Lean times are nothing unusual for Gophers athletics, but their current condition is particularly sobering even by their standards.
In the past year, the Gophers have lost their athletic director and their popular football coach.
The football team finished with a losing record. The men’s basketball team will finish with a losing record barring a miracle. And the men’s hockey team barely has a winning record.
They should change the name of Dinkytown to Debbie Downerville, accompanied by a sad trombone playing in the background.
Job security for those in key posts creates a confluence of big-ticket unknowns that makes for interesting times in the athletic department.
A search for a new athletic director is underway. New football coach Tracy Claeys has a minuscule buyout, essentially making his first full season a prove-it audition. Men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino is losing supporters by the day. And veteran men’s hockey coach Don Lucia has a contract that expires in April 2017.
That’s a lot of uncertainty at one particular time.
It’s not inconceivable to think the Gophers could experience a sea change in their most highly visible positions in the next 24 months.
That wouldn’t necessarily be ideal. Change is hard (and expensive) and brings certain risks. Stability within a department remains preferable, if possible, because turnover doesn’t guarantee better results.
But the Gophers find themselves in a tenuous place with their bell-cow programs. If a significant turnaround doesn’t happen quickly, the department could undergo a transformation in leadership.
The conversation starts with the next athletic director. University President Eric Kaler can’t afford to whiff on this hire like he did with the disgraced Norwood Teague. The Gophers have a $111 million athletic budget and face looming decisions in personnel. Too much is at stake to fail again.
Successful athletic departments thrive because they operate in a day-to-day culture that fosters a winning attitude. They make a commitment that gives individual teams necessary resources and support to compete with their peers.
Frankly, the whole “You can’t win at Minnesota” excuse is a tiresome loser’s lament. Unique challenges exist, but the Gophers athletic program also holds enough potential to not have to accept mediocrity, or worse.
The Gophers have many smart, passionate staffers who desperately want to see their department flourish. They deserve a leader who has the vision and ingenuity to make that possible.
Whether Kaler tabs interim AD Beth Goetz or hires someone outside, the new boss potentially inherits a delicate set of circumstances with the top programs.
The school gave Claeys a three-year contract with a $250,000 annual buyout. That means they would owe him only $500,000 if they made a change after next season. That’s not ironclad security.
A successful ’16 season should not be a radical expectation. The Gophers have a senior quarterback in Mitch Leidner, a much easier schedule than they did in 2015 and better overall depth. Another Quick Lane Bowl appearance won’t impress anyone.
Pitino’s squad needs to make a sizable leap next season, too. The “Fire Pitino” crowd is in full-throat, but despite this dreadful season, Pitino deserves one more season before rendering a final decision on him.
Give Pitino a chance to coach his highly touted recruiting class, led by Hopkins star Amir Coffey, and two transfers that are sitting out this season. If this mess continues, Pitino will have exhausted all excuses.
The athletic director also must make a quick decision on Lucia, whose contract expires after next season. Do they extend him or go a different direction?
Lucia’s situation is complicated. He has won two national championships, but his popularity with fans remains lukewarm. His program seems stale right now, strange since the Gophers advanced to the national title game two years ago.
Best-case scenario: Lucia’s team regroups and makes a run in the tournament; Claeys’ team takes advantage of a favorable schedule and contends for the Big Ten West; and Pitino’s incoming recruiting class lifts the Gophers out of the dumps.
The athletic director could ease into the job and focus on other pressing issues.
Worst-case scenario: Results don’t improve significantly, forcing the new boss to choose between standing pat and firing head coaches in revenue-generating sports.
Feels like Gophers athletics is fast approaching a crossroads.