Mark Coyle’s first words Wednesday as the leader of the embattled Gophers athletics department weren’t hard-edge, like the ones University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler had just spoken about Gophers basketball.
Coyle, 47, a native of Waterloo, Iowa, had listened to Kaler’s introduction, which featured this assessment of his men’s basketball program: “I’m profoundly disappointed in the continuing episodes, poor judgment, alleged crimes, and it simply can’t continue.”
Kaler hired Coyle to help restore the Gophers’ integrity, luring him away from Syracuse University after only 11 months with a five-year deal that pays him $850,000 annually. In that short stint as Syracuse AD, Coyle bolstered his reputation as a fixer of troubled programs and also celebrated trips to the Final Four in both men’s and women’s basketball.
“So the question is, why Minnesota?” Coyle said. “And it was very simple for me. I’ve been in this for a long time. We love this place.”
Coyle’s voice then cracked as he motioned toward his wife and three children, decked out in Gophers maroon and gold in the front row. He had to pause for about 30 seconds to compose himself before launching into a story from his first stint working for the Gophers, from 2001 to 2005, when he held jobs such as athletics marketing director. He looked at his daughter, Grace, who is now 14.
“I remember when Gracie turned 3,” Coyle said. “The benefit of being the director of marketing is you can have Goldy come to your house for your daughter’s birthday party. And I remember Goldy Gopher walking down the steps of our basement and Gracie singing the Minnesota fight song. That’s why Minnesota. This is a special place.”
A swift move
Coyle quickly emerged from a thick field of potential candidates and was announced as the lone finalist by Kaler on Wednesday morning. Minnesota moved quickly when Kaler made his choice, agreeing to pay Syracuse $500,000, covering the buyout in Coyle’s contract.
Kaler said the average Big Ten AD salary is $910,000. Coyle’s is less than that — although he could earn an additional $150,000 annually in incentives — but more than double what former Gophers AD Norwood Teague was initially paid.
“Mark [Coyle] obviously had a strong contract at Syracuse, and it was important to let him make a financial step to come here,” Kaler said. “… In the past, we have been satisfied with lower compensation for our athletic directors. Mark is in a different class.”
Kaler, who hired Teague as AD in 2012, has been working to restore the damage that occurred during Teague’s three-year tenure. Teague resigned amid allegations of sexual harassment by two university employees last August.
Beth Goetz stepped in as interim AD and had been viewed by some as the favorite to land the permanent job. Kaler waited to officially launch the search until March, saying he hoped to make the hire by July 1.
The pick came sooner, and when it did, it came with many positive reviews.
Craig Thompson, commissioner of the Mountain West Conference — which includes Boise State University, where Coyle was AD — is a Minnesota graduate and praised his alma mater’s hire. “I think it’s an absolute grand slam,” Thompson said. “I’ve known Mark for 15, 20 years. I think from an experience perspective, national contacts in the industry, he’s absolutely the total package.”
After leaving Minnesota in 2005, Coyle became deputy AD at Kentucky, where he worked closely with men’s basketball coach Tubby Smith.
“[The Gophers] couldn’t have hired a better guy,” said Smith, who went on to coach at Minnesota for six seasons. “I’m really happy for him and his family. He’s paid his dues. He knows Minnesota, he understands the culture there at that university. He’ll take them in the right direction, that’s for sure.”
Coyle left Kentucky in 2011 to become the AD at Boise State. He was hired there three months after the NCAA sanctioned the athletic program for violations in five sports, including football. Coyle guided Boise State through the probationary period and helped the football program remain among the nation’s elite.
“I think I can bring stability,” Coyle said Wednesday. “ … It’s very important to me, being transparent and earning trust and developing relationships.”
‘Commitment to integrity’
Kaler said there were six semifinalists who interviewed. Among those confirmed by Star Tribune sources were Coyle, Goetz, Northern Illinois AD Sean Frazier, Penn State deputy AD Phil Esten and Miami (Ohio) AD David Sayler.
Goetz was not made available to comment Wednesday, but Kaler and Coyle both said they hope she remains a Gopher. “The department moved forward under her leadership,” Kaler said. “She’s been an incredible partner, and I know she has a bright, bright future.”
Kaler noted the department’s successes. The Gophers sit fourth behind Stanford, Ohio State and Michigan in the national Director’s Cup standings, which rank Division I schools in success across all sports.
But the Gophers haven’t won a share of the Big Ten football title since 1967, and their storied men’s hockey program missed this year’s NCAA tournament. Then there’s men’s basketball, which set a school record for losses last season and has faced an assortment of off-court issues.
“Frankly, this has been a tough week and a tough couple of months for our men’s basketball program,” Kaler said. “Mark is aware of my concerns and wherever he’s been, Mark’s commitment to integrity is unquestioned.
“I expect him to set a high bar and make sure this department makes news for winning Big Ten and national titles and producing admirable and successful student athletes, and not for unacceptable behavior by anyone in the department.”
Kaler drew criticism for hiring Turnkey Search for $150,000 plus expenses, and naming a 16-member search committee. But Coyle said Turnkey reached out to him, laying the groundwork for his eventual interview.
Besides Kaler, only four members of the search committee — co-chairs Katrice Albert and Perry Leo, Kevin Warren (Vikings COO) and Deborah Olson (retired CEO of Nelson Laboratories) — conducted the semifinalist interviews.
“I got a lot of advice and I listened,” Kaler said. “But there was no way in the world I wasn’t going to have this be my call. It was too important. Too much depends on this. I got to get it right and I think I have.”
Kaler clearly had help within the Coyle household, where the pull of the Midwest was strong. Coyle played college football at Drake University in Des Moines and earned a master’s degree in teaching there. Coyle’s wife, Krystan, is a doctor of physical therapy who hails from Council Bluffs, Iowa. He has a brother who lives in Des Moines. His mother, who attended Wednesday’s news conference, lives in Iowa, and he has a sister who has lived in Rochester for 15 years.
Goetz will continue serving as interim AD until Coyle begins his new job. He said he hopes to start after Memorial Day, “if I can get my wife’s approval on that.”
Staff writers Chip Scoggins, Dennis Brackin and Michael Rand contributed to this report.