coyle,” regent Michael Hsu said last week, “is going to have his work cut out for him.”